It all comes down to Friday, as Iron Dog racers take their final rest before bolting to Tanana and on to the Fairbanks finish line.
The ten leading teams are all taking their final mandatory 10-hour layovers either in Ruby or Galena. The question now is whether last-minute pushes will be enough to catch up to the team that’s led the race nearly from the beginning.
Maintaining their lead out of Galena as their rivals rest further along the trail in Ruby, longtime frontrunners Mike Morgan and Chris Olds of Team 10 hit the trail just before noon Friday. Riding a Polaris Switchback 600 and a Polaris Switchback Pro-R 600, the duo has maintained their lead despite posting some of the slowest speeds among the top racers between checkpoints on the Southbound half of the trail.
Though Team 10 hit the trail earlier than any other team, they’ll burn some of their lead covering the 52 miles to Ruby. But their opponents—namely, Team 16’s Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad—won’t be able to leaving Ruby until 12:43 p.m. By that time, Morgan and Olds could already be a faint snow cloud in the distance, that much closer to Fairbanks.
But the second-place team has to worry about who’s behind them, too. Namely, defending Iron Dog champs Marc McKenna and Dusty VanMeter, who will have been 15 minutes out of their own layover in Galena (it ends at 12:27 p.m.), burning up the trail to Fairbanks ostensibly in third place. But McKenna and VanMeter have coaxed last-minute magic out of their Ski-Doo sleds before, including last year’s course record for fastest time.
Outside the first three teams out, the rest of top teams will slowly hitting the trail into the early afternoon: Team 6, Andy and Brad George on their dual Ski-Doo XP 600s, start riding out of Galena at 1:39 p.m., while Team 23, Arctic Cat 6000 racers Brian Dick and Eric Quam, won’t be able to leave Ruby until 2:14 p.m.
Then it’ll be a 120 mile race to Tanana before the final dash to the finish in Fairbanks.
At this point, race fans are asking if a Polaris or Arctic Cat sled is going to win it all.
Leaders Morgan and Olds are riding a Polaris Switchback 600 and a Polaris Switchback Pro-R 600. Team 16’s Minnick and Olstand are riding a Polaris Switchback 600 and a Polaris Rush 600. The Arctic Cat team, Team 23’s Dick and Quam, are driving an Arctic Cat ZR 6000 and an Arctic Cat 6000 RR, respectively.
Defending champs McKenna and VanMeter, and Team 6’s Andy and Brad George, are pushing for a Ski-Doo presence in the top three.
Iron Dog history has seen 13 wins on Polaris sleds, 10 wins on Arctic Cat machines, three on Yamahas, and three on Ski-Doos.
VanMeter drove all three champion Ski-Doos, in 2004, 2012, and 2013. McKenna was his Ski-Doo team mate on the last two wins.
Whether another Ski-Doo has a chance at a first-place finish, or if Arctic Cat or Polaris will reclaim that honor, will be decided on at the Saturday finish.