A new Iditarod sign-up rule gives Alaskan mushers living close to race headquarters a potential advantage over all out-of-state and international mushers and those living off the road system in bush Alaska.
Last Saturday, 41 mushers stood in line at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska, to enter the 2006 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This event is nothing new. Every year the first official sign-up day is held in conjunction with the Volunteer Picnic. Because of the special day, volunteers and race fans have an unusual opportunity to meet and talk with mushers in a setting that is more about fun and less about competition. That was the case until this year.
Now, mushers who were in line in person in Alaska last Saturday got first picks of the race starting positions. Mushers will choose these starting positions at the pre-race banquet held two days before the March 4th race start. If you were first in line Saturday, you can start anywhere in the race that you want. If you were second in line, you get second choice. And so on. Mushers have until Dec. 1, 2005 to enter.
In the past, random drawings determined the race starting positions and put all mushers on a level playing field.
A few Montana mushers coughed up the extra money to travel to Wasilla for the early sign-up. Cliff Wang, John Barron and four-time race champion Doug Swingley were there. Jason Barron and Terry Adkins signed up by mail. Mail-in entries are put in order as they are received, after those who signed up in person - in other words, if mushers couldn’t be in Wasilla on Saturday, they get the last remaining choices.
“It’s not that big of deal to me, but it does seem to favor Alaskans,” Adkins told me. “You don’t get the best bull to ride if you sign up for the PRC first. You randomly pick your ride and it’s fair for everyone.”
If Iditarod is interested in promoting the race as an international event, this new rule is a funny way of showing it.
With Robert Sorlie’s two recent Iditarod wins and Kjetil Backen and Bjornar Anderson showing equal talent, the Norwegians are quickly becoming the teams to beat. What would it have cost them to fly to Alaska to enter in person?
All of the out-of-state mushers I spoke with shared concerns that the new system favored mushers who lived close to Iditarod headquarters.
Even the Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley wasn’t convinced that the new rule was the best thing for the race. The Iditarod Rules Committee made the new rule and it was approved by the board, Hooley said.
“I would have liked the organization to have figured out a way to do the sign-up without mushers having to travel 5,000 miles to pick a spot,” he said. “If you believe that starting position is important, this system could unfairly effect mushers from outside the state. Some years starting position is more important than other years.”
Many mushers do have strong opinions on where they want to start and why.
If it’s a warm year, some mushers prefer to start towards the end of the pack to avoid running in the midday heat.
Other mushers want to be as close to the front as possible; the trail is usually in better condition. I started dead last on my first Iditarod. The trail was a nightmare because the 63 mushers before me stood on their brakes trying to slow their charging teams. As a result, the trail was chewed up with deep ruts making it a challenge to brake and steer.
Mushers up front also don’t have to mess with passing as many teams right off the starting line. They can make a mad, clear dash to get away from the chaos and the pack.
Requiring mushers from all over the world to come to Wasilla to stand in line for their desired Iditarod starting position is unfair. Iditarod organizers should know better.
( 3 Votes )