35th Alcan 200 snowmobile race roars to life this weekend

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2004

On Saturday, drivers will tear down the Haines Highway at well over 100 miles per hour - with no risk of a speeding ticket.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Alcan 200 snowmobile race, in which competitors reach triple-digit speeds on a long, desolate stretch of highway northwest of Haines.

"It's the only race like this in existence," said Paul Keech of Fairbanks, a six-time entrant and last year's overall winner. "It's about knowing your machine, when to make time and when to lay off."

The race covers a portion of the Haines Highway through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. During the race, the road is closed to all but snowmobilers and official vehicles by order of the Canadian government.

The race begins with an interval start at Mile 42 - just across the international boundary - and goes to a turnaround at Dezadeash Lake. Then there is a restart - single-file, based on order of arrival - with the finish line back at Mile 42. The course used to be 200 miles - hence the name - but race organizer Diana Lapham of Haines said road straightening through the years has cut the distance to about 155 miles.

Racers are presented with a wide array of surfaces, from bare pavement to ice to slush to snow.

"You go through a multitude of conditions in that section of road," said Lapham, who competed several times in the early 1990s. "We don't do anything to make new snow on the road (because) the big machines, which are the first to start off, would just blow the snow off anyway."

The race has different classes based on engine size. The last two years, the overall winner - from the largest engine class - has averaged about 117 miles per hour.

"It's not as scary as you'd imagine," Keech said. "After the first time you run it, you end up feeling a lot more comfortable. You get a feel for what's there."

And while speed is a major factor in the race, drivers must consider other factors. Starting last year, racers were barred from changing the track on their machine during the race. That meant racers must balance speed with the wear-and-tear it causes.

"If they've got one track to go on, they're not going to be gunning it all the way to Dezadeash and expect to come back on the same track," Lapham said.

Keech said the winning edge often comes from small tweaks to the engine or aerodynamics of the machine - small innovations that are magnified at 100-plus miles per hour.

"It's a balance between horsepower and ingenuity," he said.

Lapham said it's fun to look at photos of the race from decades ago and see machines that - by today's standards - were quite primitive.

"Now it's like riding a Cadillac," she said. "They've gotten incredibly streamlined and smooth-riding, and of course very fast."

The race starts at 10 a.m. Saturday. On Friday night in Haines there is a "Calcutta Auction," where spectators bid on drivers and get a big payoff - up to several thousand dollars - if "their" racer wins.

The overall winner receives $1,000, plus additional prize money for winning their class and a cut of the auction earnings.

Last year there were 44 racers, and Lapham said she expects the same number this weekend. Race conditions are reported to be excellent.

"The Alcan 200 sets the racing schedule for a lot of other races in the Yukon," she said. "It's a kick-off race, the only one of its kind in North America that we're aware off where they're allowed on a major highway. ...

"If you're not here, you're missing a lot of fun. It's such a conglomeration of sleds and people. It's a fun, wild weekend. It's something you just have to experience."

For more information, visit the Alcan 200 race Web site at www.alcan200.org.

• Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.

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