Women team up for Iron Dog snowmachine race

Posted: Friday, February 19, 2010

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Shane and Tammy Barber have been together 18 years now, 16 as a married couple.

Courtesy Of Korey Cronquist Via The Alaska Star
Courtesy Of Korey Cronquist Via The Alaska Star

But next week, the pair will have new partners as they pursue identical goals.

On Sunday afternoon, Willow riders Tammy, 35, and Jana Pevan, 29, will punch the throttles of their Polaris Dragon snowmachines, zoom across Big Lake and become the third all-woman team to start in the pro division in the 2,000-mile Iron Dog, the world's longest and toughest snowmobile race.

Shane, meanwhile, will hook up with new partner Aaron Loyer for his eighth race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks.

Was there ever much consideration of a husband-and-wife team?

"We couldn't do it without killing each other," Tammy said with a laugh.

The history of women's teams over the race's 26 years is more short story than tome. In 1997, Lisa Luther and Laura Bedard, now the race's executive director, formed the first all-woman team to start in the pro division, reaching the halfway point in Nome before scratching.

Four years later, Missy McClurg and Jackie Page became the first women's team to cross the finish line, finishing 15th.

"I'm really excited about that (the prospect of becoming the second women's team to finish)," Pevan said. "That's a lot of the drive for us - and maybe getting more women involved in the race."

Compared to the media frenzy Danica Patrick's NASCAR debut ignited in recent weeks, the gender-shattering accomplishment by McClurg and Page was barely noted.

And while Patrick commands the bigger stage, is there any doubt which race is tougher? The Iron Dog trail pierces some of the toughest terrain on the planet, often in sub-zero temperatures with the driver doubling as pit crew.

"Out there, you're not going to have your garage or your pneumatic tools," Page said. "When you drop a screw in snow and it's hot, good luck finding it."

No matter their gender, Iron Dog racers face formidable odds. In many years, more racers scratch than finish, victims of the relentless pounding, mechanical failure or a small miscalculation that leads to disaster.

Page, 39, said she and McClurg spent years training before making their bid. Most mornings started with a 200-mile training run before Page clocked in for work at First National Bank.

"Women can do this race," Page said. "By time we did it, I could pull apart a sled and put it back together overnight. You're not going to call a pit crew in the middle of the Alaska Range.

"But I don't know how many people told us before the race we couldn't do it."

Barber and Pevan have spent much of their free time - and with three children apiece there's never much of that - riding the race trail as far as Puntilla Lake this winter.

"We've been out there so much, I think I'm married to (Barber) more than my husband," Pevan said

Some of their early runs were difficult.

"It took us forever to get up the (Susitna) River," Barber said . "We had to fix our sleds on the trail, which actually turned out to be good learning experience."

Pevan was happy just to be out there, able to ride.

During a June softball game, she slid into second base and caught her foot on the bag. "My ankle went pop and exploded," she said. Bones broke.

Now a 6-inch plate with five screws holds the ankle together. Workouts couldn't resume until November.

Although Pevan has ridden snowmachines since she was 5, she wasn't a racer. In fact, Pevan was a sprint dog musher for nearly a decade before having something of an epiphany.

"I like going a little bit faster than a dog team seems to go," she said, "and snowmachines require a heck of a lot less maintenance."

Barber, on the other hand, has raced snowmachines for 13 years, winning the women's division of the 100-mile Valdez Mayor's Cup three times, competing at Arctic Man and going Outside for Michigan's famed I-500 race.

Now, as word spreads of their Iron Dog bid, anticipation grows.

"It seems like everyone is so excited for us," Barber said.

Even Shane Barber. His advice to his wife:

"Don't break anything," she recounted.

And what happens if Tammy triumphs over her husband?

"If I beat him, he's in trouble," she said.

She is gratified by her husband's support - encouragement that Page wishes she had gotten before her 2001 race.

"My boyfriend at the time, he was pissed," she said. "Both of our men were mad because, I think, they wanted to do the Iron Dog themselves. But we both had put in the miles. They were like babies about it."

But on the trail, Page said, she got nothing but support and encouragement from racers - particularly John Faeo, who's tied with Scott Davis of Soldotna for the most Iron Dog victories.

"Faeo is a little angel on the trail," she said.

Page's and McClurg's 15th-place finish put the women ahead of Polaris drivers Jack Bronner and Mike Lindeen, who brought up the rear.

"Jack told us, 'You girls need to slow down. You're going too fast. I just could not pass you,'" Page said.

Pevan and Barber will earn more than pats on the back if they make it to Fairbanks. In an effort to lure more women to the Iron Dog, race organizers are offering $2,000 to the first all-woman team that makes it to Nome, and another $2,000 for the first to reach the finish line. That alone equals the prize money for eighth place.

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