ANCHORAGE - The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is cracking down on "outside assistance" - help mushers can receive from supporters at checkpoints.
The move came at the urging of defending champion Martin Buser, who told race officials that 2002 runner-up Ramy Brooks seemed to be getting a lot of attention from his mother, famed dog driver Roxy Wright.
The board of directors tightened the rules this summer after hearing from Buser and other mushers, said race marshal Mark Nordman.
Nordman said that Buser alerted him in the village of Elim, far into the race, that Brooks seemed to be getting a lot of attention from Wright, who was following along the trail by snowmachine. Buser also spoke out about the issue at a post-race mushers meeting in Nome.
Brooks, who finished two hours behind Buser, said in an interview that he ran his own race.
"I didn't break any rules," he said. "I'm going to support the rules because my life revolves around the Iditarod."
Wright did not return several phone messages from the Anchorage Daily News seeking comment.
Race rules prohibit mushers from receiving assistance or coaching anywhere along the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. That rule have been enforced with varying degrees of muscle over the years.
"The rule has been bounced around in various forms since the beginning of the race. It's gyrated from ludicrous to lax enforcement, and now it's swung back again," said race commentator and former Iditarod champion Joe Runyan.
The Iditarod board has added a flexible time penalty at the White Mountain checkpoint for anyone who violates the rule on outside assistance. The race marshal has the discretion to determine the length of the penalty.
Sleep deprivation is one of the Iditarod's toughest obstacles, and mushers say a well-rested race consultant can provide pivotal advice on strategy.
Buser, contacted in California two weeks ago, said his race wasn't affected by what happened along the trail, but he was concerned for other mushers.
"I filed my first protest in 19 years because I didn't feel Dee Dee Jonrowe and John Baker were getting a fair shake," Buser said.
For much of the race, Buser and Brooks ran in first and second place. Jonrowe was running fourth until Elim, when her team began faltering. The Willow musher, who is undergoing cancer treatment, eventually fell back to 16th.
Baker of Kotzebue, a rising star in sled dog racing, took third.
Wright, who was filing race reports for her son's Web site, traveled by snowmachine along the trail and was present at nearly all 11 of the checkpoints on the 440-mile stretch from Ruby to Nome, Nordman said.
"Did Roxy's involvement change the outcome of the race?" Nordman said. "No. Martin still had the best team."
But the perception remained that someone with Wright's experience and expertise could easily pass along useful information, like where competitors were, how many dogs they had left, or where they were resting, Nordman said.
"We can't have everyone out there with their pit crews," he said.
Buser downplayed the significance of the rule change. At the same time, he emphasized that a level playing field is vital.
"I choose to race according to the rules," Buser said.
Brooks said he does too, and that he has no problem with the action taken by the Iditarod board.
"If someone is getting outside assistance, the rules state what should happen," Brooks said. "The officials have to enforce the rules."
After Buser voiced his concerns along the trail, Nordman said he spoke to Wright and told her to put some distance between her and her son. She responded appropriately, and Nordman said he saw no need to penalize Brooks.
Some mushers also complained that three Norwegian racers seemed to be getting a lot of strategy advice from their webmaster, who was following them from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Nordman said the concerns were serious enough that the Iditarod Rules Committee decided to review the matter when it met in May. The panel suggested adding tougher language to Rule 31 - the one governing outside assistance - and the board approved the change in June.
Vern Halter of Willow, who placed fifth this year, thinks the new rule will level the playing field.
"I don't want them to take the total fun out of the race, but I do think they need to make sure that there's not too much support out there that could improve your competitive advantage," Halter said.
John Baker said Wright's presence on the trail didn't affect his race. Winning ultimately comes down to having the best dog team, he said. Still, Baker doesn't think the rule change is a bad idea.
"I would hate to discourage someone like Roxy from being on the trail. She's an excellent representative of the racing community. Yet on the other side, we have to make sure that one musher won't get more help than another," he said.