ANCHORAGE - Eight former winners of the world's longest, toughest snowmachine race - including defending champion Todd Palin, husband of Gov. Sarah Palin - have signed up to run the 2008 Tesoro Iron Dog, but arguably the best known Iron Dog racer of all is out.
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Seven-time champion John Faeo of Wasilla has decided it's time to give his 51-year-old body a break from the pounding on the rough, nearly 2,000-mile trail from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks. Faeo won his first Iron Dog in 1984 and his last in 1996. Between 1986 and 1991 he was virtually unbeatable, winning five of the six Iron Dogs in that stretch. In all, he raced 23 times.
"It's hard to run with those kids," Faeo said. "You just don't bounce back as quick."
Faeo has threatened to retire from the Iron Dog for several years. Breakdowns each of the past three years to his Polaris snowmachine was one reason he finally decided to walk away.
Putting in time, money and energy preparing - only to break down - was heartbreaking, he said.
Faeo is farsighted, which means he needs to wear glasses to read a GPS, necessitating stopping.
"Little things like that get annoying," he said.
The Iron Dog has changed significantly during Faeo's tenure - from a race in which drivers carried everything they needed with them and could receive no outside support, to the heavily sponsored, heavily supported race it is today.
"We'd load our machines with all kinds of spare parts, not knowing what you'd need," he said. "Now, you can limp into the next checkpoint, have a part flown in, bolt it on, and go.
"What's happened is, it's become a sprint race from checkpoint to checkpoint," he said. "Guys go ballistic. And those guys are hard to beat."
Faeo's partner last year, 28-year-old Wasilla rider Todd Minnick, is teaming up with another young Wasilla rider - former Iron Dog champ Nick Olstad, 25 - to take a run at the old guys who won last year.
That would be Palin, 43, and 48-year-old Scott Davis, the only racer other than Faeo with seven victories.
Davis, a Soldotna businessman who raced with a variety of teammates before hooking up with Palin, could become the top Iron Dog racer in wins. It isn't expected to be easy.
The Iron Dog already has a record number of pro-class entries with 80 riders in 40 teams. Racers are required to pair up for safety because of the dangers of high-speed travel across remote terrain.
Among the notables in the field:
2006 champs Andy George of Wasilla and Dwayne Drake of Fairbanks.
Three-time winner Dusty VanMeter of Soldotna, the only racer with the distinction of winning both the Iron Dog and the Iditarod, albeit the Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
2005 champs Mark McKenna of Anchorage and Olstad of Wasilla, who won't be racing together this year.
In the ever-shifting world of Iron Dog partnerships, Olstad joined Minnick, while McKenna has hooked up with Iron Dog veteran Eric Quam of Eagle River.
Quam, like Vanmeter's new sidekick, Jimmer Dick of Seward, is one of those racers who has come close to Iron Dog victory but never reached the winners' circle. He was second in 2002, the same year Dick posted his best finish in fourth place.
Both are experienced racers who've won elsewhere, but winning the Iron Dog takes more than knowing how to go fast.
On the often bad trail, a winner needs to be able to ride a thin line between fast and destructive. Go too fast, and something irreparable is likely to break. Go too slow, and someone else will get to the finish line first.
Of course, it helps to have luck, a knowledge of snowmobile design and engineering, a fast hand with a wrench and an ability to jury-rig. Along the trail, almost every team breaks something, and racers are required to be their own mechanics, body repairmen and even, in a few cases, doctors.
The difficulty and the danger have, in past years, scared off most competitors from Outside, but so far this year, Iron Dog Executive Director Laura Bedard reported nine are signed up to join the Alaskans on the trail. They helped swell the record number of rookie pro-class teams to 23.
All told, Bedard reported 91 riders are entered so far - one more than the number of drivers for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race - with 80 of them in the pro class and another 11 in the trail class.
That is shy of a record, she added. There were 121 riders in 1999 when the ranks of the Iron Dog were swelled by 47 trail class riders. The trail class goes only as far as Nome on the Bering Sea and flies back from there.
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