The long-term economic effects of the world’s longest snowmachine race
The 2019 Fairbanks finish line.
Snowmachining in Alaska is huge. According to the study Outdoor Recreation, Impacts and Opportunities published by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development in March 2019, one in twelve Alaskan adults owns a currently registered snowmachine, spawning an entire industry dedicated to meeting their needs for everything from the machines themselves to parts, trailers, trucks, equipment, clothing, fuel, and more.
Nowhere is this love of the sport more obvious than during the Iron Dog, when seventy-two riders set off across the state in one of the longest and most challenging snowmachine races in the world. In addition to the main event, which travels through rural villages throughout the Last Frontier, the race has also spawned trade and safety expos, ceremonial starts, halfway and final banquets, and other events that attract even more people to spend time and money on the sport.
“The Iron Dog goes through twenty-eight communities, and I like to think that there’s a real benefit to the people in those areas,” says Iron Dog Executive Director John Woodbury. “It’s a good way for the racers and the general public to meet, and it has a positive economic impact on the communities.
“There are twenty-nine pro teams riding 2,400 miles across Alaska, as well as fourteen recreational riders traveling half of that, and each person represents one or two or five family members cheering them on, as well as mechanics, support teams, and even snowmachine ‘groupies,’” he adds. “This influx of people into Alaska in February definitely moves the economic needle, which is especially important in some of the more remote towns we visit.”
A Legacy Event
Just like the Iditarod, the Iron Dog is one of the state’s legacy events. Established in 1984 as a 1,000-mile race from Big Lake to Nome, the length doubled to approximately 2,000 miles during the 10th annual race in 1994. This year, the pro class racers will have to travel even further: a roughly 375-mile loop around Kotzebue has been added, making an already tough event even more challenging.
This year’s race, which begins February 16 in Fairbanks and ends in Willow on February 22, has increased from 2,050 miles to 2,409 miles and will incorporate the Archie Ferguson/Willie Goodwin Memorial Snowmachine Race course. Recreational riders will travel 1,375 miles from Fairbanks to the halfway point in Nome via Kotzebue.
Racers will travel through numerous Alaska towns and villages, including Nenana, Manley, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Buckland, Noorvik, Ruby, Ophir, Skwentna, and more, with mandatory stops in the towns of Galena, Kotzebue, Nome, and McGrath. Along the way, they will be cheered on by fans and can stock up on food, fuel, and more.
“I anticipate at the Fairbanks start there will probably be 350 people directly related to the riders on-site, as well as a couple thousand more who come out to see it,” says Woodbury. “This will be the first-ever finish in Willow, and in year’s past, we’ve had about 3,000 people at the finish; I’m not sure how many we’ll see this year.”
Visitors to the race, especially those from out of town, require lodging and spend time dining in restaurants, shopping for souvenirs, and taking part in other Alaska attractions.
Riders coming into the finish line at Fairbanks during the 2019 Iron Dog.
“Galena is our first layover, so their bed-and-breakfasts will see quite a bump, and the racers’ fuel and grocery expenses also add up,” says Woodbury of the effect that the race will have on the small village, which has a population of less than 500. “Racers also have the option of staying in nearly any of the checkpoints on the way back, which affects the food and lodging providers in those towns.”
He adds that riders will also be staying in hotels or bed-and-breakfasts in Kotzebue.
“Nome is where Northern Air Cargo [NAC] is hosting the halfway banquet and where the recreation class finishes,” he adds. “The racers rent hotel rooms there, and because there’s a pretty raucous nightlife in Nome, they’ll definitely invest some money in the city.”
According to Bruce Bustamante, president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, it can make a big difference for a community’s economy when the race comes to visit, even in a larger city.
“From a support standpoint, a lot of racers get supplies in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, so we see an economic bump there,” he says. “People who own snowmachine dealerships can expect to see a spike in business with recreational and professional class racers upgrading machines and getting parts.
“In the past, a number of the races started at Big Lake, and we also had a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage in 2014, which resulted in an obvious economic impact from all of the racers, support teams, volunteers, and spectators who came to town for that,” he adds.
In prior years, the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was also the number one access point for Iron Dog participants, so Bustamante expects that with Fairbanks being the start this year, it can expect to see an increase in travelers and tourist dollars.
“We’re especially excited about this year’s Iron Dog, including the… extra miles in the loop around Kotzebue, which is requiring even more volunteers to come in to support the event,” he adds. “Hopefully, they will also want to spend time in Anchorage, staying in our hotels, eating out, and going sightseeing.”
Family members, friends, and out-of-towners gather at the 2019 finish line in Fairbanks.
“There are twenty-nine pro teams riding 2,400 miles across Alaska, as well as fourteen recreational riders traveling half of that, and each person represents one or two or five family members cheering them on, as well as mechanics, support teams, and even snowmachine ‘groupies.’ This influx of people into Alaska in February definitely moves the economic needle, which is especially important in some of the more remote towns we visit.”
Increasing Reach and Community Awareness
While many businesses profit from the actual cash infusion that comes as a part of the Iron Dog, there are other benefits as well, especially for event sponsors.
“There are three real components to the race: first, the racers who risk life and limb; second, the communities and volunteers who help us out; and third, the sponsors who enable us to put this race on,” says Woodbury.
“We have a number of remarkable sponsors, from Spenard Builders Supply and Northern Air Cargo, who have been with us since day one, to Donlin Gold, Hatcher Pass Polaris, and White Spruce Trailer Sales,” he continues. “There’s a laundry list of what these companies provide, from cash to amazing in-kind services like oil from Hale’s Technical Service/VP, fuel from Crowley, and flights from Ravn Alaska and Wright Air Service.”
According to Woodbury, sponsoring one of Alaska’s legacy events provides “absolute marquee value.”
“It’s a defining event for Alaska character; tough men and women embody this Alaska sport,” he says. “And it’s a good investment for sponsors: we get 1.3 million visitors to our website in February—so many, in fact, that it’s crashed it before.”
The Iron Dog is also broadcast live, which spreads sponsors’ names even further.
“South High School provides live feeds that go around the world; our event is publicized by everyone from the town crier to huge social media sites,” says Woodbury. “Those who share our Alaskana attitude see their dollars getting parlayed into global reach.”
Sponsors can have their names linked to numerous parts of the race. Some choose to donate prizes for the raffle or sell tickets to fund prize money, while others host special events or contribute to the race’s general fund.
“From the largest donor to the guy who loans us his truck for the day in Kaltag, we appreciate each and every one of them,” says Woodbury.
NAC has been an integral part of the race, sponsoring the event itself as well as individual racers. “We think it’s important because it touches a lot of rural communities, including Nome, Kotzebue, McGrath, and Unalakleet, which we fly into,” explains NAC Director of Sales and Community Relations Janet Klatt. “More than anything, it provides positive community relations. There’s not a lot of entertainment in these villages in the wintertime, and the communities appreciate that we’re bringing them something of value—something that they can get outside and attend.
“If we didn’t do the halfway banquet in Nome, for example, the people in that community might not be able to get autographs from their favorite racers,” she continues, adding that other areas of the race are not as open to the public in order to keep the snowmachines secured.
Mike Morgan signing autographs at Northern Air Cargo’s Customer Appreciation Event in Anchorage in 2019. Morgan and Chris Olds attended as ambassadors of the Iron Dog race.
“We think it’s important because it touches a lot of rural communities, including Nome, Kotzebue, McGrath, and Unalakleet, which we fly into… There’s not a lot of entertainment in these villages in the wintertime, and the communities appreciate that we’re bringing them something of value—something that they can get outside and attend.”
In addition to sponsoring the banquet, NAC also provides a substantial amount of freight credit to Iron Dog that is used to fly machines out to checkpoints and flies fuel and food out to racers at some of the villages. This year, in conjunction with Safeway, NAC is providing a $500 gift certificate for the first racer into Kotzebue and feeding the racers when they reach that destination.
“We also do something we call the ‘cheerleader effect,’ showing up at the start in Fairbanks and hanging outside with everyone in our boots, hats, and coats, giving out NAC-purchased items,” says Klatt. “In Willow, we’ll be partnering with Safeway again to give out hot dogs for the Iron Dog.”
“We did this last year and had a blast,” she continues. “We were all huddling around the grill under this 10-by-10 canopy trying to stay warm, and everyone was trying to sneak in to get some heat—it was a ton of fun.”
For the last two years, NAC has sponsored the pro team of Mike Morgan and Chris Olds, who won the Iron Dog in 2018 and 2019. The racers, who are from Nome and Eagle River respectively, appear at NAC’s customer appreciation events and took part in a photo shoot promoting NAC’s theme, “Teamwork that Delivers.”
“Both are wonderful ambassadors for the sport, and our customers like to come out and get autographs signed by successful hometown people,” says Klatt. “We have the photos from the shoot in NAC’s hallway, along with a windshield from Mike Morgan. It reminds people that we ship all kinds of things, from snowmachines to food and parts and pieces for construction.”
The Northern Air Cargo crew grilling out in the snow at the 2019 Iron Dog start in Willow.
“We’re excited about anything that ties together Alaska and adventure, but the thing that makes it really special is that it goes through so many communities… It’s such a long winter, and it’s nice to have a celebratory activity where people can gather together. It’s important to have fun.”
Hatcher Pass Polaris has been a sponsor of the Iron Dog since 2010.
“Iron Dog racers and fans are a big part of our community, and we’re proud to support what is one of the toughest, longest races on the planet, because it is a part of who we are and what we do,” says General Manager Chris Graeber. “We try to give back when we can, especially when we can support the sport of snowmachining.”
According to Graeber, the company does see some financial benefit from racers buying parts, and in the past, if a Polaris sled won the race, sales increased. The company’s support of the Iron Dog also helps expand their brand into more areas.
“When racers go through McGrath, we see an increase in calls from McGrath,” Graeber says, adding that the dealership has also seen increased interest from Koyuk and Unalakleet. “We’re hoping that we’ll hear from more customers in Kotzebue now that the race is taking that route.”
For Leslie Gustafson and the co-owners of White Spruce Trailer Sales, being part of the Iron Dog just makes sense for their business, though their reasons aren’t all financial.
“We’re excited about anything that ties together Alaska and adventure, but the thing that makes it really special is that it goes through so many communities,” she says. “Any time there’s an activity, especially in winter, like the Fur Rondy, Arctic Man, or Iron Dog, it’s good for Alaska communities. It’s such a long winter, and it’s nice to have a celebratory activity where people can gather together. It’s important to have fun.”
While Gustafson says that there isn’t a rush of people coming into their locations in Anchorage, Wasilla, and North Pole to buy trailers after the Iron Dog, it does help keep them top of mind. “Even if they just remember that we were a sponsor, that’s okay,” she says. “We have a service department, and name recognition helps when they’re looking for someone to service their trailers.”
More important, the Iron Dog provides a way for their business to support the Alaska way of life.
“Any time there are extra people in town, there are always monetary things happening—people are going into the general store, gassing up their snowmachines, using fuel,” she says. “But there is also a community of people having tea together and visiting. Just as important as the economic benefit is seeing the cultural side of village life and making that urban versus rural connection.”
Mike Morgan and Chris Old, 2019 Iron Dog winners, show off their $10,000 check at the final banquet.
In This Issue
Spreading the Word
When Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) first aired TV commercials featuring the tagline, “A Place That’s Always Been,” the reaction was surprising. Not only because they received numerous accolades and marketing awards for the campaign but because, at the time, it was rare for Alaska Native corporations to market themselves through the media.