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Reinventing the Last Great Race—The Iditarod Continues to Break New Trail

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Magazine, Tourism

JEFF SCHULTZ

This year’s conclusion of the first fifty races is a milestone being celebrated with multiple layers of significance for race officials and organizers, as well as sponsors, mushers, and the canine athletes that run across some of the most hellish terrain the Last Frontier has to offer.

No event shines a spotlight on Alaska in front of a global audience quite like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. On March 5, the Iditarod begins its 50th running with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage. This year’s conclusion of the first fifty races is a milestone being celebrated with multiple layers of significance for race officials and organizers, as well as sponsors, mushers, and the canine athletes that run across some of the most hellish terrain the Last Frontier has to offer.

The 50th running is a more traditional setup compared to the 49th last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the race to introduce the “Iditarod Golden Trail Loop” route, which saw mushers and their teams travel to the ghost town of Flat before retracing their steps and finishing in Willow. This year’s edition of the race will travel the Northern route all the way to the “burled arch” that marks the finish line in Nome.

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“This race, the 50th race, is the most important race since the first race,” says Iditarod Trail Committee CEO Rob Urbach. “It’s not only a big milestone and important to return to Nome, but we recognize we are at an important inflection point, we are in a race for relevance and revenue to support the race.” Although the Iditarod is steeped in history and tradition, Urbach also sees a bright, new heading for the Last Great Race that extends far beyond Alaska. “We have launched three key initiatives,” Urbach announces. “A streaming channel for all dog owners; an acquisition of the leading dog events company; and a crypto token, the IditaCoin.”

Gone to the DOGZ

Rob Urbach
Rob Urbach— CEO, Iditarod Trail Commitee

Jeremy Cubas

Even while preparing for the 50th running of the Iditarod, Urbach is focusing on ways to bring it to a new, growing audience. The Iditarod is in the process of migrating its Insider Network (a 24-hour live broadcast during the two weeks of the race) to DOGZ, a direct-to-consumer streaming video channel for dog owners. In addition to coverage of the Iditarod, DOGZ will feature tons of dog-centric content: training, genetics/breed choosing, nutrition, dog competitions, and, as Urbach states, “awesome dogs doing awesome things.” Several shows are currently under development, such as The Dog Whisperer, Ask the Vet, and Dog Heroes, as is a DOGZ Film Festival.

“We both use a lot of kennels and we’re knowledgeable on wellness and nutrition for dogs,” says Urbach. “It’s really important that we’re able to have so much content and be a thought leader in dog welfare so that if extremists say we’re torturing dogs, we can say, ‘Look at what we’re doing, we’re actually a thought leader in dog wellness and research.’ We actually think we’re the Mayo Clinic for dogs.”

In order to launch the network, the Iditarod, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, first had to create a for-profit affiliate legal entity. That entity then raised $1.2 million in the form of a convertible note to complete an acquisition and provide working capital. With that capital, the Iditarod acquired DockDogs, a canine sports league based in Medina, Ohio.

Since 2000, DockDogs has produced fun events for dogs and their handlers, including Big Air, a long jump for dogs; Speed Retrieve, an Olympic-like sprint, swim, and retrieve for dogs; and Extreme Vertical, a high jump for dogs. “DockDogs, that will provide high-value content, a dog owner database to drive channel subscriptions, and valuable operating leverage to DOGZ,” Urbach says.

The Iditarod CEO is also intrigued by the latest cryptocurrency and non-fungible token trends sweeping the nation and says he has plans on creating an Iditarod crypto coin that will, in addition to other recent advancements and investments, help set the Iditarod up for another fifty years of success.

“While the burning imperative is on executing this race,” says Urbach, “I am super excited about the future—there is a reason the windshield is much larger than the rearview mirror. We need to evolve or we will evaporate. That’s why when I wake up in the morning it’s, ‘How can we create a long-term endowment so we future proof and ensure the Iditarod will be running in fifty years?’”

Racing Past the Pandemic

Mike Williams Jr. as he leaves the start during 2016 Iditarod.
The crowd claps and cheers on Mike Williams Jr. as he leaves the start during the Ceremonial Start of the 2016 Iditarod in Willow, Alaska.

JEFF SCHULTZ

Finances and activists may challenge the race’s future, but infectious disease can’t stop the Iditarod. Indeed, any student of Alaska history knows that an epidemic was the inspiration for the event. More than forty years after the 1925 sled dog relay that delivered diphtheria serum from Nenana to Nome, self-described “history buff” Dorothy G. Page suggested a similar race to mark the 1967 centennial of Alaska’s purchase from Russia. One of her early supporters, musher Joe Redington Sr., carried the idea forward, proposing a race in 1973 to follow the Iditarod National Historic Trail.

That route—symbolically 1,049 miles but actually 998 along the southern branch and 975 along the northern branch used in alternating years—hasn’t been used since 2020. The 48th Iditarod was in full swing when COVID-19 arrived in Alaska, so it wasn’t until the following year that organizers implemented robust protective measures.

In addition to altering the route, Urbach and Iditarod officials went to great lengths to ensure COVID-19 protocols were followed throughout the 2021 race, which saw forty-seven mushers leave Deshka Landing in Willow to begin the Golden Trail Loop’s 852-mile trail.

“Last year we did 3,000 COVID tests in twelve locations,” says Urbach. “We reinvented the whole race last year before the vaccine was widely available and people started taking it. There was still a hypersensitivity. We re-engineered how we fly, eat, sleep, et cetera on the trail.”

Pete Kaiser puts out straw for his dogs at the Iditarod Race.
Pete Kaiser puts out straw for his dogs at the Kaltag checkpoint during the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

JEFF SCHULTZ

Even though the race was able to secure the tests and distribute them at its various remote checkpoints, administering the tests in frigid cold proved to be another challenge altogether.

“Testing in the cold isn’t easy,” says Urbach. “We used one device that had to be kept at 59˚F, so we had coolers that were heated.”

Urbach expects procedures for the 50th running of the race will likely be similar to last year.

“We have a 34-page protocol document that we’re getting finalized,” says the CEO. “We’re probably going to be testing pretty similar to last year, which was essentially testing everybody every time they travel. Our stated goal is zero community transmission, and that means a boatload of testing. We have isolation spots at every single checkpoint available to us as needed. We did it last year—we had eight positives, but most were volunteers. We had one musher test positive who was pulled from the race.” He continues, “In addition to zero community transmission, our goal is that on the trail is the safest place you could be from COVID-19, outside of total isolation.”

Pressuring Sponsors

Even though the race has a better understanding of COVID-19, that doesn’t mean this year’s budget is operating smoothly. Urbach says the race has experienced a cost crunch relating to both inflation and supply chain issues that he believes are a ripple effect of the ongoing pandemic.

“It cost around $5 million to put on the Iditarod. We fly more than 700 sorties. With inflation and the supply chain, it’s a lot,” says Urbach. “COVID has killed us in some ways. Straw—we can’t get straw to Alaska, so we’ve got to bring it up. There’s like a $27,000 year-over-year differential just for straw. Everything has gone up with inflation.”

Traditionally, the Iditarod has been financed through sponsors, but even that is a more difficult proposition than it used to be. For decades, local and national sponsors of the Iditarod have faced criticism from detractors, most notably the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In the early ‘90s, the Humane Society tried to encourage the Iditarod to change aspects of the race that they felt hurt the health and well-being of the participating dogs. When the Iditarod denied the request, the Humane Society contacted the race’s sponsors—including the prime sponsor, Timberland—and insisted that the New Hampshire boot maker withdraw its sponsorship. In 1994, Timberland did just that and dissolved the eight-year relationship it had with the race.

The Humane Society and PETA have long tried to derail sled dog racing, pointing to the deaths and injuries of dogs as evidence that the animals are exploited for entertainment. The organizations have gone as far as to hold in-person protests at the Iditarod start line, even though Urbach says he has invited them to advise the Iditarod directly.

“PETA has harassed our sponsors for years and years,” says Urbach. “They’ve run a campaign of total misinformation that is grossly inaccurate and highly inflammatory. They haven’t really changed their approach. I’ve asked them if they want to come to the Iditarod and do research with us and tell us how we can have better kennel standards, but they refuse.”

Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram held the title of being the Iditarod’s primary sponsor for thirty years, donating more than $100,000 annually and a pickup truck that was awarded to the winning musher. The dealership also donated additional trucks to be raffled at race fundraisers.

Then, in 2020, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles presented the dealership with an ultimatum after PETA made waves by holding protests in Detroit in the weeks leading up to the 2020 race.

“They took sleds with stuffed dogs and put fake blood on them and ran them through the streets of Detroit to get on the news locally there,” says Chuck Talsky, a spokesman for the Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep and Ram and the president of Husky Advertising, which spearheaded the dealership’s involvement with the Iditarod from 1990 to 2020. “They also put up billboards saying the Iditarod was killing hundreds of dogs. Unfortunately, the factory people, who at the time were actually owned by people in Europe, said, ‘Look, we don’t need this kind of grief on our city streets where our corporate offices are.’

“So, they basically said to us, ‘If you want to keep your franchise, you can’t do this race.’ If they’re not going to let us display their franchise logos nor sell us any vehicles, then all of a sudden we’re a used car lot overnight, and we didn’t want to be that.”

Under pressure from its franchise leaders, the dealership was able to carry out its sponsorship opportunities for the 2020 race.

“We fortunately stood our ground for that final year,” says Talsky. “You can imagine if you were sponsoring the Super Bowl or something and then, four days before the trophy presentation, they told you you’re done. It hit us that way.”

Brent Sass removes harnesses and puts jackets on his dogs
Brent Sass removes harnesses and puts jackets on his dogs at the Takotna checkpoint just before dawn during the 2013 Iditarod.

JEFF SCHULTZ

During its thirty-year relationship as a top sponsor of The Last Great Race, Talsky had the honor of handing the giant cardboard key to the winning musher when the truck was awarded at the finish line. “What we were saying with our marketing was, ‘Drive home a winner,’” he says.

RAM trucks were the dealership’s biggest seller, says Talsky, so it was a big deal when the Iditarod champions would receive their truck and then put his or her dog box on top of it.

“It was a wonderful display ad, if you will, year-round,” says Talsky. “It was the spirit and adventure we were trying to convey—in other words, ‘This is extraordinary and so are our trucks and Jeeps.’”

The marketing worked. Anchorage residents flocked to the dealership, particularly in March, when it ran its Iditarod Trail Sale.

“Our revenue increased considerably—I’d say by 30 or 35 percent—because of that sale,” says Talsky. “But the residual benefit was public relations and otherwise. Many, many people would go to the dealership and say, ‘We appreciate the fact that you sponsor the race’ because the race has had a lot of changes, too. We identified with it tremendously, and people would even come in in July and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to buy a truck here rather than elsewhere because you guys sponsor that race and I see Chuck in Nome with the winner every year.’”

In all, Talsky estimates Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram’s thirty-year sponsorship cost about $7.5 million between cash and truck donations. He believes it was a great relationship, especially considering the dealership was grossing “an average of $80 million all of those years and closer to $100 million for some of those years,” he says, before identifying some of the other perks associated with working with champion mushers.

“The champions were kind enough, with no compensation (of course, they did win a nice truck), to do commercials with me every year,” says Talsky. “We’d do it for radio and television, so our investment paid off with our connection to the champion every year pitching our products. Luckily, they wouldn’t alter the script I’d give them. We would interact or they would do it in of themselves. It was a very, very important business angle.”

As disappointing as it was to see the thirty-year relationship end, Talsky says the dealership had little choice but to follow its parent franchise’s lead.

“It was just unfortunate that it played out that way,” says Talsky, who felt the local media prevented the dealership from fully explaining its situation. “People misconstrued things. They think, ‘Oh, well, that’s a cowardly dealership, they’re just knuckling under’ and this and that. Well, we wouldn’t have had a business if we had insisted on doing it in 2021, so what are you going to do? What I find most distressing is no local media would say, ‘This is what happened but here is why.’ If you are in a situation where you can’t get the word out, how do you defend yourself?”

Gold Never Tarnishes

Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram is hardly the only major sponsor to leave the Iditarod in recent years. ExxonMobil also severed its ties with the race in January 2021 after serving as a sponsor since 1978. Still, other sponsors are standing by, including Donlin Gold, GCI, Northrim Bank, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Northern Air Cargo, Alaska Air Transit, Ryan Air, Capstone, City of Nome, Municipality of Anchorage, The Odom Corporation, Pathfinder Aviation, Providence Alaska, Alaskan Brewing Company, Alaska Mining and Diving Supply, Broadway Signs, Thompson & Co., and Alaska Waste, as well as new partners for 2022: Hilcorp, Harvest Midstream, Lynden, Alaska Native Renewable Industries, Greenbrook, and Nutanix.

Donlin Gold External Affairs Manager Kristina Woolston says the company’s motivation to be involved with the race has always been rooted in connecting and embracing the traditions and values of dog mushing, more so than any financial incentives.

“The rest of the world tunes in for a brief period of time around the Iditarod and the celebration, but we understand the utility, history, and the cultural importance of the dogs and the mushers,” says Woolston. “This represents the way gold miners back in the day transported goods, resources, and people. It’s a celebration of a long history and culture in Alaska.”

Beyond sponsoring the race itself, Donlin Gold also sponsors multiple mushers, including Pete Kaiser, a Bethel native who in 2019 became the first Yup’ik musher and fifth Alaska Native to win the Iditarod.

“Pete has other sponsors too and we share the limelight with all of them because he is such a phenomenal member of the community. We also support Isaac Underwood from Aniak and Mike Williams Sr. and Jr. of Akiak,” says Woolston. “We want to support healthy lifestyles and wellness in the communities. We’re focusing on healthy activities, and the tradition of mushing is one of those that we can really come alongside and partner with people like Pete and the Mikes and Isaac. That’s a huge component of why we sponsor the race.”

Donlin Gold also embraces mushing’s connection to Alaska’s gold communities. Last year’s shortened trail traveled through a number of historic mining and gold communities, including Ophir and Flat, while also navigating within 10 miles of the Donlin Gold project site. Beyond the connection to gold, Donlin Gold’s employees, particularly the 70 to 80 percent of whom are Alaska Natives from the region, feel especially connected with the race.

“We have over twenty villages that are represented in our workforce at the project site, and then of course the land owned by Calista and The Kuskokwim Corporation and the connection to gold,” says Woolston. Donlin Gold is also determined to help Alaska’s youth view the Iditarod as a healthy lifestyle that can preserve the region’s traditions and culture.

Mike Williams Jr. handles his sled.
Mike Williams Jr. handles his sled on the last leg of the Happy River steps between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass during the 2016 Iditarod.

JEFF SCHULTZ

“That’s one of the reasons we engage with rural mushers, because this is a longstanding tradition we want—as a part of the Alaska Native culture—to continue,” says Woolston. “We encourage folks who are interested in learning more about the impeccable healthcare for these athletes and the expectations of the mushers in caring for their athletes to visit Iditarod’s website and go on YouTube—there are great videos out there. But also, come to Alaska and experience the Iditarod firsthand.”

A Labor of Love

For Iditarod veteran Brent Sass of Eureka and the approximately fifty other mushers registered for the 50th running, mushing is more a way of life than it is a sports career. Sass estimates it costs around $100,000 to compete in a full sled dog racing season—a ballpark figure that includes all the equipment, gear, dog food, and travel expenses needed to take part in multiple races. It costs about $20,000 to compete in the Iditarod on its own, Sass estimates.

“By the time you figure out all of the logistics and all of the food drops and all of the little things—hotel rooms for before and after the race—it’s expensive. It’s a labor of love,” says Sass. “We do this because we love it. If you ask any dog musher if they do it for the money, I don’t think anyone does it for the money. You’re building a bad business plan if you’re doing it for the money. We do it because we love the sport and we love the dogs and it’s a lifestyle.”

The lifestyle of a musher isn’t easy, according to Sass, who has won the thousand-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on three occasions: in 2015, 2019, and 2020.

“My life is not easy, but I love every single second of every single day,” he says. “I’m choosing what I’m doing every day. I’m really lucky to live a life with that sort of freedom. The trade-off is I work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I don’t get days off; there’s no vacation. I have animals that need to be fed every day.”

Chuck Key

JEFF SCHULTZ

Like most of the top mushers, Sass relies on sponsorships to cover his expenses. ManMat Supply supplies all of his dog jackets, harnesses, and gear he needs to take care of his team; Dogbooties.com supplies Sass with between 4,000 and 5,000 dog booties—the little shoes sled dogs wear to protect their paws—for each season. It helps, Sass says, that all of the companies he is aligned with share his dedication to the well-being of the dogs.

Unlike many mushers who prefer to avoid the spotlight and attention that come from fans, sponsors, and media, Sass embraces his supporters through his robust social media presence. He shares daily updates from his Wild and Free Mushing homestead located in Eureka, about 140 miles northwest of Fairbanks. His willingness to interact with supporters pays off; Sass receives donations from individuals that are interested to sponsor his individual dogs each racing season.

“I am definitely more of a fan-based musher than a lot because I do social media and keep people up-to-date,” says Sass. “The reason I do that is because they are supporting me, and the best way I can give back to the people is by giving them a little piece of my life and show them the experience of the Iditarod and what it takes to live, breathe, eat and sleep dogs 365 days of the year. Those individual people and sponsors that have chosen a dog to sponsor for the season, those are huge, huge supporters of the kennel, and I really couldn’t do any of this without their support.”

Like Urbach and the Iditarod’s past and present sponsors, Sass challenges the race’s critics to learn more about the sport.

“Just come and watch,” says Sass, a five-time Iditarod finisher who finished 3rd in 2021 and 4th in 2020. “All you have to do is get on the internet and watch these sled dogs do what they’re doing. It’s so apparent that we’re just facilitating the thing they were born and raised to do. When people say those negative things, it’s ignorance. I hate to say that, but it is, because these dogs’ purpose in life is to run, and it’s our job to take care of them and make sure they’re staying in good health. I devote my life to these dogs.”

 

Alaska Business Magazine June 2022 cover

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