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Future Feature: Iron Dog Economics

by | Jan 23, 2020 | Monitor

Alaska’s toughest snow machine race easy on the local economy

Riders coming into the finish line at Fairbanks during the 2019 Iron Dog.

©Megan Rolinger

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 snow machine, 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 snow machine 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 snow machine ‘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.”

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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 Snow machine racecourse. Recreational riders will travel 1,375 miles, traveling from Fairbanks to the halfway point in Nome via Kotzebue.

Along the way, racers will travel through numerous Alaska towns and villages, including Nenana, Manley, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Buckland, Noorvik, Ruby, Ophir, Skwenta, 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. 

“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 snow machine 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 Anchorage 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 250 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.” 

Mike Morgan and Chris Old, 2019 Iron Dog winners, show off their $10,000 check at the final banquet.

©Aaron Brown

Read more about the Iron Dog’s economic impact on participating businesses and communities in the upcoming February 2020 edition of Alaska Business.

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