Iron Dog: The World’s Longest, Toughest Snowmobile Race

Ryan Simons talks -52-degree battles with Mother Nature and all her winter fury.

By Jerry Bernardo

By Jerry Bernardo

There are some stories that simply must be told regardless of subject matter. While we here at Dirt Buzz we focus our attention on dirt bikes, beer and chicks, this hellacious trip into the wild blue yonder was just too good to pass up.

If anyone wants to live vicariously though the actions of another, the Iron Dog would certainly be one of the top adventures to pick.

Why trade in your warm, comfy couch for a colder version? A snowmobile race is pretty much a date with a 500-pound couch that has chainsaws attached to the bottom. In 1984 the first Iron Dog race started up in Alaska and followed the northern route of the famed Iditarod Trail, made famous by the dog sled race it hosts annually.

After a few name changes over the years, it’s now known as the Tesoro Iron Dog. I first heard of this race years ago when snowmobile legend Kirk Hibbert (his son Tucker has won 14 medals at ESPN’s Winter X Games) told me how tough it was. Today, I delved deeper into the sport with fellow racer Ryan Simons.

The Iron Dog course today is over 2000 miles long and weaves its way through Alaska from its starting point in Big Lake to Fairbanks. This is not only a race but a test of willpower, machinery and, sometimes, survival skills.

Two thousand miles on a snow machine through some of the coldest, harshest terrain and evil that snowmen can muster? Just send us a postcard, thank you.

The Tesoro Iron Dog course.

Dirt Buzz: There’s a massive difference between Snocross racing at the X Games and the much longer cross-country snowmobile race. Can you explain it in simple terms?

Ryan Simons: First off, thank you for recognizing Cory and me and this event. The Iron Dog is extremely different than any Snocross or cross-country racing event. Between Cory and me, we hold nine X Games medals and yet nothing compares to the elements we had to deal with in the Iron Dog event. Compared to this, a Snocross main is a sprint. Here’s a quick Iron Dog example: On Day One when we left the start at Big Lake, the temperature was 32 degrees Fahrenheit and when we arrived at our layover location in Magrath [some 400 miles later] it was minus 42 degrees! Just imagine trying to dress for those two extremes. We don’t ever stop to add or remove any layers of clothing.

For 40 hours total, over 2,031 miles, team #41 averaged 50 mph. on these sleds.

DB: The Iron Dog is no walk in the park. What does the name refer to?

RS: I really don’t know the true meaning or why they came up it. I guess it’s just a survival/ironman-type term. If you have the balls to enter the Iron Dog, you deserve to be recognized.

DB: Cory Davis has been your teammate at this event before. How many times have you two competed as a team?

RS: Cory and I have now raced this event a total of four times now. We’ve been teammates in other forms of racing for around 10 years.

Frostbite prevention with team #49: "Sons of Thunder."

DB: You guys chose to race Arctic Cat ZR 6000 R XC 600 sleds. Of course, reliability is a must. What other things stand out about the brand that helped bring you guys across in first place?

RS: We can’t say enough about Arctic Cat; they’ve been there for us upwards of 15 years. Their equipment is amazing! Cory and I have only broken one part each in the four years we’ve raced this event and that was this year—we both fell victim to a simple driver error. The bottom line is Arctic Cat sleds are bad ass!

DB: We often hear the words “grueling” and “harsh” tossed about when speaking of this torturous race. Can you put that into words for us feeble souls who may be curled up under a thick blanket most winter nights?

RS: (Laughs) Grueling is a good all-around word to use for this race! It’s usually the temperature that’s the most challenging element. This year the coldest temps we went through was -52 degrees Fahrenheit.  In past years we’ve gotten down to -55. The low temperatures, ground storms and wind are all terrible. One year we had some warmer weather and racers had to deal with crossing sections of open sea where the ice had melted! It’s always a battle to expect to have perfect weather.

Ryan Simons [L] and team mate Cory Davis [R] holding up a well earned frozen digit.

DB: Are there are also mandatory stops and time restraints put on the teams?

RS: Yes, we do have mandatory layovers that we have to take, which are a set amount of time. It ends up getting you all flipped around and we all ended doing a good chunk of the race at night in the pitch-black darkness.

DB: The end of the race this year had a bit of drama when the lead team was disqualified. What happened?

RS: The end of the race was definitely a strange one. We were sitting in second place [with 300 miles to go] and the team in front of us violated a fueling rule and they got disqualified. We inherited the lead and were able to just cruise in to the finish.

Team #8: Aklestad/Johnson rode in 10 miles on one ski only to DNF with 300 miles to go.

DB: Would you recommend this event for an adventure-seeking snowmobile rider?

RS: I would, but you’d better be damned experienced before you decide to go and tackle the Iron Dog. One wrong decision or a lack of preparation could mean your life! Not many people can last long in those temps if you’re not prepared.

The massive pot of gold at the end of the snow covered rainbow.

DB: Speaking on behalf of both you and your teammate Cory, who would you like to thank before we head somewhere warm and thaw out after just listening to your stories?

RS: I want to thank Cory and my family for always supporting me, my fiancée Paula Gramlich and our son Blair, Cory’s girlfriend Alyssa, Arctic Cat, Speedwerx, Stud Boy, Fox shocks, Monster Energy, GCI, the Davis family and Alaska LED.

Ryan Simons shows off Mother Nature's frostbite hickey.

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