The 'First Dude' in his element
Todd Palin (Sarah's husband) is right at home in Alaska's Tesoro Iron Dog
The Dog, as the race is known, is a 2,000-mile snow-machine odyssey
Palin, a four-time winner, finished sixth this year but vows to be back
Behold Todd Palin's snow machine, dangling from a truck's winch in the icy gray murk of an Alaskan winter morning. The machine is gleaming, new, scarcely ridden. It is orange and black and pointy-nosed, with thin, tensile orange steel suspension arms jutting from its sides like the wings on a menacing insect. This is, no doubt, a machine that could inflict a nasty sting, but right now its engine is stilled, and a certain awed quietude prevails on Big Lake, outside Anchorage, at the start of the 2009 Tesoro Iron Dog, a 2,000-mile snow-machine odyssey that crashes through the Alaskan backcountry, northwest to Nome and then east to Fairbanks.
"That an Arctic Cat F600?" one bystander murmurs.
"Yup," says his bud.
Racers of lesser means did not arrive here with winches. No, they wrestled their 500-pound machines out of their pickups with the engines snarling, exhaust spewing everywhere as they heaved the things down little makeshift ramps. Palin's sled settles on the newly fallen snow soundlessly, and then he just stands beside it, buff, grinning and vigorously gnawing on chewing gum.
Yes, we are talking about that Todd Palin -- Sarah's husband, the First Dude -- and yes, the Dude is in his element here at the Dog. Forget the campaign trail, the whole black suit and sound-bite thing. Todd Palin grew up in rural Alaska, fishing in slime-spattered rain pants, and for most of the past two decades he's worked in a British Petroleum plant on the frigid North Slope, monitoring turbines and pumps with a tool belt slung from his hip. Nothing else could have prepared him better for the rigors of the Dog -- the -60 degree cold snaps, the darkness, the mechanical breakdowns, the wipeouts at 95 mph. Palin, who has entered 15 of the 25 runnings of this annual race, has won four and placed second three times.
The Iron Dog is an accrued-time partner race, in which teams of two riders, each on his own sled, are clocked only when the rear guard arrives at a designated point. Since 2003 Palin, who's 44, has paired with another snow-machine celebrity, 49-year-old Scott Davis, who has won the Dog seven times (once with Palin) and run the race every year since its 1984 inception. The impresario of a large concrete business, Davis is, like Palin, a striking physical presence: chiseled and lantern-jawed, with the erect bearing of a resolute middle-aged mensch.
More snow machines roll out of pickups. The air thrums -- a high-pitched throttly scream here, a low bassy engine roar over there. Soon a 53-year-old knifemaker, Roger Comar, approaches Palin and Davis reverently. Comar has traveled from his home in Marion, N.C., expressly to give each rider (and Sarah, too) a custom-made jackknife whose blade is crafted from the metal of an Arctic Cat F600 drive chain. Each knife took Comar 20 hours of shop time, and in his moment of glory he tells Todd Palin, "You can skin a moose with this thing." Then he turns to Sarah and says, "This is a message from western North Carolina that we want you to make a run for president in 2012."
But then there's a political resonance to the whole scene. On two race sleds are bumper stickers reading AMERICA. LOVE IT, DEFEND IT, OR GET THE HELL OUT. On another there's a mock ALASKA TERRORIST HUNTING PERMIT, good through 2050, with the license number 9-11-01. Tina Fey is not here amid the wafting aroma of two-stroke motor oil. Neither is Michelle Obama.
And so Todd Palin is free to be ... the Dude. There are no Secret Service types shadowing him, no spin-doctoring publicists. No, he's just another guy wandering the crowd, slapping old friends on the back, shooting the bull. And Sarah, too, is relaxed. Stylishly coiffed and hatless at 15 degrees, she takes a microphone and makes a few chummy remarks before praying that the snow machine's enjoy "God's protection." The Air Force Honor Guard plays The Star-Spangled Banner in formation on the frozen lake, and one by one 35 teams zoom away, over the ice and into the bush.
The Iron Dog is a marathon punctuated by required rest stops. Long ones. Though the race takes six days (this year, Feb. 8-14), winners typically finish with elapsed time of about 40 hours. This includes "wrench time," which is critical. The course of the Dog -- over tree stumps, rocks and large, heaving berms on the first 1,000 miles, then over smaller, rattling wind drifts on the frozen Bering Sea and various rivers -- is so destructive to snow machines that, of the 600 or so teams that have started the race since 1984, only about 40 percent have finished. Most of the other drivers have broken bones or wearied of the cold or watched their engines fry under strain.
When the Dog began, it had a survivalist vibe. Racers would show up at the starting line with doubly reinforced steel sled skis and 50 pounds of spare parts roped to their tool bags. In recent years, though, a nimbler ethic has emerged. Snow machines now have independent front suspension, making them more stable and better able to endure the treacherous terrain, and race organizers allow riders to scare up spare parts at rest stops. Today, Iron Doggers can actually race.