BIG LAKE - For some, one of the longest, toughest races on earth is a family affair.
More than a few drivers in the 2012 Iron Dog snowmachine race followed in the footsteps of their fathers, mothers, cousins or siblings, and it was the kind of family atmosphere veteran racer Unch Scheurch said kept him coming back year after year.
The ice at Big Lake was crowded with cars, trucks, multi-colored tents and dozens of sleds Sunday morning for the start of the race, and Scheurch said he crossed the orange spray-painted line in the snow ten times over the course of his racing career. This year, he said it was different.
“I raced with the dads, now we’re helping the kids out,” he said, beaming.
Dressed in a thin black sweatshirt despite the cold, Scheurch wore a race pass on a red lanyard around his neck and joined drivers and family members in the chute behind the starting line, separated from the growing crowd of spectators by an orange mesh fence.
Dozens of pairs of snowmachines crowded the corridor, emblazoned with sponsor logos and marked with fluorescent orange team numbers on the front windshield. Scheurch said he had helped customize the blue-and-white sleds of Team 13 for rookie racers Cody Barber and Brad George. Polaris Rushes, Scheurch said they were customized and unlike any other machine in the race.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “You wish you were out there but again, you know what they’re going to go through and you don’t want to be out there.”
Standing at over six feet tall, Scheurch wasn’t a small man, but he said the Iron Dog’s wilderness trail across 2,000 miles of mountains and coastline wasn’t easy.
It’s a trail Tammy Barber has driven, too. She said her son would experience some of the harshest conditions Alaska had to offer during the race from Big Lake to Nome to the Golden Heart City, but he was a “survivalist.”
“Being that I’ve been out there, I think it might be worse, I’ve seen the trail so I worry a little bit more,” she said. “But if they use their brains and make the right choices, they’ll do great.”
Petite and blonde and buried under a red and gray parka, she was Scheurch’s polar opposite, but she had donned a racer’s bib in 2010 and knew just how treacherous the trail could be. She said she also knew just how big of a role family played in the race.
“Once he found out, I didn’t see him for four days because they were working on sleds in Wasilla, so I was phone support and paperwork support,” she said, laughing and holding the mitten-clad hand of one of her youngest sons.
Barber herself comes from a family of professional drivers. Her father was a competitor in the inaugural 1984 race to Nome, she said, and her husband had raced “eight or nine” times as well.
Now, she said her older son would follow in his family’s footprints. “And I will be!” said the little boy next to her, chiming in suddenly. “Oh great,” she said, grinning.
While it would be Cody Barber’s first race to Fairbanks, he said he’s been driving sleds for years, inspired by his father.
“I’m a third generation Iron Dogger,” he said softly, fur hat pulled low over his eyes. “I just kind of looked up to him I guess, traced his footsteps.”
He squinted his eyes against the mid-morning glare of the sun on the ice, and wore a bright orange bib pinned to the back of his black winter jacket.
“We’re not really in it to win,” he said. “We’re just going out to see that checkered flag.”
As the clock moved closer to 11 a.m., race officials began herding drivers and family members to the back of the chute, preparing to line the sleds into single-file starting order and send off the first teams. Barber and his family filed through with the others, exchanging slaps on the back and last minute encouragements.
Hundreds of spectators pressed up against the orange fence around the starting line, holding cameras, coffee cups and long-necked Bud Lights with Lime. Martin Buser, four-time Iditarod champion, stood near the edge of the crowd near the driver’s chute, taking pictures and catching up with other race fans.
Buser said there are a few differences between dog and machine, but the excitement of the race remains the same.
“They know how to go fast,” he said. “So I came. Maybe it rubs off a bit.”
Further down the course underneath the blue starting banner, the first teams began to line up and the classic rock blaring over the loudspeakers disappeared. The announcer stood on a short raised stage near the line, introducing the riders and sending them out at intervals.
Many of the riders were veterans with more than one race under their belts. After a ten-second countdown, each team would speed over the line and across the lake, snowmachines lunging forward off the starting line and spitting exhaust.
Cody Barber and his teammate were assigned the twentieth starting position: Sitting several hundred feet back in line from the starting post, they continued last conversations with family as the chain of drivers inched slowly forward.
When the team in front of them sped away, a race official beckoned Barber and George forward, stopping them just short of the orange line in the snow.
“Well we’ve got a little bit of a story with these two guys,” the announcer said. “Each one of them just turned 18 years old within the last month.”
It made them the youngest team to compete in the history of the 2,000-mile race.
They revved their engines. The announcer began the countdown. In the crowd, Tammy Barber watched her son.
“Three, two, one!” The announcer said. “See you in Fairbanks!”
Team 13 checked into McGrath airport at 10:12 a.m.