Sled racers to converge for 45th Alcan 200
Amy Tonsgard has raced junker cars on a dirt oval as well as dirt bikes. On Saturday, the 40-year-old Haines bank teller will stick duct tape on her face and join the field of racers competing in the 45th Alcan 200, billed as the last great snowmachine road race in North America.
“I’m just going to hang on and have fun. To finish would be nice, but I’m just doing it for the experience,” Tonsgard said this week.
Tonsgard would have to go nearly twice as fast as the 60 mph top speed she’s raced on a dirt bike to be out in front with the Alcan’s race leaders. A smaller, loaner sled she’ll be riding topped out at a speed near 90 mph last year. The course record approaches an average speed of 120 mph.
Race veterans and Chilkat Snowburners organizers, however, say the 155-mile race works because riders can finish in the money in different divisions, determined by the size of their machines, without setting speed records. Jerry Lapp of Haines raced the Alcan 16 times. He never won overall, but he took first in his class several times, always finishing in the top three, although he didn’t much like going over 100 mph.
“I was very fortunate, I think,” Lapp said this week.
Besides $1,000 to the overall winner, $500 cash goes to each of several awards, including fastest rookie, oldest sled to finish, fastest woman, fastest local racer and fastest out-of-towner.
To outsiders, riding a snowmachine over 50 mph may sound scary, but Lapp said the machines with appropriate modifications for road riding are surprisingly stable. “You have more control than you have in a car. You’re low to the ground, with carbides (runners on skis) that cut into the ice and picks on your track for traction. You’re kind of attached to the road.”
Rookie Tonsgard will be among about a half-dozen Haines riders and only two or three women attempting the sprint from the Canada border to Dezadeash, Y.T ., and back. Angie Bartholomew of Lake Stevens, Wash. also will race. She’s a four-wheeler racer and friend of Tonsgard’s who threw in when Tonsgard phoned with news of her decision to race.
Volunteers and longtime race observers said showings by newcomers and riders from Haines – expected to include “Little” Jack Smith, Christopher Brooks, Steven McLaughlin, Michael Ward Jr. and George Campbell – bodes well for the race, which has seen its founders retire from competition.
“We need a new generation,” said Lapp, who now drives the “sweep rig” that follows the race, picking up riders with broken-from Haines – expected to include “Little” Jack Smith, Chris Brooks, Steven McLaughlin, Michael Ward Jr. and George Campbell – bode well for the race, which has seen its founders retire from competition.
“We need a new generation,” said Lapp, who now drives the “sweep rig” that follows the race, picking up riders with broken-down sleds.
Besides equipment break-downs, weather and road conditions are wild cards that make the Alcan not strictly a speed event, veterans say. Winds that come during long, cold spells can blast the snow off the highway, exposing large sections of bare pavement that can melt plastic skis, even ones with carbide runners.
Deep snow, darkness and whiteouts can also pose hazards. Lapp said racers are cautioned to take extra care when visibility is bad, as it reduces reaction time they need to stay on the road and avoid each other. Clear skies, temperatures in the 20s and a few inches of snow on an icy base are ideal conditions, but occur only rarely. That’s led to a discussion of moving the event later in the year, when days are longer and skies clearer.
Organizer Kathi Lapp said road conditions early this week weren’t bad. “There’s not a lot of bare pavement. As long as there’s an ice layer, it’s pretty good.” Competitors typically spend a day or two before the race along the highway, testing their sleds against conditions.
Racers use different styles of tracks for different road conditions and veterans know to bring a variety of equipment to cover changing or unexpected conditions. At a mandatory stop in Dezadeash, where the race “turns around,” mechanics may replace tracks, carbide runners and other parts for the run back to the border. “It’s a real, fine-tuned guessing game, so to speak,” said Diana Lapham, a 20-year race volunteer.
A solid, rubber “grass-drag” track that showed up about eight years ago is now the preferred one, replacing ones that were reinforced with fiberglass rods that tended to break. “They hold up better for the high-speed runs. We used to pick up a lot of blown tracks,” Lapp said. However, it’s useless in more than an inch of fresh, loose snow.
Seven-race veteran Chris Brooks of Haines puts an older track designed for drag racing on ice on the 700cc 1997 Yamaha he custom-made for the Alcan. He’s finished as high as second place overall. Though his sled doesn’t approach the size of some of the 1,000cc ones in the large machine class he competes in, the race is still fun, he said.
“Growing up in Haines, you hear about the Alcan. The first year I did it I had a blast, and figured I’d do it again… I’m attracted to the challenge, plus it’s a good time to get together with a great group of people you wouldn’t see otherwise,” he said.
People who’ve done the race once usually come back and run it again, Brooks said, so recruiting new competitors helps keep the event alive.
In some years, nearly 50 racers have competed in the Alcan, with riders coming from northern British Columbia, Whitehorse and the Yukon Territory, and Juneau and Fairbanks. Race veterans include Mario Poulin of Whitehorse, who’s raced 30 years or more. “So many people have come for so many years, it’s like a yearly reunion,” said volunteer Patti Campbell.
The race this year is saluting residents who helped launch the race in 1969, including Leo and George Ann Smith, Belle Sage, and Beverly Jones, whose photos are featured on the race poster.
Three-time rider and race director Zack Ferrin said he’s encouraged Sunday drag races are returning to the event, to be held this year at George Campbell’s property at 18 Mile Haines Highway. Riders of all abilities are welcome at the fun, informal event. “It would be nice to get oval races back. That would probably get even more people involved,” Ferrin said.
The Alcan 200 starts 10 a.m. Alaska time Saturday at 42 Mile, with a mandatory racer’s meeting starting 9 a.m. at the same location.
The post-race banquet starts at 6:30 p.m. at the American Legion, with cocktails at 5:30 p.m.
The Calcutta Auction of racers, which boosts race winnings, starts 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Fogcutter Bar.