Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

ALCAN 200 celebrates 50 years of speed

 

January 24, 2019

Race official Heath Scott braces against kicked-up snow as racers whiz past the finish line at Saturday's ALCAN 200 snowmachine event. Jenna Kunze photo.

On the far side of the finish line, snowmachines sailed in and racers dismounted, gladly accepting cups of coffee or hot cocoa with both hands. By the time Randy Wood of Fairbanks sputtered in, he was met with slaps on the back from his friends.

Noticing tears in his clothing and a lopsided helmet, his buddies asked him what happened. "I think I broke my arm," Wood said, as a friend took off his helmet.

"Shit. Do you need a medic?" a racer asked.

"I need a smoke," Wood said, using his good arm to uncover a cigarette pack zipped into his chest pocket.

Further up the road, bleeding lines of neon assaulted the spray-painted finish line, and it suddenly erupted with the groan of an open throttle as the machines glided south at about 100 miles per hour. Spectators' heads swiveled left to right to follow the wisps of color and the racer was gone again, a blur against an immaculate white winter's day.

This is what speed looked like at Saturday's 50th running of the ALCAN 200, North America's last snowmachine road race. The 155-mile course is a stretch of highway from the Canada border to Dezadeash Lake and back. Forceful winds, increased participation and bloodshed marked this year's landmark race.

Haines' Chris Brooks won in 1:24:24, followed a minute later by Jack Smith Jr., who has finished second to Brooks "more times than anyone can count," according to past racer and fan Lynette Campbell. "Three times in a row," Smith Jr. clarified, contributing to his five-year streak of placing second overall. In third, on a borrowed sled of Smith Jr.'s, was Rookie of the Year Peter Lapham.

Wind howled across exposed asphalt between tree line and Dezadeash, according to racers. A three-sled crash sent two to hospitals in Juneau and Anchorage, where they were treated for injuries. Of the 46 racers competing, 33 racers finished and four were injured.

Driver George Campbell did not finish the race when ice crystals formed in his fuel filter and his sled quit just beyond the second fuel stop. Mechanical issues prevented twelve others from finishing.

Although racers from the US and Canada were pit against each other Saturday, many of them spent the weeks and even hours beforehand sharing parts, giving a helping hand and practicing together.

Two of the winning sleds' engines blew while practicing in Canada on Friday and had to be rebuilt hours before the race.

The top three racers were awake after midnight on race day, rebuilding two sled engines and exchanging parts and handiwork with competitors, who also happened to be their friends. Brooks borrowed clutch weights from Smith Jr., who spent his night replacing pistons in Lapham's engine.

This brotherhood, according to Lapham, has been inherent in the ALCAN for decades.

It's all "Oh you need a part? I got a part," said Lapham, whose family has been involved in the ALCAN as long as he can remember. His father won the race in 1984 wearing bib number 600, which Lapham donned Saturday. Lapham said he wasn't going to race, until longtime friend Smith Jr. called him at his home in Washington and "basically told me I had to come up and race." Smith lent Lapham a sled and helped him rebuild the engine after a piston blew Friday.

"That's how it was when I was a kid watching my dad and his friends, and now to see my friends do it, too, is cool," Lapham said.

Smith Jr. said that living in a remote place like Haines requires a team effort to get racers to the starting line. Often somebody needs a part and doesn't have enough time to ship it to town, he said.

"If we didn't help each other, a lot less people would be able to race," Smith Jr. said.

Former resident John Spencer, a 67-year-old racer who competed in the first ALCAN in 1970 and traveled from Montana to race again this year, also got help.

When a Fairbanks friend transporting Spencer's snowmachine crashed en route to Haines, Zack Ferrin, Tyler Ferrin, Smith Jr. and Dave Ewing salvaged a snowmachine in Ferrin's yard and rebuilt it in time for the race.

"It's always been if somebody has a problem, we try to help each other out," Spencer said.

Spencer dislocated a hip when the wind blew him into the two-sled pile up. "It was a really fun 15 miles until I crashed. No regrets," he said from Juneau, where he was hospitalized.

The camaraderie is not just limited to locals, but stretched into Canada, according to participants. During a crowded racing auction at the Fogcutter Bar the night before the race, old-timer Mario Toulin from Whitehorse said that most of the race organizers and participants felt like family after 33 years of involvement.

So is it competitive? "Oh, it's competitive," Smith Jr. said. "We try to get everybody to be able to race," he said, "but as soon as you leave the starting line, it's everybody for themselves."

"Everybody's got their little things that they think are going to work for them, and you can definitely see that in the way the sleds run and work," said race winner Brooks.

The Chilkat Snowburners has hosted the ALCAN 200 since 1970. The Canadian government, Haines Volunteer Fire Department members, race officials, a sweeper and tow crew picking up racers and dead sleds also pitched in.

Kathi Lapp, race organizing director for the past eight years, said that the Canadian providential governments grant road closure permits the day of the race from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"To us, it is the major thing because it enables us to have the race," she said. "In fact, they make our race."

The main reasons racers keep coming back? Riders this week cited the open road, friends and the adrenaline of racing at 100 mph.

"It's just something that you're not going to do anywhere else in the world," Brooks said.

 
 

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