ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Lance Mackey has already achieved superstar status in the world of long-distance sled dog racing with four consecutive wins in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The question now is: Can the Alaska musher join Rick Swenson as the only racer to win the 1,150-mile race — the world’s longest sled dog race — from Anchorage to Nome five times?
“I know I am capable of it and I am as hungry as I have ever been,” Mackey said.
While other mushers remain amazed and puzzled by Mackey’s domination of the Iditarod, the Fairbanks man is taking his good fortune in stride. And he’s not letting his fame get the better of him.
“I hope I am still the same person. I don’t want to change just because I have been successful. I try to be as down to earth and realistic as possible,” Mackey said.
This year’s Iditarod kicks off Saturday in downtown Anchorage, where 62 dog teams will line up for the ceremonial start, a short sprint across town. The real racing begins Sunday at the restart in Willow, north of Anchorage.
The 2011 purse for the top 30 finishers is $528,000, down from a record $875,000 in 2008 and from last year’s purse of $590,000. The winner will receive $50,400 — the same amount as last year — and a new truck. But the payout for the others in the top 30 is reduced somewhat, ranging from $46,300 to $1,500.
Mackey finished the 2010 race in eight days, 23 hours, 59 minutes — the second-fastest finish in Iditarod history.
The 40-year-old married father of three comes from Alaska mushing royalty. He was at the finish line in 1978 to see his father, Dick Mackey, defeat Swenson by one second in the closest finish since the Iditarod began in 1973. His older brother, Rick, was the 1983 champion.
This year’s field consists of 46 Alaska mushers, eight from the Lower 48 and eight from outside the U.S., including Canada, Scotland, Norway, New Zealand and Jamaica. There are 47 men and 15 women entered. Thirteen mushers are rookies.
James Bardoner, an emergency medicine doctor, got bit by the Iditarod bug in 2004 when he came to Alaska for a 25th wedding anniversary cruise and visited four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King’s kennel.
The Signal Mountain, Tenn., man said he’s raised his nine children to follow their dreams and now it is his turn.
“This is my right of passage,” the 62-year-old rookie said. “God willing, I am getting to Nome with as many dogs that are healthy and happy as possible.”
Race officials say the condition of the trail is very good this year. If it is a fast race, the winner should reach Nome in eight to nine days.
Four-time champion Martin Buser marvels at Mackey’s performance.
“In all my years of racing, I have never been able to win back-to-back,” he said.
Buser, who holds the 2002 race record of eight days, 22 hours and 46 minutes, attributes part of Mackey’s winning ways to the high he’s been on since beating throat cancer.
“He is on a life-high that you can’t fake,” he said. “If every day that you live is a gift there is nothing that can go wrong for you.”
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1973 to commemorate a race against time, when sled dogs and drivers teamed up in 1925 to defeat a deadly outbreak of diphtheria in Nome. It was feared the disease would decimate Eskimo families living near the gold-rush town on Alaska’s western coastline.
Glass vials of diphtheria serum were sent by train from Anchorage to Nenana. Then, with the vials wrapped in quilting, canvas and fur and stashed in their sleds, dog drivers took turns driving their teams 674 miles along the Iditarod trail, the mail route from Nenana to Nome, to deliver the serum in just five days.