Last weekend, Team Arctic racers Cory Davis (Right, 28, from Soldotna, AK) and Ryan Simons (34, Camrose, Alberta) won the 2017 Iron Dog cross-country race, a seven-day 2,100-mile romp across the Alaskan wilderness that goes from Anchorage-Nome-Fairbanks.
It was a huge win for the duo, each of whom is a talented and accomplished terrain racer in all forms of competition.
They were kind enough to tell their story of this year’s race, including their perspective on the disqualification of another team.
AI: First of all, huge congratulations to you two on the big win in the Iron Dog. How does it feel to have finally won this epic event?
Simons: It’s huge (pause)… it’s been one of the huge events on my bucket list to conquer. And I’m pumped to finally have done it.
Davis: Thanks! But there’s no way to easily answer the question, becauss it’s not as sweet or gratifying as it should be. Before we get into that though, I can say that going across finish line…it was a huge feeling of accomplishment. I grew up my entire life with my Dad [Scott, a 7-time winner. –Ed.] working on Iron Dog stuff. To watch him be so successful with the race…it’s been great to follow his footsteps.
This was the fifth time racing it: once with my dad and four with Ryan. I got third with my dad in 2011, which was a special event for me because it was coming off an injury in which I nearly lost my foot. So to finish and get third on my first attempt, with my dad, while coming off an injury, was really cool. It wasn’t until I got my ass kicked three times with Ryan that I understood the magnitude of that first attempt.
Simons: This is the fourth time I’ve done it. First year Cory and we had engine troubles that required rebuilding engines twice, and we ended up eighth I think. Year two and three were kind of a repeat. This was the first year we went through it clean without significant troubles.
AI: Cory, can you put into perspective how big this race is to Alaskans?
Davis: It’s massive. And unless you see it firsthand, it’s hard to fully understand the magnitude. There are many teams who focus on this event for an entire year. Not just during the race season, the ENTIRE year.
You’re on this trail and going through villages of 200 people, this is the biggest event of the year for most of them. It’s like the Superbowl is coming to their town. We stay in peoples’ houses; they feed us, warm us and let us sleep in their homes. My dad is a rock star in these villages. So to be a part of that, his success and the tradition, was truly an awesome feeling.
AI: Let’s address the controversy of this year’s race right off the bat. Tell us your thoughts about the disqualification of Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson for receiving outside assistance when refueling while they were leading the race.
Simons: It’s a harsh penalty. Extremely harsh, especially when you consider how much effort goes into the event. The amount of effort and money it takes to compete is huge. I guess if they’re going to stick to their rules as an organization, and these are the rules, then this was the call they had to make. But it was harsh, and I didn’t see it coming.
Davis: I’ve had a fair amount of time to think about this since last weekend…my initial thought when it happened was that I agree that someone touched their sled. It was clear in pre-race drivers’ meeting that we weren’t supposed to. The rules are cut-and-dry. The race marshals enforced the rules; there wasn’t discretion for them. They did their jobs.
Now, do I think what they did warrants a DQ? No. It’s not my job to judge. The argument should be whether or not the rules are correct, and that’s a different discussion.
It’s a shitty situation. I’ve been a racer my entire life, and I don’t want a win with an asterisk next to my name. Crossing the finish line should have been overflowing with joy, instead i was waiting for questions about them, the controversy. It’s unfortunate. I’m bummed for them and I’m bummed for us. It sucks for everyone involved.
AI: I think you two handled (and are still handling) the situation remarkably well. It puts you in a pretty impossible position.
Simons: We’re good friends with both those guys. It’s like a family. We spent the whole night prior to final day with them. We felt really bad for them. Right or wrong, it was really harsh. We wanted them to join us on the run into the finish line, which they did and was cool. You always say a win’s a win, but at end of the day, we always want to win straight up.
Davis: Like Ryan said, Tyler and Tyson are our friends. They had a flawless race, they’re great racers. We wanted to ride with them to make sure they made it all the way to Fairbanks. We showed solidarity for them. And the plan was to let them cross the finish line in first, but Tyson ended up busting the front end of his sled on a creek crossing. We stayed with him to try and fix it, which took a bunch of time. In the process, the second-place team caught us on the course. We were still going to beat them on time, but we didn’t want them passing us and being the first across the finish line. So at that point, which was about five miles to the finish, we took off and left Tyler and Tyson to get in on their own.
AI: Last question about the fuel stop DQ: how did you two treat that location during your race?
Simons: It’s a 120-mile section, which means if it’s wide-open running through fresh snow, we can’t make that distance with the fuel in our tanks. So we strap 5-gallon jugs at Ruby, the departure point for that section and continue on. Tyler and Tyson had people deliver fuel there, which is legal. This year they told us in riders meeting that it was a location that will be watched and that any outside assistance would mean disqualification.
Davis: That’s why Ryan and I ratcheted the Jerry cans of fuel to our sleds, because I didn’t want to open up the possibility that something like this could happen. So we handled it a different way. We didn’t use that same stop that Team #8 did.
AI: Run through the general trajectory of how this year’s race went for you, and how it was progressing up to the point of the DQ.
Simons: We started in around 13th or 15th, got by a bunch of teams right away then were in never-never-land. We rode our own pace, not going crazy fast. Our whole goal was to never have to take out our tool belts, so we rode pretty reserved and clean.
Davis: We’d been making time throughout most of the race. Left 24 minutes behind the leaders at the halfway point in Nome, but we were chipping away. We passed the #16 team for second-place because they hit a rock. Our tactic was to safely ride as fast as we could, to put pressure on the leaders. We got it down to 10 minutes back from Tyler and Tyson. On the Yukon River, which is just a monster that’s up to 1-mile wide at points, both Ryan and I hit an ice heave that broke the front cross-shafts on the our rear suspensions. Both breaks were identical, and pretty unique. Had never seen that before. Breaking those caused the tracks to ratchet, so we backed off the pace and limped into Galena where Ryan diagnosed the broken stuff. We got all our stuff gathered and ready, so that when we were back on the clock we could fix it as quickly as possible. I’d say the whole situation added about 35-40 minutes additional deficit to Tyler and Tyson.
But we rode a clean race other than that.
Simons: Well, we did have one wrong turn early on that probably added 10-15 minutes. But that was the only other issue.
AI: Who was setting the pace and taking the lead on the trail?
Simons: Cory set the pace and leads. In previous years we’d switch back and forth, because there were times when I was wondering why we were moving so slow. But then BAM!, you’d see something out of the corner of your eye that we just barely missed, and that would have ended our race. So I’ve learned to really trust Cory’s pace and navigation.
I keep him within sight almost all the time. Some teammates ride miles apart, but we’re always in vision of one another. I’ll sometimes drop back when the snow dust is really bad, but still close enough to see his taillight ever minute or so.
AI: What were the conditions like?
Davis: I thought the conditions were great. We’ve been saying for years that all we want is a race with snow. None of this survival stuff and going 50 miles without a flake of snow. We wanted a race, and we got it this year.
Simons: All in all, we had decent snow. There were very few dirt sections. Weather wise, it was pretty nasty cold going north, with temps at -40 below in the morning. One spot was -52. We all have big frostbite on our necks. Leaving Nome, it was a snow storm, but not terrible. And it was warm, so pretty nice conditions all the way back to Fairbanks.
AI: Ryan, you’ve won the I-500 and now the Iron Dog. Compare the two races, in terms of the challenge, the speeds and the feeling of winning.
Simons: It’s really hard to compare these races.
The I-500…I’ve woken up in the middle of a highway during the race, because of a crash. There’s someone there to save you. In the Iron Dog, you crash like that at -40 degrees and there’s a decent chance you’re not going to live.
So it’s a slower, more controlled pace at the Iron Dog. There’s an art to racing slower, which Cory is good at.
Winning both of them is really cool. I’m the only Canadian and out of state person to win Iron Dog. And only person to have won both races.
AI: That’s awesome. What sleds did you two race and how were they modified for the event?
Simons: We ran 2017 ZR 6000R XC race sleds that we modified with trail fuel tanks, plus 3-gallon accessory tanks that totaled 16 gallons of capacity on each sled. We ran stock skis, track and clutching. They worked amazing.
Davis: Hector and Corey built the sleds in TRF, taking each down to the chassis and then put them back together. That’s step one. Step two was getting them up here, where we added bags, GPS, windshields, fuel tanks and lights. We silicone everything to seal up everything. But really, nothing too crazy or special.
AI: Tell us about your crew and your sponsors.
Simons: As Cory mentioned, Hector Olson and Corey Berberich built our sleds down at Cat. Scott Davis built our practice sleds. Scott, Cory and myself worked on sleds prior to race, getting them dialed in.
Davis: We also had two pilots: Gary Eoff and Doug Dixon. They’re equipped with all the parts and tools we thought we might need. Fortunately we didn’t have to use them a lot. They’d stop at whatever checkpoints they could get into. Ryan’s dad, Bill, flew with Gary the whole race.
Our sponsors were Arctic Cat, Motorfist, Speedwerx, Stud Boy, FOX Shox, Monster, GCI, Alaska LED, HC Racing, Fineline Interiors, Palma Technologies, 139 Designs. They’re all great sponsors and their help was crucial to our success. The same goes for the people we mentioned, they’re a huge part of why we did so well.
AI: What’s next for you guys?
Davis: My schedule was and is crazy. As soon as X Games finished I busted back to Alaska to finish working on the sleds and practice for a week. The night before the race I did a freestyle show downtown Anchorage. We did that, which was cool but added another layer of complexity.
Simons: He back-flipped the night before we started (laughter).
Davis: Yeah, it was cool and nothing bad happened. The race started the next day. We finished a week later, on Saturday afternoon and had the banquet that night. The next morning I drove from Fairbanks to Anchorage, hopped on a plane to St. Paul, Minn., for the Arctic Cat Dealer Show for two days. Then I flew back home.
Next up for me is an Arctic Cat video shoot later this month. In the meantime I’m going to gather up my sleds, which are scattered throughout the state, then start riding in the back country. That’s my favorite thing to do. It’s possible I’ll do one more cross-country race, and maybe a couple more freestyle shows.
Simons: Nothing on the books right now for me. I’m back home after being gone for a month and a half, enjoying life with my wife Paula and our baby boy whose 5 months old. Old, being away was pretty tough, I’m done racing for this season. Paula and I bought a vacation home in the mountains of British Columbia. We’ll head out there later this winter.
I haven’t decided if I’m going to do this race again. It would be hard to walk away from it, but every year I go into it uncertain if it’s what I should do. It’s an absolute blast and I love the people and the experience, but the work required to do it right is unmatched. It’s bigger than any other race in terms of preparation.
Davis: Having given this race a better effort, I’m having more optimism for doing this race again next year. To put in a bigger effort would mean not doing X Games, and that’s a big decision. I really enjoyed the race, even with all the shit that went down. But no decisions yet for next year.
AI: Did you hear from Roger Skime after the race?
Davis: I’ve known Roger for a lot of years. He’s always been amazing to me and my family, always appreciative when we did well. Winning this race was special for him too. When I arrived at the dealer show he jumped out of his chair and came to congratulate me. That made me so proud.
So many Arctic Cat people have had the same reaction. And that’s brought some gratification that I didn’t get at the finish line. It’s been a long time since a Cat won [2007 was the last year, when Scott Davis and Todd Palin took the win. –Ed.].
AI: Very cool. Again, congratulations and thanks for the interview.
Davis: Thanks, you’re welcome.
Simons: We appreciate it.
Above two images of Team Arctic’s Micah Huss (right) and Ryan Sottosanti, who finished third in this year’s race. HUGE congrats to these great racers as well!