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Feature Writing
Fourth Place
Mike Adaskaveg, CC Racer

Tough Sledding

How Alaskan Lance Mackey fought to become top dog in Legend Cars.

The only road that connects Alaska’s North Pole Speedway and Alaska Raceway Park in Palmer is Rt. 3, a band of asphalt in the shadow of the snow-capped peak known as Denali.

The two-lane highway traverses forests, meadows, and long stretches of wilderness, bursting with wildlife. It was here Legend Car racer and Iditarod winner Lance Mackey’s race hauler broke down near the midpoint of a 335-mile journey to Alaska Raceway Park.
It was no big deal. He called his girlfriend, Jenne, and had her bring a pickup truck and U-Haul trailer – from 185 miles away. When she arrived, he removed the race car’s wheels and fenders, slid it into the trailer and continued on to the track. The next day he won the 20-car feature event.
Mackey’s story is one of overcoming adversity, surviving, improvising, and winning.

Recovering from cancer surgery on his neck and jaw in 2002, he disobeyed doctors’ orders and drove his dog sled in brutal sub-zero weather from Anchorage to Nome.

“From April to October I was fighting for my life – in March I raced in the Iditarod, living on a feeding tube and pure determination,” says Mackey. “It was the mentally toughest race I ever ran.”

Three years later, he and his dogs won the Iditarod – the first of four victories. He mushed from White Horse, Yukon Territory, Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska – a nearly impossible journey other than by plane – to win the Yukon Quest in the same year. When people said it was a fluke – he repeated the feat the next year.

There’s a scene in the documentary The Great Alone showing Mackey racing in the Iditarod, through treacherous passes, balancing his dogsled on one runner – mile after mile after mile, determined just to stay in the race.

Of Dogs and Legends

Mackey credits dogs for saving his life, twice.

His dad, Dick, won the prestigious Iditarod by one second in 1978. Mackey was an impressionable eight years old. Young Lance soon won the Junior Iditarod.

But Mackey’s teenage life took a drastic turn. His mom, Alaskan bush pilot Kathie Smith, and his dad split up. He says a high-income job on a crab fishing boat led him down a path of addiction. Dog sled racing helped him fight those demons.

In Alaska, dog mushers are royalty. Mackey was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Here, he’s a superstar.
In 2001 Mackey started the Iditarod race with a lump in his jaw throbbing against the  minus 40-degree cold.

“I had a lump the size of a pea that grew into the size of a softball,” he says. “I thought it was an abscessed tooth.”

After the race, he went to the doctor, who told him it was more serious. Mackey had cancer.

He had surgery, and radiation dried his saliva glands. His teeth fell out. His face and neck were scarred and twisted. He lost feeling on his right side.

“I had one of my dogs sneaked into the hospital,” Mackey says. “My dogs needed me and I needed them.

“I got a second chance at life for a reason,” he says. “I came back to the sport of dogsled racing. I came back so I could discover Legend Car racing – there are a lot of comebacks in my life. I was born to race and I want to keep racing.”

A New Challenge

At a 2015 wedding, Mackey met Alaskan state INEX champ Al Trettel, who introduced him to auto racing.

“I always ask the same question - would you like to drive a Legend Car?” says Trettel.

Mackey jumped at the chance.

“It was about two weeks later he showed up at North Pole Speedway,” says Trettel. “I volunteered to help him get up to speed.”

Trettel took his new student through the basics of racing. He used the “egg on the gas pedal” scenario to teach throttle control. He taught Mackey how to drive with two feet, and how to properly brake for the turn and accelerate out.

“The first time in Al’s car, my heart raced - it’s hard to describe - one of those adrenaline rushes that is addicting,” Mackey says. “I only got that feeling when I was in a dog sled, being pulled by 16 dogs.”

Mackey convinced a doctor to cut off his left index finger since it had been without feeling since the cancer surgery and was just in the way.

At North Pole this year, Trettel and Mackey pit next to each other.

“I have a problem with my right foot - I want to put it through the floor,” says Mackey, laughing. “Seriously, I want to be competitive. I want to do well. That’s when I make mistakes.”

Becoming the Lead Dog

“I didn’t understand camber, caster, or ride height when Al first explained it to me,” Mackey says. “He has to be patient, telling me the same thing over and over.”

Mackey and Trettel explain that all Legend Cars are the same. The little things make a big difference.

“Driving is the difference,” Mackey says. “I study the competition - race drivers in cars are the same as mushers on a sled. They don’t tell you what they know, but they tell you what you know.”

Trettel explains to Mackey how everyone is using a certain spring rate that night. He looks at Mackey’s crossweight and tells him he couldn’t drive the car like that.

“Al is proud to be teaching me, his coaching is reflected in my results,” says Mackey. “When I outrun him from time to time, I’m smiling ear-to-ear.”

The two drivers go over a four-page setup sheet for Legend Cars.

“We put our heads together, and we figure what to do to make a problem go away,” says Trettel. “Lance is a great student—always paying attention, and always on time.”

Trettel explains that since he and Mackey race mostly at Alaska Raceway Park and North Pole Speedway, the state’s two paved ovals, there is a lot to learn when they venture to races on the state’s dirt tracks.

“We use lighter spring rates, a much higher ride height, and American Racer tires when we race on dirt - plus the tracks let us take our fenders off,” Trettle says.

With “Relax” painted on the dash, Al’s help, and an imitation dog tail flying from the rear of the roof, Mackey hasn’t taken long to move to the front of the pack. His Alaska Raceway Park win was his biggest yet.

Watching from the pit fence are Jenne with the couple’s son, Atigun, who is named for one of the toughest mountain passes in Alaska.

“I’m proud to be a poppa,” says Mackey. “Atigun loves his race cars.”

The dogs, however, will teach Atigun the most important thing about racing.

“Everyone likes to go fast,” Mackey says. “It’s better to be consistent and go the same speed. That’s how the Iditarod is won, and that’s how Legend Car races are won.”

Life Lessons from Dogs

Here are a few things Lance Mackey learned from spending hours alone in the wilderness with canine companions:

“Dogs live in the moment - they don’t care about anything in the past or worry about the future. I don’t put my goal ahead of me. I don’t go to a racetrack and say I want to finish in the top 10. If I finish 11th, then I’d feel defeated.”       

“The fastest team rarely wins - the best team always wins.”

“Expect the unexpected. You never know what will happen. Accidents happen. Illnesses happen.”

“Be patient. Listen and watch. See, learn, and process.”