EGIL VS. BUDDY: THE BATTLE FOR THE 2006 OPEN CLASS CROWN

Attla 8 wins...Ellis 7 wins...Lombard 5 wins... History is Happening all the Time. Anticipation, expectations and excitement were high for the start of the 2006 GCI Open North American Championships. There is something about this race that brings out the best in our sport year after year. Is it the prize money? The crowds on 2nd Ave? The bragging rights? For sure, all of that and more lure the world’s best open class drivers to Fairbanks each March. This year was no different, yet a bit more special as we had the pleasure of watching the two heavyweights of our sport face off head to head in the premier open class event of the season. It was no secret that the “B-machine” was really rolling this year. With a deep field of dogs to choose from, a stellar race record so far this season and the experience of being the only other musher besides Ellis to win this race since 1999, confidence exuded from the Streeper truck in abundance. On the other side of the coin, the defending champ Ellis had not had a standout season so far, and to top it off his main leader of the last few years, his “turbocharger” as he calls him, Peavey was out of the team with a hind leg injury. The odds makers in Fairbanks, had Egil by a little, as was evidenced by the pre-race drawing calcutta, but astute observers knew better.Buddy and his dad, Terry Streeper, rolled into town with high hopes, being the only other musher besides Ellis to win this race since 1999, Buddy must surely have felt he had a good chance to win. Having spent the early part of the season racing open class in Minnesota and Canada, including a few races in Quebec, and losing only one race, the duo spent some time in Fort Nelson before this race to “fine tune” their team. And they came to compete. Like a bullet from a gun, Buddy’s team blasted from the chute on Friday to open up a 34 second advantage over Egil Ellis, and a 22 second lead over Eddy Streeper of Minnesota. Averaging 20 mph for 20 miles, the Streeper clan threw down the proverbial gauntlet and the show was on. I interviewed Buddy just before the start on day 1 and here is what he had to say: “It is going to be a good race, super conditions, cold temperatures, and fast trails. This is why we come to Fairbanks, to run with the fastest teams in the world. I’m going to run 22 dogs today, a mainly youthful team with only 3 dogs that are veterans of this race.” Buddy explains. When asked what his strategy was, if he was going to hold a big team like that back for the first part of the race, or just let them roll, Buddy lets us in on his plan: “I’ll be wearing my GPS, and if we start running faster than 20, I’ll start holding them back using the drag mat.” So 20 mph, that is what you are shooting for? Is that a winning pace? Buddy: “That is a winning pace”Egil, interviewed before the race denied being the favorite. “I don’t know that I’m the favorite. We chewed up some feet in Manley, and I’m without my main leader Peavey. I’ll be taking a team of mainly smaller dogs, most of the bigger males that are usually in my team are out with bad feet this year.” Egil explained.Last year saw the return to the race of Eddy Streeper, and Eddy was back this year with a year’s experience behind him, and a bunch of new dogs in the truck. Eddy’s infectious enthusiasm is always coupled with a good dose of reality. Starting with new leaders he was concerned with having to go under the bridges on the slough and the Chena River as he had problems there last year. Despite the attention and drama unfolding amongst the top 3 favorites, there were also some other teams that deserved attention and had a realistic shot at finishing strong. Neal Johnson from Minnesota was back after a few years away from the race, and perennial top finisher Bill Kornmuller from Willow, AK was back from a strong early season racing in Western Canada. Eric Lanser from Salcha, Alaska had actually beaten Egil in the first heat of the Exxon Open in Anchorage earlier in the year, and seemed to have a fast team.Day 1The first big surprise of the day came from a musher from Edmonton, Alberta. Mark Hartum had been here before, a few years ago. He quietly finished somewhere mid pack, went back home and has been planning his return ever since. No one paid too much attention to the musher who arrived with his wife and three small children in a motor-home hauling a dog trailer and snowmachine. This year, Mark sent out a signal loud and clear to all that he was for real, and would be one to watch in the future as he put down the 4th fastest time of the day. The second surprise of the day and of the whole weekend came from a rookie, and former limited class veteran Ken Chezik of Michigan. Ken finished in 6th position after day one, and ended up 6th overall after three days on the trail, winning him the rookie of the year award. Remarkably Ken had the 4th fastest time on the last day despite it being his first 30 mile run ever! Ken and wife Lori are long time veterans of 10, 8 & 6 dog limited class racing, and bring that winning know-how and dog knowledge to the table in open class. Is it possible that the very next open class contenders will be former successful limited class racers? Day 2The second day saw quite a bit of position changing. The first move saw Ellis pass Eddy Streeper by posting a day time almost 45 seconds faster for the day. They both ran 14 dog teams. Buddy Streeper dropping only 2 dogs from his 20 dog team, continued his speedy ways and racked up another 40 seconds over Egil’s day time to lead him by 74 seconds overall. Egil said his leader Bizzy was holding back a bit uncharacteristically, and it was causing his other leader Tina to lose a bit of confidence. When I asked him what he planned to do about it, he told me “I don’t know yet.”Mark Hartum had problems with a leader, had to load a dog, and dropped from his fairy tale 4th position to 9th, as Neal Johnson, Ken Chezik, Bill Kornmuller, Eric Lanser, and Rob Peebles moved in front of him. In a sign of things to come, Kornmuller had a strong run and finish, posting the 5th fastest time of the day. Neal posted the 4th fastest time of the day despite having to load a dog. Buddy finished the day strong and smooth and there was beginning to be little question as to who had the strongest team this weekend. Day 3It was business as usual as we all stood on 2nd avenue listening to the live radio broadcast, and watching the timers post splits to the large board in front of the crowd. The first noticeable thing was that Kornmuller and Reynolds were having really good runs, posting some of the faster checkpoint times. Two days of running at 20 mph didn’t seem to slow the leaders either. Egil and Buddy were running their usual 60 seconds faster than the rest of the field, and Buddy was continuing to best Egil’s checkpoint times by about 20 seconds. The FinishHaving live radio checkpoint coverage is both a blessing and a curse I suppose. A dog race is intrinsically hard to keep track of, and subsequently the reports that get filed are often as accurate as the weather predictions in Fairbanks. But when they broadcast that Buddy had loaded a dog somewhere shortly after the 9 mile checkpoint, we started to pay attention. Things started to get so interesting that I swear I saw a couple of patrons come out of the Mecca Bar and actually watch the race. Loading a tired dog into the bag should only take about 20-30 seconds at most by an experienced musher. Having 17 dogs left, as opposed to Egil’s 13, and a 74 second lead, this did not necessarily mean a disaster for the Streeper team. Still, a glance over to the truck saw a concerned look on Terry’s face. Terry knows first hand what it’s like to be winning this race after two days and losing that lead due to loading a dog. The next checkpoint times from the Creamers Field extension at approximately 13 miles, the half way point, would tell if Buddy was hindered by carrying the dog. Everyone listened intently. Because the last day of the race was a reverse start order, as all races should be, Egil was the first one through at 38:42. It was a good time, but didn’t mean anything until we got Buddy’s time - 39:04. All around the finish line you could see people trying to do the math in their heads. The first ones to realize the implications were the ones with stopwatches and clipboards like Terry Streeper and Christian Taveau. The rest of us were left to do the math in our heads. Without having to use my abacus or slide rule it was clear that Egil had chipped away at Buddy’s lead by 22 seconds, and that we had a real dog race on our hands.Surely Egil had to hear of his progress on the radio and just as surely the killer instinct that drives the quiet Swede had to boil to the surface a bit. It is one thing to have a strong dog team on day 3, it must be another to have that team, sense a small crack in your opponent, and smell a possible come-from-behind victory. At the next checkpoint, 21 miles into the race, Egil had the overall lead by 3 seconds. Could he hold the pace, or was Buddy’s team regaining its strength? Could 13 dogs hold on another 10 miles against 17 dogs with one in the bag? Yes, no and yes. Egil held his lead and finished strong and won his 7th championship here. To say that the freight train that Buddy was driving for 2 days became derailed is not quite accurate. There was no crash, there was no mutiny. Buddy still finished over a minute ahead of Kornmuller, whose own spectacular last day run catapulted him into third overall, and over 3.5 minutes faster than the 4th and 5th place finishers of the day Ken Chezik and Arleigh Reynolds. I spoke with Buddy after the race and he said his younger dogs just plain and simple got tired. Part of the bitter irony is that the dog Buddy loaded was a dog from Egil’s bloodlines and a littermate to his Peavey. At the banquet after the race, Egil said “this was my sweetest victory yet.” He also said “Racing against Buddy this weekend taught me something about myself, it made me dig deeper and think outside the box.” Buddy was equally in praise of Egil’s achievements, and we were all left with a sense that we witnessed a great race and, hopefully, the beginning of many to come. On a serious note about the race coverage, this year was perhaps one of the best announced races I can remember. Having expert communicative skills and mushing experience, Sherri Pristash provided insightful and interesting commentary throughout the race. Still I was left wanting more. The missing link between sprint racing and mass media is regrettably, still missing. We need to have live onboard footage, a live video broadcast of the action and a large screen (jumbotron) at the start for the spectators, coupled with professional production. Only then will the excitement, the adrenaline of being behind 22 dogs on a 20 lb dog sled be relayed to the public. When you think of the crap that is broadcast in the name of sport/reality on television these days, and forgive me if you watch poker, NASCAR, American Idiot Idol or any show that can be described as a reality show, none of it carries the excitement or drama potential of this sport. We just have to somehow, someway show it. ©2006 Sled Dog Sports Magazine, reprinted from the April 2006 issue

Mushing.com

PO Box 1394
Nome, Alaska 99762 USA

Phone: (907)434-1541

www.mushing.com