By the numbers: Iditarod 51 to feature smallest field ever

FastCast digital headlines for Friday, March 3, 2023.
Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 2:47 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Downtown Anchorage will be filled Saturday morning with the din of howling dogs, laughing children, cheering spectators and mushers calling out to the teams.

By Sunday afternoon, however, the revelry will end and the real racing will begin with the race restart in Willow.

While the excitement has ramped up, the numbers have gone the other way. The 51st edition of the Last Great Race will feature its smallest field ever at 33 teams. It’s just one less than the inaugural running in 1973, when 34 showed up to make the trip to Nome.

Since the first race, the Iditarod has seen a progression in the record number of entries. The race saw 76 teams enter in 1991 and 1992, both records, before 81 teams showed up in 2000.

Numbers skyrocketed in the mid-2000s, culminating in 2008 when the record was set at an eye-popping 96 race teams, a mark that still stands today. That year’s race also set the still-standing record of 78 finishers.

Since then, the race roster has dwindled, but not dramatically.

Some racers blame it on a clash of factors, including a smaller prize purse, the loss of major race sponsors, and the lingering effects of the pandemic, according to an Associated Press report.

One former musher pointed to something else entirely — race officials shutting down checkpoints entirely and stopping teams short of their goal.

John Suter, a four-time finisher of the Iditarod who also owns a claim to fame of racing poodles in the Last Great Race over 35 years ago, said the Iditarod has shut down finish line operations, as well as other checkpoints along the trail, only a few days after the winning team crosses under the burled arch in Nome.

Suter claims race officials have done this to save money, but said it has deterred the “hobby” mushers — those racers who don’t have a lot of money and race the Iditarod just to claim they finished — from entering the race in the first place.

“They spend a whole year of training, a whole year of money — actually been doing it for years, building up and training for the opportunity to run from Anchorage to Nome — and are just a day or two away and they got shut down,” Suter said. “And they’re saying, ‘Well, what the heck, why should I waste all my time, energy, money and everything to sign up to run the race when I’m only going to go part way and they’re going to shut the race down?’”

Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach dismissed the notion that race officials are inhibiting race teams from finishing by shutting down checkpoint operations.

“Simply not true,” Urbach wrote in an email to Alaska’s News Source.

The numbers appear to agree with Urbach as well.

Discounting 2021, when the race ran a much different and shorter course, the finishing time of the last-place team since 2010 has ranged from just over 12 days to just under 15 days, with no clear dropoff in time. Before 2010, many last-place finishers typically ran above 15 days.

If saving money by forcing an earlier end to the race was truly a priority, as Suter claims, the savings would come in the form of hours, not days.