Success in sled dog racing depends primarily on two factors: The attitude, appetite and ability of the dogs, and the skill, strategy and stamina of the mushers. While “outsiders” tend to focus more on the mushers and “insiders” focus more on the dogs, they’re really quite equal in importance. A strong dog team with a weak musher will do no better than a strong musher with a weak dog team.
Some folks may nit-pick that I’ve over-simplified things, but I’ll stand by my basic assertion. It is the “alliance” between humans and canines that makes sled dog racing so addictive for participants and observers alike. It is the centuries-old survival partnership between them that makes sled dog racing a worthy celebration of shared history and, I believe, calls forth in us an instinctive passion.
Beyond the human-canine alliance as the key to success, honest mushers will admit that luck also plays a part. That luck mostly applies to things beyond control or even anticipation, things that don’t happen if you’re lucky and things that do happen if you’re not: Your dogs can pick up a stomach bug; your sled can hit a stump and break; you can fall off your sled and get a concussion. We’ve all seen these things happen and feel badly for the team, stuff which is arbitrary, random or just the way things go in a race. “Better luck next year” is all we can say.
While almost all of the “luck” happens in the race, one piece happens before it: The luck of the draw.
|Allen and Commando will be happy starting #6|
The bib/starting number which a musher picks out of a hat is a bit of luck that matters. With 38 mushers starting this year’s CB300 at the rate of one every two minutes, the first musher will start 74 minutes before the last. Each team will “give back” their portion of that lead — the “start differential” — at their mandatory 6-hour checkpoint rest as a way of making it all even in the end. That said, however, picking an early starting number has two subtle advantages.
First, an early starting position means that you have little, if any, traffic ahead of you. For speedy teams, that means very little passing needs to be done. This can be significant because passing is not as fast as free running. It takes a little time to pull up on a team ahead, signal your intentions, make the pass then move along. Think about what it’s like to pass a slower vehicle on a two-lane road. It takes time to accomplish before you can step on the gas again. Top teams which pick early starting numbers will be much happier with their luck than those who pick later starting numbers and have to work their way through the crowd.
Second, the earlier your start, the more “start differential” time you have to give back at your longest checkpoint rest. This is also an advantage for early starting teams because instead of getting only the 6-hour mandatory rest, they can get as much as an extra hour-plus of rest. That extra rest is all to the good for a dog team. So, again, early starters will be happier with their luck of the draw. These are slight, subtle advantages, but every little bit helps in a highly competitive race like the CB300.
I’ve often contemplated whether there are ways to take the luck of the draw out of the racing equation. The only thing I’ve ever come up with is to have a mass start where every team charges from the line at the same time. Having seen first-hand how chaotic a race start can be — and the lack of room to maneuver at most races — I don’t see how that’s a workable solution.
If you’ve got a better idea, have at it in the comments… Go SPK!