Race marshal messes with Mackey’s mind

EAGLE, ALASKA Lance Mackey was fined $500 for blocking the Yukon Quest trail. At the Scroggie Creek dog drop, he missed the parking area and wound…


Lance Mackey was fined $500 for blocking the Yukon Quest trail.

At the Scroggie Creek dog drop, he missed the parking area and wound up with dogs on the race route.

Hugh Neff followed him and both mushers camped on the trail.

“We didn’t think we’d still be there by the time another team came by,” said Mackey.

The reigning champ was just about to leave when Gerry Willomitzer and William Kleedehn showed up.

Mackey apologized and helped run their teams past.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” he said.

“It wasn’t a big deal until they got in front of people who it needs to be a big deal for.”

Kleedehn filed an official protest in Dawson.

But Willomitzer didn’t get around to it.

“If I file one, will he get fined another $500?” he asked McCowan with a laugh.

Willomitzer’s team wanted to camp on the straw, and it took a lot of convincing to get them by, he said.

The whole experience slowed down his next run.

“I would not have been able to get my team past those guys on my own,” added Kleedehn.

The rules say a driver will clear the trail, and they were camped there, so they were fined, said McCowan.

“It wasn’t a serious situation, but it was an obstruction.”

McCowan told Mackey they wanted a four-hour penalty, or $500.

The time-penalty remark was a joke, said McCowan.

But sleep-deprived and focused on racing, Mackey didn’t get it.

“Four hours is what they needed to get their lead back,” he said in Eagle.

“So if they want a four-hour penalty, I’ll beat them by eight hours.”

McCowan argued Mackey knew he was joking about the time penalty.

“And if he didn’t — good,” said McCowan with a laugh.

“Iditarod people make fun of the Quest people because of the ineptness of the people in charge,” said Neff, who was also fined.

After hearing about the fine from an official, Neff approached McCowan for confirmation.

“I had to go ask him about it,” he said.

“He didn’t even bother to tell me.”

Sebastian Schnuelle was surprised when he heard about the official complaint and fines.

“We shouldn’t do this to each other,” he said shaking his head.

Neff wanted to know where the fine money went.

It shouldn’t go back to the Quest, otherwise the marshal could start fining mushers to help fund the race.

It should go to charity, he said.

“Is McCowan coming up with this stuff in his head, or is it in the rules?” added Neff.

There is a rule, 31b, which allows the marshal to withdraw mushers from the race at his discretion.

It states: “A team may be involuntarily withdrawn from the race by the race marshal. This decision would be made to protect the dogs, the driver or the event itself, and does not imply deliberate misconduct or rule violation.”

The rule basically says the marshal can do what he wants, said Neff.

McCowan applied rule 31b in Dawson when he withdrew Alaskan rookie J.T. Hessert.

The 24-year-old musher didn’t have a handler, but had found people to take his dropped dogs.

His truck was not in Dawson when he arrived, but was coming that same night.

And his dog team looked fine.

“It had nothing to do with dog care,” said McCowan at the time.

“They are trying to mold us mushers to all fit the same bill,” said Neff, who feels sorry for Hessert.

John Schandelmeier has run this race at least twice without a handler, he said.

And there are handlers this year who are managing two teams.

Hessert didn’t have a tent set up in Dawson, but neither did Schandelmeier, who thinks it’s bad for the dogs.

There was no reason to kick him out, said Neff.

Hessert, who’s filing an official protest, is continuing with the race.

And a number of mushers support his decision.

“It seems like McCowan is just coming up with this stuff in his head,” said Neff.

Hessert had a handler for the second half of the race, and she showed up in Dawson with the truck.

“It all worked out according to plan, except for being withdrawn,” said Hessert, munching spaghetti in Eagle.

When he got to the Eagle checkpoint, Hessert’s food-drop bags had been cut open, and everything was gone except for the dog food and meat.

“I guess there’s a rule they can take your stuff if you’re withdrawn,” he said.

Hessert asked around and got his spare batteries and dog booties back.

Vets at the checkpoint, who watched his team come in, said they looked good.

And if Hessert needs any help, the vets are willing to give it, they said.

“It’s a public trail, no one can stop him from using it,” said McCowan.

But if Hessert ends up dropping a dog, he’ll have to pay for it.

Hessert, who’s finished the Iditarod, decided to run the Quest to “see what it’s all about.”

And it’s a beautiful trail, he said.

“But the race marshal is a problem.

“There’s a clause in the rules that say he can do what he wants.

“But there were no grounds to have me withdrawn.”

There were so many other ways it could have been dealt with, said Hessert, who was told to sign the withdrawal form as soon as he pulled into Dawson.

“I told him I had a handler coming, but he didn’t care,” he said.

“People don’t realize how much of our hearts and souls and minds we invest into this race I wish they’d respect us a little bit more,” said Neff.