(originally posted 5/9/2013)
I realize that sports purists are always going to have a problem when rules are changed but I don’t think anyone can argue that the decision to allow more than 16 dogs to pull the sleds at the Iditarod was a brilliant one. It instantly went from an obscure event to a ratings blockbuster. The reason for all the excitement is as strange as it is unbelievable.
Here is the physics behind it.
An unencumbered sled dog can run at speeds of up to 31 mph. A fully loaded sled brings that number down significantly but the more dogs you have pulling it the faster they can move. The interesting thing is because their gait can be manipulated by a good “musher” a well balanced team can exceed the original 31 mph. The more dogs, the faster the sled can go. Sleds with 50+ dogs have been clocked at over 300 mph and in Anchorage it is not uncommon for a sled to apply the brakes a little too late and end in Cook’s Inlet. In fact the harbor is choked with canine bones and rotting harnesses. They have to use one of those icebreakers just to get big ships in.
Back in the day nobody outside Alaska had the attention to pay attention for the 8, 9 or 10 days it took to finish the race. Now with the dog restriction lifted the 1,000+ miles can easily be covered in an afternoon. Of course PETA has been whining a bit due to the unusually high number of sled crashes but what is it they say about making omelets? I think it has to do with how many times I make reference to making omelets. Anyway, the crashes rival those in NASCAR, but the thing that puts the race on the map are the way that the dogs burst into flames.
As I mentioned, the “mushers” are able to bring the teams to speeds that they normally couldn’t (or, if you listen to evolution, weren’t supposed to) achieve and occasionally a dog will fall out of step with their peers and the friction of their claws dragging against the ground will cause a spark which quickly ignites the bumbling hound.
You want to talk about a canine train wreck. More people watched the last Iditarod than the Super Bowl.
Another nice thing about the race is that unlike horse racing, where you have to stick a creepy little man on top of the horse, given the sheer number of dogs pulling the sled it doesn’t really matter what size the “musher” is. Winners of these races can actually become celebrities and endorse products without making everybody uncomfortable with their diminutive stature.
The best part about it is now there are multiple races held. No longer is it a sport where only huskies and malamutes take part. Sure, they run in the ‘big’ race but under the guidance of the folks from the Westminster Kennel Club there are races held for each classification of breed. Footage of the spectacular wiener dog pile-ups is TV gold. Every weekend in the winter is another opportunity for fans of the Iditarod to appreciate the thrills of dogsled racing while soaking in the beauty of Alaska. It’s nothing short of a national obsession and copy-cat races have sprung up around the country. Posters of brave “mushers” have replaced those of football and basketball stars on the walls of impressionable kids across the country and sponsors who have never before been interested in sports have stepped forward with big bucks to promote their pet-related products. Alpo forked over a ton of money so they could have the winner of the wiener dog race smile at the camera wearing his medal draped around his neck, bark enthusiastically at the bowl of beef and chicken placed before him, wink and then have the words “I eat Alpo, I am a wiener!” appear under his mug.
Truly a win-win for everyone involved.
Except maybe the dogs. Especially the wiener dogs that seem particularly flammable.