From Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --
If you get a chance to talk Iditarod with Dick Mackey, take it.
The guy was there at the beginning. His 1978 photo-finish with Rick Swenson is getting enshrined in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame tonight, and he raised two future champions, including three-time winner and reigning champ, Lance.
Here's an edited interview with Dick at an Anchorage hotel yesterday. Mackey, who splits time between Alaska and Arizona, wore an Iditarod finisher belt buckle and a 2009 Las Vegas bull-riding championships T-shirt. Among the topics we talked about: His sons' victories, PETA ("Those people are just insane"), and how the business of mushing has changed.
Check it out:
Q. Where does the story of the photo finish start? Is it with the start of the race — or is it all about the final sprint at the end?
A. In 1976, the first year that Rick Swenson — he was a rookie that year, the first year that he ran, we traveled together some. And then in ’77 we traveled together quite a bit.
He was the young guy, I was the old man and we enjoyed each other’s company. And I thought he was a great up-and-coming musher and he regarded me as the old veteran, you know? And lo and behold if he didn’t win, in 77.
So in ’78, we just joined up together, just because of the position we were in at the Rohn checkpoint, and our teams were very comparable to each other ...
We ended up at the same checkpoints. We camped on the trail together. And we challenged each other and checked each other out. And as the race progressed, we got to Unalakleet.
And we pretty much decided that we’re not going to be quite so friendly: ‘You go your way and I’ll go mine.’ … Not in a bad situation. But we were competing. And by the time we got to White Mountain, we were dead serious. We weren’t quite so friendly at the moment.
And then we ran into a bad storm.
We forgot all about racing, and worked to keep our teams going. And at one point, it got pretty dicey. And we thought ... ‘maybe this is going to be tough.’
And so I might go a mile in the lead, then he might go a mile in the lead. And first one team would stop, then the other team would stop.
When we got to the Solomon checkpoint, I mean we were at the height of the storm and it was bad. And Swenson said, you know, ‘This is crazy, we’re going to die out here.’
And I said, hey, we can make it another 15, 18 miles — I had lived and worked in the area and then flown a lot in the area. And I suspected that before we got to Cape Nome, we’d be out of that storm. And sure enough we did.
And now we’re just tail to tail from each other. And we knew Nome was going to experience a finish that they had never seen before. And that’s exactly what happened.
Did you plan on traveling together earlier in the race, or was it really a matter of – I can’t really get away from this guy?
A. At that point we weren’t trying to get away from each other. If you’ve got two teams and two guys that get along, I think it helps. Or it did back in those days anyway.
It just worked that way. He couldn’t get away from me. I couldn’t get away from him. He had better leaders than I did. And when the trail, when it was tough following the trail, then I conveniently let him lead the way, and when it was perhaps more easier, then I led the way.
And our personalities were different. Our ages were different. You know, he’s 20 years younger than I am. I had more racing experience. I put more of my time into the organizational part of it rather than, rather than perhaps training the dogs as I should have. And finally in 1978, I just made up my mind that I was going to train a little bit better and my team was certainly veterans and seasoned, perhaps to the point where I wouldn’t be able to be competitive after that.
And so I concentrated on it, and pulled it off by one second.
When did it turn into a sprint?
A. It was more of a stumble bumble finish. When we left, we stopped at Hastings of all things. Just as it was breaking daylight and we had got out of the storm. And I can’t remember the fella’s name that lived in a cabin there. But he hollered to us and we went in and had coffee.
Well, you know, you step into a cabin with all that gear on, and the next thing you know, you’re just relaxing. It’s a wonder you can stand up again.
All of the sudden I let out a yell and I said, ‘Hey, we’ve been here 40 minutes.’ Which was an eternity. And out the door we went.
It was still just Swenson and I. … He was young and thought he had his second wind in the pocket. And I was just as determined that maybe it was my turn to win.
And so we came down Front street. We started down Front street off the sea ice, literally together. And he got tangled up with a school bus that was parked in the street. My dogs went over on to the sidewalk.
So we both had to get untangled to get straightened around again. And I lost track of him. At one time I turned around I probably was 300 feet ahead of him.
And my dogs got tangled in a photographer’s tripod. And so I mean we’d been, this last mile, coming down the street, we’d been pushing hard against each other. And so I had to go up and pull my dogs away from the tripod. And I don’t know what he was doing. … As soon as I knew that my dogs had crossed the finish line before his, well as soon as I saw that, I went to flop into my sled, and I missed it and fell on the ground.
And of course everybody thought I’d had a heart attack or whatever.
They tried to make a controversy out of the finish because under the Nome Kennel Club rules, from way back in sweepstakes days, you had to have your dogs, a sled and a driver go across the finish line. And every other race anywhere, other than Nome, all you had to do was break the plane of the finish line. …
Was it a controversy between you guys? How did you deal with it among yourselves?
A. No… as soon as Rick’s dogs crossed the finish line, he stopped and sat in his sled, OK. And someone congratulated him. And he says, ‘For what, coming in second?’ So he knew. And then, after the moment, he actually got up and pushed his dogs and sled entirely across the finish line. But it didn’t do any good.
What were you and Swenson saying to each other at the end there?
A. Well now, let me make sure you know this. Rick Swenson and I are good friends. But you have to remember, he was the defending champion. He was young, brash, had a good ego. But I guess we’ve all got egos. I think if you reach the top of your profession, you have to have some kind of drive to do that. And he was pretty well set that he was going to win this race.
And I was just as determined that maybe I was going to. And as we came up on to Front Street. He actually turned to me and said, ‘Now if you stay right there, we’ll be first and second, kay?’
And I thought, ‘Well, bullcrap.’ You know?
I mean, it may end up that way, but you’re going to have to earn it. And a fight was on. (laughing.)
But you know, he could have just as well crossed the finish line a second in front of me, as I did him. Our teams were — there wasn’t an ounce of difference between them. He could have took my dogs and I could have taken his dogs and who knows?”
On his legacy:
A. My bragging is on having four sons who have completed the Iditarod. Two of which have won it. And a daughter who was in to mid-distance racing and I think the Copper Basin was the longest race that she competed. And unfortunately, we lost her five years ago.
You know, this is an amazing thing. I drew bib No. 13. and started out with 16 dogs. Finished with eight on my sixth attempt. Rick drew bib No. 13, started with 16 dogs. Finished with eight on his sixth attempt.
Lance: Bib No. 13. Sixteen dogs, finished with eight on his sixth attempt.
It’s just Amazing.
What do you make of that?
A. It’s just amazing. All the stars came together. What else can you say?
On the dogs he and son, Rick Mackey, used to win the '78 and '83 Iditarods
A. Actually the year I won in ’78, I had six of dogs. And when he won in 83, he had six of my dogs.
… Lance has today one dog, only, that is a direct descendant of dogs that I had.
On the modern business of mushing:
A. Susan Butcher and her husband, Dave, I think were the first ones that decided you can make a livelihood off of this. And they went at it very methodically. David setting it up, because he was a good musher before Susan ever started.
Together, they made a livelihood out of it. And now there are others that do, (to) varying degrees. Whether it’s actually racing or whether, for instance, it’s like Linwood Fiedler with his deals up on the glacier or Mitch Seavey with his dog rides and that type of thing.
… There’s a bunch of them now. You know, Jeff King and Martin Buser, a whole bunch of them. They don’t have to actually go punch a time clock anymore either. And it’s become more popular, giving tours wherever, however.
Where do you think Lance fits now in the legacy of Iditarod contenders?
A. Right now he’s at the top of his game worldwide, I would say. It isn’t only that he’s won three times in a row. Susan won three times in a row. Doug Swingley won three times in a row. You’ve got Martin and Jeff that have won four times ... You’ve got rick Swenson, the only five-time winner.
Lance’s top of the game is the fact that he won four Quests in a row. Three Iditarods in a row. And two of those were the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year with essentially the same team. No one’s ever done that and I suspect no one ever will again.
Then there’s another side to this thing. You have to remember that he did this in a very short period of time under probably the most adverse conditions, that few know. I mean, we watched him week after week on his death bed and to come back and do what he has done is just absolutely unbelievable.
When his health was that bad, did you want him to get back out there and race?
A. I think it was the only thing that kept him alive, actually. His sister and his wife both used to sneak dogs into the hospital, you know. And his sister at one time was driving a limo here in town and Tonya (Lance’s wife) and her would sneak Lance out when he got feeling a little better, along with a dog, put him in a limo and take him around town for a tour and then sneak him back into the hospital.
I’ll ask Lance this also, but how many more Iditarods do you think he’ll compete in?
A. I don’t know. He’s got some health issues that are lingering from way back then. And they seem to be bothering him more and more. And that’s just a decision that he’s got to make.
On criticism of the race:
A. You take an outfit like PETA. You can’t have a rational conversation to someone that is not rational. And they’re not rational. They know not what they’re speaking of. And it’s people that say, ‘Oh you make these dogs run.’ You don’t make a dog run. You can’t make a dog run. One thing that you learn quite rapidly about a dog: It has a built in safety factor. When it gets to the point where it’s had enough, it will lie down, and nothing will stand it up again to make it go. Nothing.
That period where sponsors were pulling out, has that come and gone?
A. Now it’s economics, it’s not a philosophy-type thing. ‘Should you or should you not?’
You shouldn’t catch and release fish according to PETA … Pretty soon you shouldn’t slap a mosquito because it has feelings. Those people are just insane. They do not have a clue. Not a clue.
On the way over, I was looking at the photo finish. Will there ever be another guy crossing front street with a whip in his hand?
A. No, because it’s outlawed. The thing of it is, Swenson has put his back in the sled bag before he got to the finish line. I still had it in my stupid hand. All it was was to get their attention. After that, they went to jinglers. You know, you didn’t use it as a weapon. You used it as: Now we mean business, type of thing, when we cracked that, you know? And most of the mushers carried whips. It was a traditional type thing, you know? Certainly won’t be seen again.
How many dogs do you have now?
A. One. A Brittany Spaniel.
What’s his name?
A. Her name is Jenna.
How would she do on the trail?
A. Not very well, but she’s a hell of a bird dog.