The Brent Sass disqualification is major news and not just because it removes a serious contender from the race. A larger issue is why Iditarod has such a rule in the first place.
Two way electronic communication is not allowed on the race. The discussion concerns whether such communication gives an advantage to some racers who receive such information. Not having raced in the cell phone era I can only speculate but I assume some small advantage can be gained when cell phone service is available. That of course is only part of the time usually near villages. A racer could learn what the competition is doing and also weather or trail information.
Reliable sources have told me that a significant number of racers used cellphones in recent years even though they were banned. They did so without penalty apparently. This year the race officials announced they would harshly enforce the rule and Sass is the first victim. There are likely other devices on the trail but Sass used his openly as a music device forgetting that it was capable of texting with Wi-Fi in the checkpoint if such was available. One of the problems with this rule is the issue of detection. Cell phones could be buried deeply in a musher’s equipment and hard to detect. I suspect some racers are reconsidering their use of cell phones today.
Iditarod should use this opportunity to revisit the rule. Cell phones are everywhere and what is the harm in allowing racers to carry them? Keeping them charged must be a problem as well as finding a signal but racers use other modern methods to do better in the race. Improved sleds, clothing, dog gear, food, GPS trackers, all of these would have given pause to old time racers but each improvement was readily embraced by the racers.
No one likes to see a good racer sent home in mid race. With a huge mob of supporters in the Fairbanks area one can only imagine the anguish Sass fans share today. He recently raced in the Kuskokwim 300 and made lots of fans in the Bethel area as well. Incidentally that race allows cell phones and no one has suggested it has impacted competition.
Meanwhile a closely stacked field is making its way down the Yukon River. More on that aspect of the race later.
Myron Angstman is a veteran of the Iditarod and past champion of the Kuskokwim 300 and John Beargrease sled dog races. He practices law in Bethel, Alaska. For more dog race stuff, check his website at angstmanlawoffice.com