Using a combination of Teton Valley tough and Minnesota nice, Tim Heffron finished the infamous Iron Dog snowmobile race as a Polaris ambassador.
With a course that spans more than 2,600 miles through the Alaskan backcountry, Heffron and his team of nine have mastered “the longest, toughest snowmobile race in the world” at the end of last January.
Heffron ran the course in the Iron Dog’s Ambassador class. Racing also has a more competition-focused Pro class.
“It’s a chance to give average people the opportunity to race the course,” Heffron said. “We followed the Ambassador class, which is grouped into the Expedition class. We brought together ambassadors from Polaris and Klim, and there were also former champions who came.
The group, without the pressure of running the course, was able to soak up the experience and visit local communities along the way.
“Our goal was to promote racing, promote snowmobiling and promote safety along the way,” Heffron said.
The group stopped in rural villages, gave safety-focused speeches, and handed out helmets and other materials.
“It’s really the only opportunity these kids have to have a helmet. It was really cool to be a part of it,” Heffron said.
Heffron, originally from Teton Valley, now lives in Roseau, MN, where Polaris is headquartered. His role as Validation Supervisor involves being responsible for a team that performs testing and shapes testing processes for the company’s snow division.
While trying to get back for hunting season and vacations, Heffron is also forced to ride through town when testing sleds across the country.
“I always love coming back there, it’s never enough,” Heffron said. “We always try to get back there, especially for the elk season. Archery, Christmas with the family, we also test our mountain sleds in the Rockies in a few places.
The Iron Dog itself presents a great opportunity to put sleds through their paces, with data collection and feedback on Polaris’ current lineup being one of the main reasons it went racing.
“I had a bunch of data acquisition tools on several sleds up there, which was one of the main reasons I was going on the trip. Collecting data and feeding it back into the design first-hand and testing our sled is a big deal,” Heffron said.
The particular machine Heffron rode, a 2022 Polaris XCR 850 (136-inch track), was heavily shaped by racing and the terrain of the northernmost state in the United States.
“If you look at our production XCR, you see a lot of parts that were designed, developed and tested specifically for Iron Dog and Alaska,” Heffron said.
Heffron’s passion for snowmobiles is so pure that he remembers the first time he was really exposed to a snowmobile.
“I attribute my real snowmobiling beginnings to a 4-H project, where we had a natural resources project where we trapped and tracked wolverines. The way we did this was primarily our snowmobiles. That’s really how I got involved and that passion grew from there,” Heffron said.
This deep rooted appreciation will grow as Heffron matures. He spoke at Teton Valley about developing his driving skills and how that would lead him to a role in the motorsports industry.
“Living in the mountains is a natural progression to mountain riding,” Heffron said. “As I grew up, my interests aligned with mechanical engineering. My first and last year [of college] it kind of clicked for me that I could work in the powersports industry and be a mechanical engineer.
This would lead him to the small town in Minnesota where Polaris was founded. Roseau is about 10 miles south of the Canadian border.
Heffron has spent the past eight years with Polaris and now oversees the processes for some of Polaris’ flagship models, such as the RMK, Patriot Boost and RMK Matryx.
Being right in Polaris’ main assembly plant helped prepare the freshly built sleds for racing.
“Being tied to the factory, the time frame in which we were able to pull the sleds off the production line, pass the technical checks and make the few changes we made was very quick,” Heffron said. “We even rode a hundred miles on these four sleds as a shakedown. It really helped us prepare the snowmobile.
“We had to stud the track, then we reassembled the torsion springs of the suspension and changed the hyfax (which protects the pad of the snowmobile). Other than that, the sleds were bone,” Heffron said.
This level of preparation is crucial for the success of the hike. As one can imagine, the Iron Dog course has major demands on the rider and the machine. The start phase of the race featured a ride that was once familiar to Heffron while living in Teton Valley.
“The first days were this kind of mountain pass, all singletrack, hundreds of kilometers of tight trees. It was like any single track trail I’ve hiked growing up in the mountains,” Heffron said.
After crossing the alpine, Heffron would experience descending the Yukon River until reaching the western regions leading to Nome.
“There was a good part of the river flowing over the Yukon. As you approach the coast it opens up to some grassland, so you can go a lot faster, provided the light is right,” Heffron said.
The wide variety of terrain to cover is enhanced by Alaska’s propensity for weather conditions of all kinds. Heffron said while a warmer year, 2022 also brought lots of snow.
“We dug a track two to three feet deep a lot of the way. It was a bit unusual because the areas, buffalo tunnels and farewell fire that are usually blown by the wind had good cover for us,” Heffron said.
“There were a lot of people stuck. We were doing a lot of ski pulling. It can get overwhelming,” he added.
Besides the snow, the “hot” temperatures presented the challenge of tricky river crossings.
“We had a day on the Yukon River section that was 25-30 degrees below, but mostly it was pretty warm. Zero to 20 degrees above, and even some sections where we encountered freezing rain,” Heffron said. “There was a section of the river crossing where one team didn’t make it, so we stopped and helped get the sled out of the river. We had the sled rip off the trail and helped drain the water from the water intake and motor.
This wide variety of weather conditions requires ready-made gear hacks and kit items.
More so in the colder years, but also in the cold sections, riders tape their faces to protect themselves from frostbite and wind chills that can hit the negative triple digits while riding. They also wear what are called “bunny boots”, vacuum-insulated all-white shoes to keep feet warm and dry in extremely cold and wet weather.
“I’m not normally someone who likes to tape my face, there was a day when I did. It was fine what I did, but I’m not convinced it made me saved my life,” Heffron said. “But it was a hot year. If we had more days of 40, 50 below like in the past, I would have recorded a lot more.
With the exception of the nine-member Ambassador Group, all teams run the course in units of two people and two sleds for safety reasons.
Disregarding race length and location, that means twice as much logistical prowess is required to even get to the start, and from there to the finish.
“For a normal two-person crew under 48, they are responsible for getting the sleds to Alaska. They must then arrange for them to be unloaded and reassembled if shipped in crates. From there, runners are responsible for trying to find accommodation,” Heffron said. Fuel is provided to riders, but at a high cost (over $10/gallon) as it is flown in from remote areas.
The Ambassador class had their logistics taken care of by the race, even covering the cost of shipping the sleds. Having the race president on the ride never hurts either.
“Iron Dog has really stepped up and been a tremendous help to us,” Heffron said. “They took care of bringing the sleds to Alaska. The logistics of where we stayed, which was taken care of primarily by Roger Brown, the president of the Iron Dog. He took care of most of the day-to-day logistics. It was phenomenal.
The group even had their own bush plane that followed them the whole way. Talk about a quintessentially Alaskan experience.
Perhaps the only thing that impressed Heffron more than the race was the Alaskan villagers he encountered along the way.
The passion seems to stem from the intimate connection that snow transport has with the peoples of interior Alaska.
“What stood out to me the most about Alaska were the people in the villages where we stopped. The passion they have for all racing and snowmobiling is just phenomenal,” Heffron said. . “It’s not a weekend like in the lower 48s. It’s a tool and the only way to get around in the winter.”
Heffron was surprised by the level of familiarity the Alaskans had with their machines.
“If we had any problems with our sled, they would come up to us and say, ‘I have a sled that you could get the part out of, we’ll fix it later so you can hit the trail.’ They know exactly what they are doing and are always ready to step in and help. I didn’t expect this level of eagerness and enthusiasm,” Heffron said.
When the Iron Dog passed through each village, their people treated the occasion like a vacation. It even offered the hospitality the Midwest, Minnesota is known for its money.
“That was by far my favorite part of the whole place. Everybody came out of school to come see us, and we gave them stickers and signed autographs, which is crazy,” Heffron said. “Minnesota nice might be in trouble with some of the niceties that some of these people have.”
“I have to be very grateful for everything they did.”