Cancer claims Iditarod champion Rick Mackey. His father and brother also won famed Alaska race

May 15, 2024, 1:30 PM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Rick Mackey, the winner of the 1983 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, has died of lung cancer, his daughter told The Associated Press Wednesday. Mackey, who died Monday, was 71.

The Mackey name is closely tied to the history of the Iditarod, the grueling race that takes mushers and their dog teams 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) across the Alaska wilderness to the finish line on the Bering Sea coast. Rick’s father, Dick, won the race in 1978, and his late brother Lance won an unprecedented four straight championships from 2007 through 2010.

Rick Mackey was diagnosed with lung cancer two weeks after his brother died of cancer in September 2022, according to Rick Mackey’s daughter, Brenda Mackey.

All three Mackeys won their first Iditarod in their sixth attempts, and all wore the bib No. 13.

“It felt pretty profound, honestly, that my dad died on (May) 13th,” Brenda Mackey said. “You know, it seemed pretty fitting.”

Rick Mackey was born in Concord, New Hampshire, on May 1, 1953, and moved with family to Alaska in 1959.

Before the first Iditarod in 1973, Brenda said her father asked Dick Mackey for a dog. “My grandpa got him a dog, and then he got two more dogs,” she said. Soon, they were spending weekends at sled dog races — Rick racing on Saturdays in junior events and Dick Mackey in adult races on Sundays.

Rick met his future wife, Patti, at a 1973 community gathering to prepare Dick Mackey to run in the first Iditarod.

Their love and the start of what is now the world’s most famous sled dog race have been intertwined from the start. She and Rick handled dogs at the start of the 1974 Iditarod. He ran his first race a year later.

“We were both very good with dogs, so it was a pretty good match,” Patti Mackey said.

They married in 1977. Brenda was born a year later, and son Roland was born in 1996.

When not racing, Rick and Patti Mackey ran their own kennel and bred dogs. Not only does she consider her husband the best musher, but he was also an “incredible” trainer, she said.

“This man could train a dog team, he just had a real rapport with those dogs,” Patti Mackey said. Her husband twice won the Iditarod’s Humanitarian Award for exceptional dog care.

“All through our life, we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to have that kind of lifestyle and bring our children up in an environment that not too many people get the privilege” of experiencing, she said.

Rick Mackey participated in 22 Iditarods between 1975 and 2004, notching 13 top 10 finishes, including coming in second in 1994 behind four-time champion Martin Buser.

Mackey is one of six mushers who have won both of the 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) sled dog races in North America, the Iditarod and the now-defunct Yukon Quest International Sled Race between Alaska and Canada. Lance Mackey also is among those six.

In the 1999 Iditarod, “All My Children” actress Susan Lucci won an auction to be an Iditarider, or the person who rides in a musher’s sled during the ceremonial start in Anchorage, and rode in Rick Mackey’s sled for the 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) leisurely jaunt through the streets of Alaska’s largest city.

Rick Mackey’s greatest accomplishment was his family, his wife said.

“He loved dogs, he loved racing, but bottom line, nothing else mattered more than his children and me,” she said. “He was just very kind.”

His racing career slowed down as he aged, and he and Patti took school district jobs in Nenana, a community about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southwest of Fairbanks. He led the maintenance and custodians for 17 years before retiring.

The family is tentatively planning services for Memorial Day weekend.

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Cancer claims Iditarod champion Rick Mackey. His father and brother also won famed Alaska race