Last time you saw Todd Palin he was standing quietly by his woman on the campaign trail. Now meet him on his own terms, as an outdoorsman who competes in one of the toughest races on Earth.
Last time you saw Todd Palin he was standing quietly, uncomfortably by his woman on the campaign trail, as she got alternately pilloried and praised. Now meet him on his own terms, as a blue-collar outdoorsman who competes in one of the toughest races on Earth.
By Daniel Duane
Todd Palin is trying to scare me. That’s what I’m thinking, alone on a borrowed snowmobile in the fading Alaskan light, cold as hell by a frozen lake. I can barely see Palin and his racing buddy Scott Davis a quarter mile off, near a few stumpy trees. But I can hear them loud and clear, revving their two-stroke engines, circling in their Arctic Cat F6 snowmobiles, punishing the winter sky with an ear-splitting whine familiar to nature lovers everywhere. “Ride over to that point of land!” Palin had screamed at me over the engine roar a moment earlier, struggling to be heard. “Then turn around! We’ll do a speed run past you, let you feel how fast we go!” ¶ Little more than black specks now, obscured by their powerful headlights, the men turn toward me and charge. The wail gets louder and the headlights grow. Fifty mph, 60, 70, now less than a hundred yards away. Eighty mph, 90, on a bullet path right to where I’m sitting. He’s going to mess up and kill me.
I take some comfort in reminding myself that we are talking about the husband of a certain prominent Alaska governor. A 44-year-old father of five. Would he really risk vehicular manslaughter? But then again, he’s also a motorhead country boy whose favorite recreational activity — the big dream of each calendar year — is the Tesoro Iron Dog, the longest snowmobile race on Earth. It’s a mind-numbing six-day run across nearly 2,000 miles of extreme arctic wilderness. Palin has won it four times and might have won it again in 2008, partnered with Davis, if he hadn’t smacked into a half-buried oil drum on the frozen Yukon River while doing 60, shattering an arm. He doesn’t mind playing rough. Do I chicken out and dive onto the ice?
Palin bombs on by, and the air cushion pushes my face.
Davis now — a black lightning bolt.
My brain takes a few seconds to process what my eyes barely caught: two Alaskan buddies in black racing duds and black helmets, leaning way back on their padded seats, gloved hands gripping heated handlebars, as they blow by me at 100 mph.
It’s the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration, and Palin may well wish he were somewhere else — like, just for example, at the United States Naval Observatory in DC, taking the keys to the vice-president’s mansion from Dick Cheney — but you’d never guess that from seeing him out here on his Arctic Cat, a black plastic mask and goggles hiding that familiar mug and a ridiculous amount of horsepower under his ass.
We’re at Davis’s workshop, where the guys are tinkering with their machines three weeks before the 2009 Iron Dog. The wall-mounted flatscreen, tuned to Fox News, is showing the pre-inauguration festivities, while Palin works the trigger on a cordless DeWalt impact-driver.
Hell of a noise, like an assault rifle. Like the one carried by Palin’s 19-year-old son Track, who is home on leave.
“All I have to say about the campaign,” Palin says, eyes flickering to and from the TV, “is it was awesome, okay?”
A once-in-a-lifetime deal, see — being catapulted onto the national stage and traveling the country and seeing cities he never dreamed of seeing, watching his wife speak at the Republican National Convention and in front of adoring crowds at rallies, befriending John McCain, a bona fide war hero. These are the takeaway experiences Todd Palin would prefer to focus on, even as McCain insiders portrayed his wife as uncontrollable and blamed her for the campaign’s collapse.
“I’m not going to get wrapped around the axles on a few people’s comments — ‘She’s a diva,’ or whatever,” Palin says. “There was no name attached to that, so who knows if it’s really true. I mean, all the little negative stuff out there that’s been exploited? To me? I have nothing but respect for the McCains, because they’re a class act. And some people, the detractors, they get bent out of shape.” He shakes his head, as if disbelieving that even some of his own Alaskans would turn on his wife. “They’re so full of anger, you know? I mean, why wouldn’t anybody be proud of one of their citizens being nominated to the VP? Unless you’re just a real hater?”
A BlackBerry beeps on the workshop counter. The device’s wallpaper shows Palin’s baby boy Trigg — the one with Down’s — lying next to newborn grandson Tripp. It’s Sarah calling from Anchorage. So Todd answers and walks off across the shop, hunting for privacy.
“He’s busy. He’s way busy,” Davis tells me, watching his friend. “All the stuff that comes along with Sarah’s position…”
While his wife is out still doing relentless TV, shopping a book proposal, and forming a political committee that may be a precursor to a 2012 presidential run, Palin couldn’t have found a better spot to hide out than here at Davis’s place near Soldotna, 200 miles from the Palins’ home in Wasilla. Davis owns a major construction company with lucrative state contracts, and this building — a kind of gearhead paradise, Alaska Rich Guy Version — is the reward, with a 40-foot mobile home parked along one wall, a shiny four-wheel ATV, and room for Davis’s dozen snowmobiles, or, as the locals call them, “snowmachines.” Four new ones — identical Arctic Cat F6s — take up the main work area, two for Davis, a seven-time Iron Dog winner himself, and two for Palin. A huge part of the run-up to every year’s Iron Dog is the time these two buddies spend in the surrounding woods, hammering over bumpy terrain and then hanging out in this shop, making tweaks and changing out parts on their F6s.
“I’ve had days,” Davis tells me, “where I’ll wake up in the house at 6 am and walk over here in the dark and find shithead already sitting in his truck, waiting for me. That means he got at least a 2 am start out of Wasilla.”
Palin comes walking back toward us, still talking to Sarah on the BlackBerry. “I must have just missed it,” he says to her.
Grabbing the remote, he turns up the volume. Fox News personality Glenn Beck has apparently just told Sarah Palin she’s “one hot grandma” and then asked her if Obama will be her president too. (“Absolutely,” she responded. “We are all Americans.”)
But by the time Todd gets to the TV, the show has ended, and Fox has returned to footage of the emotional crowds in the capital.
“Lot of excitement in DC, huh?” Palin, now off the BlackBerry, says to me, sounding a bit wistful.
Yes, lots of excitement in DC.
He nods, then returns to work on the Arctic Cat.
Palin grew up in a place you can’t drive to. Dillingham, Alaska, a mostly Native American town of about 2,500 residents, sits on the shores of Bristol Bay, about 300 miles southwest of us, and you can’t reach it without a boat or a plane, which is probably why Todd Palin owns both — a 32-foot Modutech Marine and a Piper Cub. But as remote as Dillingham may be, it’s the epicenter of the world’s largest sustainable salmon fishery, and throughout Palin’s childhood there, he helped his Native American grandparents work their salmon boat, and even smoke and can the catch.
“Ever since I was a little kid I was down at the beach,” Palin tells me. “Full-time when I was probably 10 or 11 years old.” In 1981 his family moved to Wasilla, an hour from Anchorage. As a varsity high school basketball player, he met Sarah Heath, point guard of the girls team, future Miss Wasilla, future Miss Alaska second-runner-up, and, well, you know the rest. After high school Palin took over his grandparents’ fishing license and went to work for himself, carrying up to 10,000 pounds of salmon in his 22-foot open skiff. Sarah helped out enough to break a couple of fingers that got caught between boats. Todd took her straight ashore, dropped her off, and went back out fishing.
In 1988, Todd and Sarah eloped for lack of wedding funds. One year later they had their first child, a boy, naming him Track for the athletic season when he was born. (Sarah has said they’d have called him Hoop, if the timing had been right.) In need of steadier income, Palin picked up the other classic manly Alaskan job: hourly hand at the British Petroleum facility on Alaska’s North Slope, in Prudhoe Bay.
While Todd was putting in time in the oil fields, Sarah began running for, and winning, public office: Wasilla City Council in 1992; mayor of Wasilla in 1996; and, in 2006, governor. To avoid a conflict of interest, Todd took a seven-month leave from BP and became a sort of shadow governor, at least in the eyes of locals — lingering around the governor’s office, sitting in on her news briefings. And, of course, there was that nasty business with his allegedly trying to pressure government officials to fire a certain state trooper, the ex-husband of Sarah’s sister, who confessed to tasering his own 10-year-old stepson, and then Todd’s ignoring a subpoena when the Alaska state senate investigated Sarah’s own meddling in the matter.
But other than that, Todd Palin is considered mostly a background figure when it comes to his wife’s political life. “He’s more the chairman of her kitchen cabinet than a chief of staff busting heads,” says Matt Zencey, head of the editorial board for the Anchorage Daily News and a veteran observer of Alaska politics. “My sense is that his personality fits with his wife’s personality, and she’s not an arm-twister or a backslapper. She says what she thinks is right and expects others to fall in line.”
Whatever their similarities, Todd Palin in person has very little in common with the Sarah Palin we’ve all seen through the filter of television. Sarah, after all, has been seeking out popularity contests all her life: beauty pageants, aerobics contests, political campaigns. Todd, on the other hand, has quietly clung to a blue-collar life, and that’s exactly the way he comes off: soft-spoken, a taciturn regular Joe. When Palin returned to oil work in late 2007, he came back in the non-management hourly position he still holds, monitoring dials on giant industrial gas turbines — 35,000-hp compressors that help separate the messy mix of oil, water, and natural gas gushing up from the well pads. Factor in the hour-long commute flight in and out of Prudhoe Bay, and the one-week-on, one-week-off schedule Palin works, doing 12-hour shifts broken only by exercise in the company gym, meals in the company cafeteria, and sleep in the company dormitory, and you’re definitely not talking about some cushy do-nothing gig tailor-made for a politician’s spouse. You’re talking about a J-O-B, and one no man would keep unless it felt fundamentally like where he belonged.
It is a funny way to take a week’s vacation,” says Palin. We’re in his big 4X4 Dodge Ram pickup, driving from Davis’s place into town for lunch, and Palin is waxing on about his favorite subject: the Iron Dog. The truck has a 90-gallon tank of snowmobile fuel mounted behind the cab and a snowmobile strapped behind, hanging off the dropped tailgate. As he navigates the icy road, through snowbound forest, he tells me what he loves most about the race. “The dramatic parts are crossing the Alaska Range,” he says, “or when it’s 40 below and you’re on the Yukon River at night, and you can see the heat from the village where you’re going, one of your checkpoints. That always feels good.” But mostly, he says, the race is about grit and endurance, and dealing with the unexpected — like watching Dusty VanMeter, Palin’s old racing partner, hit a bad ice bump at 100 mph and go flying end-over-end with his snowmobile in 2001. “It’s a big puff of snow, and then you see sleds flying, and then your partner flying,” Palin tells me. “Dusty’s a tough cookie; he banged his shoulder, but he toughened up.” (“Just little fractures, nothing in two or nothing,” is how VanMeter later describes the injuries to me.)
As for his own big crash at last year’s Iron Dog, Palin says he had just avoided a tree at high speed when he hit the snow-covered metal drum. “All I saw could’ve been like a little stick on top of the snow. It tore off the whole spindle, shock, and arm.” The handlebars swung hard to the right, jamming into his groin as he got launched forward. “I went flying, and the biggest thing you want to do is to separate yourself from the snowmachine so you don’t get all bundled up and have the thing land on you. So then my sled’s all messed up, and Scott turns around and comes back and looks for me.”
Davis got Palin on the back of his own sled and sped off to the nearest checkpoint. Palin’s injuries weren’t life-threatening, and even with the busted arm, he finished the last 500 miles. “But I took my team out of the race,” he says, “so no matter how hurt I was, the pain was all the preparation that goes into these things, all the work.”
By that he means, in part, the physical conditioning. Fully loaded snowmobiles, packed with survival gear and spare fuel, can weigh more than 600 pounds, demanding huge upper-body and core strength in the rider. Racers spend hours on their feet, too, standing on the runners so their leg muscles can absorb the big bumps. Palin and Davis run and lift weights to get ready, and they spend a lot of time going fast in the woods on their machines, tuning up their reaction times and their comfort with low visibility and high speeds. And while other racers say that Palin isn’t necessarily the fastest rider in a flat sprint, that’s not the quality that typically wins the Iron Dog. It’s more a question of patience, focus, and steady determination.
VanMeter, who broke up the partnership with Palin seven years ago so he could ride for a different sponsor, says those are precisely the qualities Palin has in abundance. “One thing I’m missing about Todd,” VanMeter will tell me later, “we were both commercial fishermen, and when you’re a fisherman you got a certain amount of time to make money, and if something goes wrong you fix it. You don’t whine and cry. You just buckle down and get her done and get going.”
At the coffee shop Davis is succinct about why he and Palin make a good pairing now. “Todd hates to lead, and I hate to follow,” he says. “I hate the snow dust. I fucking hate it.” At the speed these guys go, a big plume comes off the back of a snowmobile, a tunnel of choking-black two-stroke smoke and ice crystals, pushing the follower as much as a mile or two back. “Out in front,” Davis says, “I get the benefit of when it’s clear on the river and I’m going a hundred. But I’m at higher risk of hitting something I can’t see. He gets the benefit of watching my taillight. He’ll see that light take a bump, and that lets him time his own impact.”
The waitress brings a tuna club to Palin, who suddenly spots a group of big men at another table. Nodding at them, Palin says to me, “Those guys are all slopers” — meaning they work the North Slope oil fields, just like him. “It’s way cool,” Palin says. “The rotating schedule lets you do a lot of different things.” And while Palin is the only sloper married to a governor who can affect the bottom line of the oil companies they work for, these guys clearly see Palin as one of their own. The first to approach, a nervous barrel-chested guy, asks if Palin knows a cousin of his, says they used to work together. Palin politely says that he absolutely does. Another guy, with his wife, pulls up a chair to join us, and it turns out the man is a retired sloper who owns a small plane and used to fly support for Palin’s race team. He and his wife say they’re going to fly the entire Iron Dog this year, just to watch.
Driving back after lunch, Palin is still thinking about the people we’ve met, how they represent the Alaska in which he lives. Pointing to a self-serve car wash, not much more than a cinder block shell with closed garage doors, he says, “See this guy right here? Car wash guy? He’s a sloper too. Worked on the slope, now he’s down here. Worked his butt off to get the first couple stalls.”
I ask him if he sees making a move like that, leaving the North Slope to start his own business. “We’ll see,” he tells me. “It’s a good job. It’s provided for my family for many years. Growing up, all I wanted to be was a fisherman, but I needed a good oil job to finance my fishing hobby.” He laughs. “It still makes money, but the days of being a full-time fisherman… It’s pretty tough.”
Palin stops at a red light. Another truck pulls alongside us and honks. Palin lowers the window and the other driver yells, “Hey, Todd, your snowmachine strap’s loose!”
“How come you untied it?” Palin yells back, laughing. “You trying to steal my snowmachine?”
Back in Davis’s workshop, under the bright fluorescent light, Palin gets to work on his snowmobile. He’s got the entire suspension removed from his sled, and he’s testing each and every bolt, to make sure it’s at just the right level of tightness. In the process, he opens up a little more about the campaign. He tells the story of how he and the family had to sneak down to Dayton for the big announcement of Sarah as the VP choice, at a Republican rally. The Secret Service, Palin says, brought them to a holding room where John McCain, with wife Cindy, came walking in and said, “All right, you guys ready?”
“Sarah and John had already talked,” Palin recalls, “and it’s like, no big deal, no instructions. We just walked on out there,” onto the big stage. After that, the family climbed aboard a campaign bus. “Then it’s like, ‘Here come the Palins!’ Kids and diaper bags and all this stuff, and Cindy’s all, like, ‘Give me that baby! Piper, get over there, get a bottle!’ ”
Palin brought down Davis and another buddy, four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser, to accompany him on the campaign. He figures it was a pretty sweet assignment for the Secret Service. “They liked cruising around with me,” he says, “because we went to the Arctic Cat snowmachine factory [in Thief River Falls, Minnesota] and then drove up to North Dakota, went to a Penn State–Michigan football game, went to a NASCAR race. Rough duty, hanging out with me.” Along the way Palin spent his 44th birthday signing autographs and posing for pictures among the 20,000 attendees at the 42nd Annual Hay Days Grass Drags north of Minneapolis, one of the largest snowmobile events in the world and the scene of mass snowmobile races on summertime lawns.
The campaign wasn’t entirely a picnic, of course. The Palins suffered a lot of embarrassments, and when I ask Todd about some of them, such as Sarah’s $150,000 wardrobe and the $40,000 in luxury goods Todd reportedly received, he becomes defensive. “That was out of our control,” he insists. “She never went to Saks, or any of that stuff. You come into a campaign late, you put all your trust into the team, you got people who are working on VP ops for a long time, and we’re just focused on debate prep. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about clothes. Please. I mean these are my Sunday go-to-meeting jeans! We’re just the opposite of all that, more like, ‘Man, you better clean up.’ Me, anyway.”
But he insists it was also just par for the political course. “You got to remember, it’s not like they just plucked us off the fishing boat with scales still under our nails, you know? My wife’s been in politics a long time. We’ve been through some tough campaigns.”
Just then the shop door opens and in steps a short, 40ish man in work boots, jeans, a green canvas Carhartt jacket, and a bill cap. It’s VanMeter, Palin’s old racing partner.
“Hey, Dusty!” Palin says. “What you limping around for?”
“Twisted my ankle getting out of my truck on the damn ice.”
Palin turns to me. “Dusty and I ran for three years in the Iron Dog before we switched partners.”
“Yeah, we traded in our exes,” Davis yells, from across the shop.
“Then our exes beat us!” Palin says.
“Yeah, the motherfuckers beat us!” Davis chimes in.
“You just driving through, Dusty?” Palin asks.
“Yeah, I got to work three days.”
Where? I ask.
“Oil refinery, down in Nikiski.”
“Hey, guys, I got to get going,” Palin says.
“You’re driving back tonight?” Dusty asks, wincing and shaking his head. “Boy, doesn’t that get old?”
Palin smiles and nods: Sure does. Then he opens the shop door and climbs into his pickup. A moment later he’s gone, facing four hours of nighttime driving alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
But of course, that’s nothing for him, a mere blip compared to the epic nighttime driving he’ll do a few weeks later, without the benefit of a cell phone, stereo, and heated cab. That’s when Sarah Palin herself will wave the 2009 Iron Dog starting flag outside Wasilla, sending Palin, Davis, and 34 other teams charging into some of the coldest weather that race has ever seen, with pockets of 60 below.
Palin and Davis, as it turns out, will hit early mechanical difficulties, struggle to catch up with the leaders, and finish in a disappointing sixth place.
“Hey, it was another fun Iron Dog race,” Palin will tell me afterward, trying to put a positive spin on it. “We had good trail conditions and good weather. Our rig didn’t work out this year, but like I say, I’ve been pretty successful. I never brag about myself, but just since 2000 it’s three wins and three second places, one fourth, and two sixth places.”
You can’t always be the winner, he seemed to say, but you can still enjoy the ride.
This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.