Chuckwagon racing 101: why it's OK to ask what a wheeler is

Calgary Stampede chuckwagon racing champion Kelly Sutherland explains everything you ever wanted to know about the chucks, but were afraid to ask.

12-time world champion Kelly Sutherland explains it all

Every horse can only race once at the Calgary Stampede per evening during the chuckwagon races, according to Kelly Sutherland, not pictured. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

If there's a godfather of Stampede chuckwagon racing, it's Kelly Sutherland.

The 12-time winner of the Calgary Stampede's Rangeland Derby has many other honours, and he retired following the 2017 season.

On Monday, he spoke to host David Gray on the Calgary Eyeopener to give listeners a backgrounder in chuckwagon racing terminology and its history

Q: What are the historic origins of chuckwagon racing?

A: The origins were pretty close to Calgary. They say [it] started with roundup teams of chuckwagons: actual cook wagons.

They'd go and thresh, and the different ranches would send teams to fields and of course when they were all done, they'd load all the pots, pans, all the stoves, everything, into the chuck wagon, and then race to the nearest saloon where the winner was hosted by the other two or three losers.

Q: I understand they used to load an actual stove. What do they load now?

A: When I started, we loaded an actual stove built out of a wooden frame. Each one was individually weighed. It was lead on the bottom, bolted in.

When you hit the water and mud, it was just unreal. Those things would come apart, and they wouldn't weigh 50 pounds, they would weigh 60 or 70 full of sand and mud.

World Champion chuckwagon driver Kelly Sutherland, left, reacts after being auctioned off during the annual Calgary Stampede Canvas Auction. Sutherland won the Stampede's lucrative Rangeland Derby chuckwagon race meet 12 times, before retiring in 2017. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

For safety, it was changed, because a lot of guys were running over them, or they were collapsing and falling apart.

Now, there are basically two rubber feed tubs bolted together that are collapsible. If one bounces out or is missed, it doesn't create a safety issue during the race.

Q: What is the relationship between chuckwagon drivers and outriders?

A: Outriders, I always liken to a jockey in a race. Each horse owner or trainer does not bring his own jockey to town. Jockeys ride every race, and they ride for different owners.

There's outriders that [play a specific role] just like in any other team sport event. They're better on the lead team on the front end, and one would be a lot better on the back end, simply not causing penalties, being able to steady the lead horses, which is the responsibility of the guy in front, to direct and hold that team waiting for the klaxon, the horn, to go.

Watch Rangeland Derby contestant Kris Molle give the 101 on chuckwagon racing:

The guy in the back simulates the old ranching style, where they [would have] loaded the stove [onto the chuckwagon].

It's all a team effort, and of course, the object is you're working together — and you can't win the Stampede without a team effort.

Q: And the trailing outrider affects the time?

A: Yes. First of all, there's a series of penalties for the outriders. Interference, staying in your own lane or territory, if you're late — or what they would call late, which is 150 feet, about 20 metres, back of when your lead horse hits the wire at the finish line.

Your outrider has an area to be in between, and if he's back of that, he ends up getting a one second penalty for that infraction.

The sport is won and lost by hundredths of a second. So you can see where the outriders play a key part [of the final outcome].

Q: What's a wheeler?

A: There are two wheelers. Basically they're nicknames for the thoroughbred horses you are driving closest to the wagon. They're closest to the wheels of the chuckwagon.

There's a left wheeler which is on the left side, facing forward off the chuck and the right wheeler is on the right side. Each one of those wheelers or thoroughbred horses plays key issues in a great barrel turn.

Listen to the full interview with world champion racer Kelly Sutherland:

Q: You won 12 Rangeland Derbies. What's your secret?

A: The biggest thing is confidence. It's like in any sport. I feel like I was blessed with talent.

A lot of people probably that I watched drive as hard as I did, certainly. Some of them drove harder, but I had a feel for the lines, and what a lot of the people call an ability to talk to the horse.

You get the horse to relax at the right time when they're racing, and get the horses to compete at the very top of their level for you when you ask them to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.