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Wild, Wheeled West

7/2/2009

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Eoff conceived this extravaganza in the mid-1980s, when he noticed that while Calgary supports a massive chuck wagon championship, the niche was free in the States. Sixteen teams came the first year, which was as much a reunion as a race. This year the field has swelled to about 160 teams from eight states, with about 25,000 humans, give or take, sluicing through the gates.

Yet it remains a mom-and-pop operation: Team sponsors are verboten, unless the owner of the sponsoring company is a rider. And the prize money, total, comes to about $20,000 "chuck wagon bucks," a tender that carries currency only among the vendors and a few stores around town, which turn them in to Eoff for real greenbacks.

Eoff prints off this funny money to prevent squabbles. Besides, "it's not the money that makes 'em race," he says. "They have a horse that they paid some money for, and they think he's the best horse down there. They want everybody to see them. And these people right here have never been in front of a crowd with their horses. And when their name is called out — they're the man of the hour, right there.

"I used to ride at Cheyenne," he continues. "Hell, I couldn'ta win. I paid my entry fee, and I know I couldn't win. Bucked me off. But I got to be there, man! Hell, I rode Cheyenne! I rode at the national finals!"

There's something to that, of course — the words "national" and "championship" carry unmistakable mystique, but even they're not the main draw. Later that morning, Shane "Dog" Hutchison, a tile setter from Memphis, was dragging a friend on his way to watch the races for the second straight year. "It was just a blast last year," he said. "I brought my friend this year. I told him, 'All I have to say is: chuck wagon races.' He said, 'Dude, I'm there.'"

Rush of the Race
The races are run on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the fastest time from any day named the overall winner for each event. The competition begins at 1 p.m., with as little fanfare as you could reasonably expect: girls with flags on horseback, a playing of the national anthem, the usual invocations to God and safety, and, in a somewhat roundabout way, the Constitution.

One announcer, Danny Newland, declares over the speakers that the greatest of the freedoms it provides is — wait for it — that of religion, because in this country, "it doesn't matter whether you attend a Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal or cowboy church," we all get to worship as we please.

(He's also given to complex and delightful colloquialisms. For instance, something certain is "just as sure as eggs break and you can smell whiskey on Hank's breath.")

With that, the races begin, and they appear to the casual spectator to be madness personified. But more likely, the participants are merely hard people, and hard people expect a thing worth doing to contain a certain degree of challenge.

Eoff keeps the rules of each event simple. "Any rule book — pick the Bible up," Eoff says. "Hell, you can read in one place it says one thing and another says another. Just get you some good judges."

So there is very little to sort out, really. Every heat features three to seven teams. Each team has three members, who at the gunshot load a symbolic "tent" (perhaps just a towel wrapped in duct tape) and "stove" (maybe just the box from a 30-pack of beer, also wrapped in duct tape) into the wagon.

The driver and "cook" pilot the wagon, while a separate "outrider" — akin to a wagon train's scout — throws himself onto his horse and sprints ahead. A time counts only if the outrider beats his wagon to the finish.

The events break down thusly:

Oklahoma Land Rush. A pure sprint on a tiny cart. Two smaller horses pull a wagon weighing at least 300 pounds with 24-inch wheels. A gun fires, and they hurtle along a dusty straightaway toward the finish line. This is when the first layer of straw cowboy hats begins to build up along the course.

Without a foray into the circular part of the course, there appears to be little danger of death for anyone except the photographers who sidle up to the course, standing mere yards (if that, even) from the charging teams.

The most experienced of the photogs is surely Ken Winstead, who goes by "Whiskers," and whose business card carries a drawing of a chuck wagon — such is his identification with this sport after shooting it for 20 years.

"There's some guys who will try to run over you," Whiskers says. "You know, just playing around."

Yuk, yuk.

Buckboards. Bigger wagons, bigger horses, longer course. The eventual winners of the event, the Omega Nightmares of Danville, Ark., turn in a sublime time of 50.8 seconds in the second heat that didn't count because the outrider didn't make it. Also, a man bounces out of the wagon shortly after crossing the finish line. The crowd gasps, but he rolls right up and waves. Which, come to think of it, is just about exactly what you want to see in every single race.

Big Mules and Four-Up Mules. The mules run in packs appearing to handle like the bus from "Speed" if it were being driven on a frozen lake. When the starting pistol sounds, they scamper up a hill, bank along a wide curve, then careen down with gravity helping compel them to the finish.

Mules being mules, drivers cajole them with air horns and strings of firecrackers. The sprint up the hill sounds like a thunderstorm on New Year's Eve. On the way down, as the wagons careen along the dirt strip, they clatter and complain like a wooden roller coaster one lost bolt away from being condemned.

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