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A pony-powered passion
Upstart group of enthusiasts brings chuckwagon racing to Missouri

by Bob McEowen

During chuckwagon racing action at the Silver Nickel Arena near Raymondville, traditional chuckwagons of the “classics” division race toward the finish line while an outrider attempts to pass his wagon. Race rules require the rider on horseback to cross the finish line before his team’s wagon. From left are Phillip Biggers of Springfield, Ark., John Davidson and Brad Johnson of Caney, Kan., and Stan McMillian of Greenbrier, Ark.

It’s probably an immutable law of nature. Put two men side by side — especially on wheels — and they’re going to race to see who is faster. It comes as no surprise then to see the spectacle that unfolded Aug. 1-2 at the Silver Nickel Arena near Raymondville.

There, some 20 teams of wagon drivers, their sidekicks and support riders on horseback competed for belt buckles and bragging rights. Tiny wagons pulled by ponies or miniature mules dominated the lineup. A few larger wagons, the kind seen in old Western movies, were also on hand.

During two separate exhibition races held that weekend, spectators saw ponies raring to run, recalcitrant mules that refused to budge, skilled driving of well-trained animals and a breakaway team that led its hapless pilots on an uncontrolled tour of the makeshift track in a field below the arena.

This is chuckwagon racing, Missouri style.

“This is nothing but redneck NASCAR racing,” says Mark Ward, a chuckwagon racer from Wilberton, Okla., who drove 370 miles to run his mules at the competition hosted by the Midwest Chuckwagon Racing Association. “It’s just like dirt track racing, except with animals.”

By most accounts, modern chuckwagon races began around 1920 when two teams of cowboy cooks attending Canada’s Calgary Stampede decided to see who could break camp and leave the rodeo grounds first. Since then, it has grown into an organized sport with rules that mimic the original contest.

Each race begins with two teams at the starting line. The driver sits in the wagon, reining back snorting ponies, mules or horses. A “cook” stands behind the wagon, ready to toss a simulated bedroll into the back. Another team member waits nearby with the reins of his horse in one hand and the handle to a “cook stove” — typically just a box or satchel — in the other.

Justin Rother of Mound City leads the pack as riders round the barrels during a horse race held in conjunction with the chuckwagon races. The Raymondville race was organized by the Midwest Chuckwagon Racing Association, which is bringing the sport to Missouri.

At the starter’s command, the cook loads the bedroll and hops aboard the wagon. The starter fires his pistol and the third team member, called the outrider, tosses his stove into the wagon before mounting his steed. Both teams must round a barrel and then proceed to race around an oval track. According to the rules of the sport, the outrider must cross the finish line ahead of the team’s wagon.

“That wagon can be the fastest wagon out there, but if that outrider’s not ahead of them, they come back with no time,” explains Gene Gann, president of the Midwest Chuckwagon Racing Association, a fledgling club based in southwest Missouri that organizes races in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Just as the obligatory bedroll and cook stove of the race bear little resemblance to the supplies that weighed down the chuckwagons that once followed cattle drives throughout the West, most of today’s racing wagons would be a mystery to the cowboys of old.

“A lot of people call them pony-powered go-carts. They’re mostly muffler pipe welded into a frame with a seat on it,” Gann says, describing the vehicles that dominated the Raymondville race. “The thing might weigh 150 pounds with wheelbarrow tires on it. Some of them are pretty backyard stuff.”

In most cases, the tiny wagons are paired with equally diminutive animals. Racers are matched based on the size and type of animals they drive. Categories include 46-inch mules, 46-inch ponies, 52-inch mules, 52-inch ponies, “big mules” and “big horses.” The pinnacle of the sport is the buckboard and classics division, which features traditional horse-drawn vehicles and full-sized animals.

While the rules are hard to fathom and the camp-break scenario a bit implausible, a chuckwagon race quickly transforms into an old-fashioned frenzied dash to the finish line. Once the loading of the bedroll and stove are accomplished, the action is fast and furious, with hooves pounding, dirt flying and cowboy hats sailing in the wind.

Brad Johnson of Caney, Kan., and Chad McMillian of Greenbrier, Ark., wait for the signal to load simulated bedrolls and cookstoves. The ritual of loading the wagon recalls the original organized chuckwagon race, held in the Canadian city of Calgary, where two rival chuckwagon teams raced to see who could break camp the fastest.

While the competition at the Silver Nickel thrilled the audience, the Midwest association’s races pale in comparison to those of a neighboring organization to the south.

“Chuckwagon racing is kind of new around here. There’s a lot more of it going on down in Arkansas,” says Gann. “At Clinton, Ark., where the national finals has been going on for 20-something years, they have like 25,000 people a day show up to watch. Last year there was like 5,500 horses and 4,700 mules there.”

Spend any time among the competitors at a Missouri chuckwagon race, and you’ll hear about the national finals. Most of the Missouri racers compete there, and those matches set the standard for the level of participation the Midwest club hopes to achieve someday.

The same cannot necessarily be said about some of the activities off the field, however. A few members of the Missouri organization express concern that their sport has become more Wild than West.

“I’d raced for 10 years, and it kind of got to the point where it wasn’t a family deal,” says Gary Carsten of Crane, one of the founders of the Midwest association. “It got to where there was a lot of drinking going on, and a lot of stuff that you don’t want your kids to see.”

Although it began three years ago with the best intentions, the Missouri group has also struggled — both with off-track excesses as well as the typical growing pains and organizational obstacles that face any new club. Some of the members, including Carsten, briefly backed out of the sport due to the direction it was taking.

Gann, a construction contractor from Windsor, says that the Midwest club is taking a new tack, and is more directed at “lifting up the King of Kings,” instead of the King of Beers. As part of this new direction, Gann conducts a cowboy church service each race weekend.

Billy Carter of Dekalb and Melissa Wagner of St. Joseph begin to topple after a wheel of their “Running on Faith” wagon catches in the dirt. While full-size horses, big buckboards and classic wagons are crowd-pleasers, most chuckwagon racers run ponies or small mules and little, often home-built, metal wagons.

“We’re trying to instill a good family atmosphere at these races, not only with this association, but with chuckwagon racers in general,” says Matt Wagner of St. Joseph, who serves as a regional director in the Cowboys for Christ organization. “We’ve kind of seen a little bit of a transformation.”

No matter what happens off the track, there is plenty of excitement during the races to keep participants and spectators entertained. The big classic wagons and their powerful teams — often thoroughbreds, retired from the racetrack — are especially impressive. But even the ponies and little wagons put on a great show, especially when combined with the sight of driver and cook urging them on with shouts and whistles.

If that’s not enough, each race day also includes a horse race, when the outriders take their turn racing head to head. Finally, a “land rush” heat features a field of teams racing in a straight line all at once.

“It’s just fun, all-around entertainment,” says Lance Rash of Bolivar, who runs three teams with his wife, two children and a brother-in-law. “It’s something different. It’s something real different.”

Rash, who also participates in rodeo roping events, says chuckwagon racing offers an exciting sport that a family can get involved in without spending an excessive amount.

“Ponies, and even these smaller horses, they’re relatively inexpensive to get into,” he says. “That little wagon, it doesn’t cost much to build one. Put her together and come race.”

Attracting more teams to the sport is a priority for members of the Midwest Chuckwagon Racing Association, which has only managed to schedule two events so far this year, the first being at Caney, Kan. The club’s appearance at a roping and barrel racing competition at Raymondville exposed chuckwagon racing to a number of spectators who might never have seen it otherwise.

Gene Gann, president of the Midwest Chuckwagon Racing Association, leads a cowboy church service during the race weekend at Raymondville. The Midwest club is striving for a more wholesome family atmosphere at its events.

That was exactly the idea when Cody Nickels and his father, Randy, invited the chuckwagon racers to the inaugural event at the Silver Nickel Arena, which is served by Intercounty Electric Cooperative.

“It’s for the spectators,” Cody says. “It’s kind of new to a lot of people. They don’t know what it is. I was hoping to maybe get people involved in it.”

Should any of the spectators who lined the field to watch the Raymondville races decide to take a turn at the reins, chuckwagon racers say they will discover a sport that provides as much excitement as anything you can do on horseback.

“We had a bull rider who got in a wagon one time. He said, ‘Y’all nuts!’” Gann says. “He’s only on that bull for 8 seconds. Here you’re in there for somewhere around 50 seconds at least.”

In truth, few participants would claim that riding in a wagon is as intense or as dangerous as riding a bucking bull, but chuckwagon racing certainly offers excitement well beyond what one would expect from two small animals pulling a little wagon.

“It’s amazing how much power a pair of 46-inch ponies has got,” Carsten says. “You’ve never had an adrenaline rush until you crawl in the back of one of them little wagons and let them stretch out. It will amaze you. It is a thrill.”

The Midwest Chuckwagon Racing Association has tentatively scheduled another race for Sept. 26-27 at the Lazy P Arena in Lockwood. For more information, log onto the group’s Web site at www.mcwra.net or call Gene Gann at 660-238-2249. For information about the September event, log onto www.lazyparena.com.

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