A buckboard chuckwagon racer and his team of horses haul ass down a straightaway.
B rain seepage, I think to myself as I watch paramedics tend to a rider who’s been ripped from his saddle. He’s not getting up. It’s the first hour of the first day of the National Championship Chuckwagon Races in Clinton, Arkansas, and I’m just realizing how dangerous this sport can be. Yesterday, on my way to the ranch, I talked to a retired neurosurgeon about the injuries caused by the annual event. Brain seepage had stood out on the list.
By the end of Labor Day weekend, at least five riders will be knocked, thrown, or dragged off their mounts. It’s dangerous for the animals, too: I saw one horse get stitched up after receiving a deep gash from bumping against a wooden wagon trucking along at more than 30 miles per hour. On the surface, no one appears worried about getting hurt, but many of the participants wear helmets disguised as cowboy hats. One paramedic who has worked at the races for 14 years said he’s seen one death and countless head and spinal injuries. “I don’t have the testicular fortitude to ride in that,” he told me, gesturing toward one of the rickety wagons that look like they’re in the wrong century.
After the on-site paramedics give the all clear, the races resume. No one seems too worried about brain seepage. Down on the sidelines, a small woman in her early 60s is screaming her lungs out (“CowMOWN! CowMOWN!”) as the wagons fly by. If anyone’s got the lowdown, I figure, it’d be her.
“You ain’t gotta be good to ride, you just gotta have cojones,” she says. Her name is Judy Harris, and she and the rest of the Harris gang are among the hundreds of wagons, riders, horses, and trailers that descend on the sprawling range of Dan Eoff—who started the tradition by inviting a few dozen friends over for a wagon race in 1985—every year. The MCs claim it’s the largest equine event in America. I’ll take their word for it since nearly two miles of field are packed with teams from all over the US (mostly the South) along with one Australian group and various others from the Republic of Texas.
Like many chuckers, the Harris family have been coming for years: They’ve attended at least 24 of the 27 Chuckwagon Championships, an event that now includes eight full days of camping, ranch-related clinics, rodeo events, and a mini state fair. There’s also enough booze here to drown a cavalry division.
Of course, it’s the last three days that really matter. That’s when spectators line the cliffs above the racing field to the east, and folks on horseback gather along the north and south sides of the infield. That’s when the wagon races happen.
Ms. Judy, as everyone calls her, tells me that among the several chuckwagon categories—which include soapbox-derby-size carts and slightly larger wooden buckboard wagons—the “classic” series is the main event. The rules that govern the racing of these ten-foot-long, 1000-pound, dual-horse-powered rockets are ridiculously simple:
1) There are three members to a team: a driver, a “cook,” and an outrider. Before the race starts, they sit around a fake campsite, which includes a tent and a bundle of rope (the “stove”).
2) At the starting gun, the cook throws a tent into the wagon and hops in behind the driver. The outrider picks up the stove and throws it in the back of the cart, which is pulling a quick U-turn around some barrels, then jumps onto his own horse and rides after the wagon in an attempt to pass it.
3) The course consists of a 400-yard straightaway, two broad curves within a stretch of 100 yards, a 200-yard straightaway, a sharp curve, then a 250-yard home stretch.
4) The outrider must pass the finish line by himself before the wagon, and all the wagon’s “luggage” and inhabitants must be intact.
The whole thing takes about 75 seconds. Tops.
There’s no big money in chuckwagon racing. The carts are marked by quirky team names or the logos of family-owned ranches, and the prizes for winners, according to one participant, “ain’t nothin.”
Dr. Laura Martin Mobley stitches up a horse, at the on-site veterinarian clinic, that grazed against the side of a chuckwagon.
Ms. Judy’s family has won it two years running, in 2007 and 2008, with their wagon, dubbed “Rock-n-Rollin.” “Once you do it, you keep coming back,” she says. “It gets in your blood.” I ask her whether I could ride along in the race with the Harris clan, and she doesn’t miss a beat. “My nephew Corky’ll probably let you ride with’m.”
Corky, I’d learn, won the buckboard championship in 2004. He also nearly breaks my hand when I meet him at Base Camp Harris. I don’t think he means to. It’s probably because he has five kielbasa sausages for fingers, attached to an arm with several kneaded-layers of pure muscle. He’s also got a bushy, foot-long Fu Manchu mustache that covers his lips so completely it’s difficult to tell when he’s talking. Not that it matters much—Corky doesn’t do much jibber-jabbering. He simply nods, smiles, and says, “Sure, you can ride.” And just like that, I’m in.
When Ryan, the cook, gets wind of my involvement, his only question is rhetorical: “So now I gotta hold on to both y’all sons o’ bitches?” If anything, the rest of the Harris crew—Peewee, Glenda, Ms. Jen, Ryan, Brian, Dustin, and Porkchop—are even friendlier. They tease me about being nervous, and yeah, I might be a bit nervous about the whole brain-seepage thing but I try not to show it.
“Once you’re in with us, you’re family,” says Ms. Judy, who’s quickly became my surrogate mother. “You know the Rascal Flatts song ‘Me and My Gang’?” I do not. “Well, it’s like that.”
The next day, Saturday, is the big race. At 11 AM, two hours before the starting gun, Ryan and a bunch of others are pregaming. By the time we saddle up, he’ll have downed at least five beers. Not that I don’t trust him. Quite the opposite. I have entrusted him and Corky with my life, literally.
While Ryan drinks, Corky tends to the horses with methodical care, his Fu Manchu tucked back around his ears like the strings of a surgeon’s mask. Chuckers spend a lot of time caring for their horses which explains why they aren’t fans of the rabid animal rights crowd, who call the sport cruel and its participants barbarians.
Before the races begin, the MCs spout an invocation that is exactly as patriotic as you’d expect, given that we’re in rural Arkansas. We bow our heads for God, country, and the troops. Then we watch an empty chuckwagon roll mournfully around the infield, pulled by two unreined horses. This ghost wagon is meant to honor chuckers who’ve died in the past year. It’s unnerving.
As we ride up to the starting line, my brain senses I’m about to be involved in something very risky and foolish, and most of my thinking facilities give out. I have trouble placing where we are in relation to the crowds and the cliff, and in the process forget how to operate my camera’s most basic functions.
“You need to be on your knees, in case we get thrown off,” Ryan says when I attempt to sit Indian-style in the 1000-pound wooden wagon. Ryan’s legs are pressed against my back while Corky, seated directly in front of me, steers our two large quarter horses to the starting line. I take his advice. I figure being on my knees is more convenient in case I reflexively start praying.
I don’t remember the starter gun or that U-turn around the barrels, but suddenly we’re on the first straightaway, the wagon shaking violently like a car with blown-out shocks rumbling down a gravel road. The only thing louder than the grind of wood and metal is the yelling above my head.
The White River Cattle Company, from Rosie, Arkansas, competes in the sixth heat of the race.
Here’s what I didn’t realize before being in the cart: In chuckwagon races, the drivers can only see straight ahead. So the cooks have to act as spotters and let their drivers know when a wagon is coming up from behind. The cooks also hold down their drivers, often with a bear hug, to keep them from flying out. Everyone in the wagon must lean into the curves.
Halfway down the first stretch, Ryan yells, “Coming up, coming up!” as a wagon emblazoned with Team USA appears a few feet away on our left. For half a second, we’re side by side, and a female cook with wild, dark hair is standing nearly straight up, whooping and hollering and gnashing her teeth at us. It’s like we’re being ambushed by Old West Indians. Then Team USA cuts inside, taking the lead.
The first curve hurts. Bad. My ribs slam repeatedly against the wagon’s sideboard edge. Mud flies into our faces. Then another mental blackout—I have no idea what’s happening until we round the final sharp curve, where our wagon hits the ruts. It’d rained plenty on the Thursday and Friday preceding the race, which makes for “safer” driving for everyone except the big, top-heavy wagons like ours. Its massive iron wheels can easily get stuck in the ruts, increasing the chance of us going horizontal.
This last turn proves to be the most dangerous spot for everyone: I later see wagons fly up and balance momentarily on a single wheel, which explains why I’m completely airborne for a fraction of a second—a long fraction of a second. Ms. Judy later informs me that this was when our outrider passed us.
Midway through the final straightaway, there’s more yelling from behind. Ryan sounds jubilant. I start shouting nonsense, caught up in the moment, then stop, thinking I could confuse Corky with my gibberish. I don’t know what he’s thinking; I haven’t heard a sound from him since long before the start of the race.
Then we cross the finish line. In first. We won, and I have no idea how.
“I can’t believe we did it with three goddamn bodies in here,” I hear from the direction of Ryan’s crotch. Corky doesn’t break his streak of silence; he just pulls to a stop while his daughter Jess hands him her son to ride with granddad back to Base Camp Harris.
When I step out of the wagon, the entire clan is all smiles. “How was it?” they keep asking, but I can only mutter some variation of “Holy crap that was fun” while walking around in shock for the next 20 minutes, trying to determine whether the grit in my mouth is mud or tooth.
But I get it. I now know why the participants race despite the possibility of permanently looking like some mangled prairie dweller from the 1800s. It sure as hell isn’t for the money, because there’s none to be had. Nor is it for the approval of outsiders, who call them dumb rednecks or say they’re cruel to their animals.
The races are a vacation for these folks, a chance to hang out with friends and fellow competitors and cut loose by traveling at unsafe speeds on unstable wagons along courses designed with maximum danger in mind. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but like Ms. Judy says, “It gets in your blood.”
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