Chuck Wagon Racing
by Jeff Lewis

During the Calgary Stampede, Canada is abuzz with references to “eight seconds,” the length of time needed to complete a bull or bareback bronc ride.  Walk into a Victoria coffee shop and you may see a conservatively dressed woman pick up a scalding cappuccino.  Her doppelganger in Seattle wisely puts the cup down, grimaces and grabs for a cardboard cup sleeve, but in Canada at Stampede time, the woman holds the cup and waves her free hand in the air, muttering, “Eight seconds,” before sliding it back on the counter and inquiring about the cup sleeve.

The references to “eight seconds” intrigued me.  If the rodeo could seep into the lexicon of nearly every Canadian, even—in one instance—a marine biologist who specializes in the acoustics of Weddell seals’ communication, it was worth looking into.  I was not quite intrigued enough to actually attend the Stampede, mind you, but I was inspired to watch some on TV.

I didn’t get to see any bull riding, but the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did show chuck wagon racing, billed as “one of the world's most spectacular sports” with a “history as old and as colourful as the West itself.”  The races harken back to the days when the wagons carried the food for the cow outfits and chuck wagon teams needed a break from the tedium and greenhouse gas emissions.

When I was a kid, chuck wagons gave me the creeps because of the little wagons that rode out of the Purina Chow Bags.  They reminded me of fast tarantulas.  I didn’t worry at all about slow tarantulas, but like many kids, I feared fast tarantulas, particularly the really big one on Gilligan’s Island.  The Purina chuck wagons were less creepy than the spider on Gilligan’s Island, but not by much.

I didn’t quite follow chuck wagon racing, as presented by the CBC.  I consider myself adept at picking up the nuances of sports fairly quickly, but chuck wagon racing stumped me.  I could grasp the easy part—several wagons, each drawn by a team of horses, maneuver through a twisted race course.  The wagons, of course, no longer have anything to do with the food services industry and they only nominally look like the fast tarantulas of my youth.  Nowadays they’re tricked out, so that they can zip through hairpin turns and reach 30 mph down the backstretch.

What puzzled me about the races were the seemingly superfluous horseback riders that accompanied each chuck wagon.  When a race started, the wagons bolted to the front, with several horseback riders trailing.  In the races I watched, I couldn’t find any correlation between their performance and their team’s standings.  Shaky sources inform me that in the Old West, these horseback riders were the stewards of the cutlery, trailing the chuck wagon with pistols ablaze like a B-movie posse.  But what is their worth in a 21st century rodeo, I ask?

This is the type of talk that’s liable to get me busted up if I ever go to a rodeo in person.  I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t even fly at the gay rodeo, where I imagine that the banter is much wittier than what I have to offer.  Incidentally, the gay bull riders in the Atlantic Gay Rodeo Association only have to ride their bull for six seconds, which begs the question, “How gay is that?”  Eight second rides traditionally are a staple of the gay rodeo experience.  For example, the book 8 Seconds, by Jean Ferris, is the story of Kit, a young, gay cowboy at rodeo camp.  Would Kit impress his new friend John if he only stayed on his bull for six seconds?  I think not.

My grasp of the inside game of chuck wagon racing was so poor that I didn’t even catch the offensive, controversial remark that the CBC color commentator made.  It prompted the announcer to retort, “Well, that’s just an opinion, to put it mildly,” followed by an abrupt commercial break.  After the commercials, the coverage switched to another event.

Later, I searched the internet for a reference to the incident, or at least something that could explain the sport to me.  I found two things that interested me.  First of all, chuck wagon racing has unwritten rules, which—by definition—aren’t available on the internet.  I suspect that the color commentator bumped up against one of these unwritten rules.

Secondly, if you go to the Calgary Stampede website, you can find a chuck wagon video game.  This excited me because I thought it might be a fun introduction to the basics of the sport.  I’ve heard that Dale Earnhardt Jr. (#8) plays interactive online NASCAR video games.  While I waited for the game to load, I hoped that the chuck wagon game would be worthy of a pro’s interest.

No such luck.  The game has virtually nothing to do with chuck wagons.  If it were included in an SAT question, it would go something like this:

Chuck Wagon Racing  :  Chuck Wagon Racing Game  ::  Donkeys  :  Donkey Kong

In the video game, a grizzled cowboy launches a miniature chuck wagon into the desert with a large cactus slingshot.  The miniature chuck wagon isn’t creepy, but it’s still a bad game.  It makes no sense and it isn’t fun, but I feel that it does give me some license to write a frivolous piece about chuck wagon racing, since the folks at the venerable Calgary Stampede don’t respect the sport enough to make a decent game.

The website’s bonanza, though, is another game called Round 'Em Up.  It’s a version of Space Invaders, played out over a cartoonish desert.  Instead of a spaceship, you control the corpseless head of a cowboy that, during his lifetime, slung miniature chuck wagons with a cactus slingshot.  Now this man’s head shoots missiles at rows of lethargic aliens, all in the spirit of the Calgary Stampede.

Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004