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Chuckwagon races call it a day

By Staff | Sep 13, 2019

The championship round of the last-ever chuckwagon races at the Clay County Fair was bittersweet, as fans drank in the excitement of the event, and knew the last race of the day would be the last race they would ever see at the fair.



SPENCER-Chuckwagons of the old west raced across treacherous and perilous prairie in an effort to feed hungry cowmen and ranch hands as cattle herds were moved, and as the west was explored and settled. It was a dangerous – but necessary-part of living then.

But long after the days of the old west-and fast-forwarding to the 1960s, chuckwagons became a spectacle for racing at the Clay County Fair in Spencer. Every year since then those races have ‘fed’ the appetites of fairgoers seeking out more of a “chill and thrill” adventure during their time at the fair.

That era galloped to an end on Sunday, Sept. 8 as the Clay County Fair ended its 57-year love affair with the chuckwagon races, due to the disbanding of the Chuckwagon Racers of Iowa-Minnesota, Inc.

Chuckwagon teams run at full speed as they come down the straightaway of the track at the Clay County Fair. Here, the driver of the team loses his hat due to the speed at which his team is running.

“The chuckwagon racing at the fair is a tradition that started in 1962, and literally hundreds of thousands of fairgoers have been entertained since that time,” said Jeremy Parsons, manager of the Clay County Fair. “It’s infused in the fair’s tradition and heritage, and is a big part of many peoples’ annual visit to the fair.”

Parsons said chuckwagon racing has evolved during its tenure at the fair, starting out as a multiple-night activity. Over time its popularity declined somewhat, but he said it would still draw nice-sized crowds as the two-day event it was for the last few years.

“That connection is so strong with Spencer just because that chuckwagon association started here in Spencer with Stub Johnson,” said Parsons.

The first place wagon team of the day was presented with the Stub Johnson Memorial trophy. Johnson founded the chuckwagon association along with co-founders Harold Hesser and Kenny Uden.

The Chuckwagon Racers of Iowa-Minnesota, Inc. is a group of horsemen who traveled the two states (primarily, along with an occasional Illinois contest), giving spectators a taste of the old west and a trip back in time.

The group disbanded because there were no longer enough wagon teams to make up the races. There were only six teams this year, when there have always been eight; and that number was going to go down after this season due to the cost of the hobby, and retiring team members.

The disbanding of that group and the notion of no more chuckwagon racing at the fair resulted in a nearly packed grandstand-1,600 fairgoers – who wanted to see this event one last time.

The race

The rules for chuckwagon racing are based on the famous Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada.

Information from the Chuckwagon Racers of Iowa-Minnesota, Inc. said a chuckwagon is a regulation farm wagon weighing at least 1,325 pounds, with the driver in the seat. It’s equipped with a canvas cover and flap that extends at least eight feet from the rear end of the wagon, with poles six feet long attached to form a tent. The wagon also includes a stove to make the camp complete.

The chuckwagon is pulled by four “spirited” thoroughbred horses, which often challenges the drivers. Each wagon also has four ‘outriders,’ replicating the riders of the old west who rode near the wagons in case of attack.

Information from the group said, “.Chuckwagons, food and equipment were hard to replace, miles from civilization. Many times it was necessary for outriders (men on horseback who rode alongside or ahead of the chuckwagon) to scout ahead, but they always stayed fairly close to the wagons.”

As the race begins, three chuckwagons (with four horses each, hitched in tandem fashion) line up in specific places. The rear of the wagon faces the grandstand, with camp stoves on the ground and flaps on the backs of the wagons supported by two poles.

Four outriders complete each racing team-three at the rear of the wagon to load the stove and poles, and the fourth to “hold the front team” (of horses) until the gun sounds and the camp breaks to begin the race.

The stove must then be loaded and the tent poles put in the wagons. One outrider can be beside the lead team but may only encourage the horses with their hats or hands; the other three must stay at the rear of the wagon, within 150 feet at all times, until the race ends.

Each wagon and all four outriders must turn a figure-eight around two barrels set infield, then switch to a race track and race around the full half-mile track with all of the horses on a ‘dead run.’

The association at one time used quarterhorses.

Penalties include having hands on the stove before the signal, having a stove left behind or lost; tent poles left behind or dragging; wagons starting ahead of the signal; wagons knocking over a barrel; wagon missing a barrel; outrider missing a barrel; outrider knocking barrels over; more than one outrider hazing horses or helping a driver; outrider 150 feet or more behind the finish line when the lead team crosses the finish line; outrider failing to finish the race; outrider finishing ahead of the team; more than one outrider finishing beside the wagon; poles dragging or extending from the wagon when it crosses the finish line, drivers or outriders interfering with another wagon after the finish of the race; improper attire; fly disconnected from both poles when crossing the finish line, etc.

There are typically two heats per competition, followed by consolation and championship races.

The final competition day for that event at the Clay County Fair saw a first and second heat of the chuckwagon races, first and second heats of the “Powder Puff” race, an outrider race, a two-horse chariot race, a pony race, a “Pee Wee” chuckwagon race (using childrens’ little red wagons as the ‘chuckwagon’); and ending the last day with the consolation and championship chuckwagon races.

Parsons said there are no plans at this time to replace the chuckwagon races with any other event, and that the fair board is being diligent to make the fair something that also evolves over time.

“Part of what’s changed in today’s world is that concert setup and production-sound and lights-are getting so big that it’s hard for us to get a stage in place in time and be adequately prepared and ready for the artist,” he said. “so I’m not sure what the case will be with afternoon performances yet.”

And so the last day came, and the last day went.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said announcer Rich Greenlee of Waverly as the last race was at the starting line. “enjoy this race, because you will never see it again.”

And less than one minute after the starting gun sounded, the race finished and chuckwagon racing at the Clay County Fair slipped into history amid a lengthy standing ovation and a hail of cheering from fans in a packed grandstand

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