The highlight of my 11 days in Calgary was undoubtedly the Calgary Stampede and the highlight of the Stampede was the final of the GMC Rangeland Derby.
Many a non-Albertan will be wondering what the heck a Rangeland Derby is, and that’s fair as it’s not exactly an international sport. Some of you might recall the 1960s TV ads for Gravy Train dog food. Well, that’s a chuckwagon, and the GMC Rangeland Derby is the Kentucky Derby of chuckwagon racing.
According to its web site, “The Calgary Stampede features the world’s best rodeo athletes and the finest stock competing for over $2 million in prize money. Competitors square off in a furious, action-packed display of skill and grit every afternoon. By the end of the week the top money-winners come back for Wildcard Saturday and Showdown Sunday – Rodeo’s Richest Afternoon.”
I was lucky enough to attend both days. But to be honest, it was the GMC Rangeland Derby which was held on Sunday that I enjoyed the most. I think it’s the combination of an action-packed race, a wagon load full of tradition, and the good feeling I get when I see families working and playing together.
Many of the chuckwagon drivers are third or even fourth generation participants. Chuckwagon committee volunteer Jennifer Leusink noted that of all the many family relationships in the chuckwagon world, the most remarkable is the dynasty begun by Tom Lauder, who competed in the first Stampede in 1912 and won the Rangeland Derby in 1924. Three of his sons were involved in the sport.
“One of Tom Lauder’s daughters, Iris, married Ron Glass, who drove to multiple victories in Calgary, as did the couple’s son, Tom Glass. Jason Glass, son of that Tom, is therefore a fourth-generation competitor – something very rare in the world of sports. Except in chuckwagons, because Tara Glass – Tom Lauder’s granddaughter – married a driver named Richard Cosgrave, another Calgary winner. Their sons Colt and Chad are also fourth-generation racers,” explained Jennifer Leusink.
Not many of the family names have changed since I last saw the chucks in Regina in the early 80s. And while I didn’t join the company that printed this harness racing program until a year later in 1982, many of the names of the chuck wagon drivers competing in that exhibition race are still prominent in the sport.
Some things have changed, however. Since it’s almost inevitable that boys born into these families will carry on the tradition, rodeo parents have started to pin their kids with names befitting true rodeo stars.
Over the course of the 2014 Stampede I watched the likes of Clint Laye, Will Lowe, Dakota Buttar, Dusty LaValley, Chance Vigen, Quaid Tournier, Reo King, Calf Robe, Tyson Durfey, Chance Flad, Timber Moore, Sterling Crawley, Cort Scheer, and my personal trifecta of favourites, Tuf Cooper, Colt Cosgrave and Chase Outlaw.
These aren’t fictional characters, aliases dreamed up by a wrestling promoter, or stripper’s stage names, but rather real names of real men born into real rodeo families. If you come from the Alberta badlands and your last name is LaValley, of course you’d call your kid ‘Dusty’. Wouldn’t you? Same thing for Mr. & Mrs. Outlaw. Why wouldn’t they call their little boy “Chase’?
And I get the sense that this tradition will continue for generations to come. Retired driver Tom Glass’s son Jason got a normal enough name, but when Jason’s eight-year-old daughter appeared in the Trans Alta Grandstand show she was introduced as Steele Glass.
When introducing the final act in the grandstand show, Steele’s grandfather Tom Glass mentioned yet another of the sport’s longstanding traditions – the post race barn party. As my friends in harness racing will attest, the best barn parties are generally held after the races at the sport’s more down-to-earth venues like the Little Brown Jug in rural Ohio or the Gold Cup Saucer in Charlottetown, PEI. Apparently it’s the same in the chuckwagon world.
Tom reinforced that for me when he closed by saying: “For almost 100 years kids and their parents have come down to the chucks and sat right where you are. Kids and their parents, young and old. Young women looking for a young man, and young men looking for a beer.”
Seconds later a stranger handed me an ice cold one. “Coming to the party?”, he asked.
“Sure,” I replied. Who am I to mess with tradition?