When, three years ago, the event began drawing more team entries than any other organized wagon race, Dan had a new sign painted: THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP CHUCKWAGON RACES. Budweiser, several feed manufacturers and, later, Chevrolet signed on as sponsors, and a new, wooden-wheeled NASCAR was born. The 1994 event offered competitors a chance at a share of $17,500 worth of prizes, including saddles and big flashy belt buckles.
In addition to wagon races, on each of the three days there is a free-for-all stampede called the Snowy River Race, in which riders on horseback—many mounted on racing thoroughbreds—career down a steep hillside and then splash through the South Fork of the Little Red River, re-creating the climactic scene of a 1982 movie, The Man from Snowy River.
The wagon races themselves are split into five divisions: pony mules, ponies, big mules, the Oklahoma Land Rush—which re-creates a historic American event—and the Classic, featuring authentic wooden-wheeled wagons pulled by two-horse teams. Wagons in the smaller divisions are typically constructed of welded steel, with steel-belted radial tires. In the Classic race, generally considered the highlight of the weekend, all wagons must fit certain construction requirements and carry a wooden water barrel, a toolbox, a lantern, a skillet and a coffeepot.
Races are run in four-wagon heats, with all wagons racing on all three days. The best time out of the three days in each division wins. All events except the Oklahoma Land Rush and the Snowy River Race follow the same half-mile course, which circles a barrel, follows a straightaway of about 100 yards, circles left at a specified walnut tree to follow a marked course, then comes back down a backstretch of about 50 yards to end at the same walnut tree. Small, light teams can circle the course in less than 50 seconds, but the Classic wagons—which weigh 1,000 pounds or more—seldom make it in under a minute.
A chuckwagon team consists of three members: the driver, the cook and the outrider. The driver's job is pretty much what you would expect; the duties of the other two members aren't so obvious.
Before the gun goes off, the cook must load the "tent" (usually a roll of canvas), jump in beside the driver and help yell at the horses. He or she also keeps an eye on the competition and on the team's outrider during the race.
The outrider may have the most difficult job of all. At the start, he or she flings a "stove"—usually a black tin or cardboard box—into the wagon bed. As the wagon pulls out, the outrider must mount a horse, round a barrel, and catch and pass the wagon before it crosses the finish line or the team is disqualified.
By the start of the final day of the Ninth Annual National Championship, three Arkansas teams were tied for first place in the Classic division at 58 seconds even: the Bar X, from Atkins; the Fourche Mountain Rough Riders, from Plainview; and a team called simply the Cowboys, from Grapevine. "The competition's really tough this year." complained Todd Carter, the Rough Riders' driver, 30 minutes before the start of the Classic heats, "I think this is the closest it's ever been. Everybody's putting a lot of money and energy into getting that belt buckle."
The competition was tough indeed. Fighting for the advantage heading into the first curve of the sixth race, the wagon operated by a team called the County Line Bunch rolled. The wooden box separated from the chassis and flipped, breaking driver David French's pelvis in four places.
In another heat a team of horses became tangled in each other's traces and skidded 40 feet, digging a dirt trench that looked like a plane-crash site. Miraculously, the horses stood unhurt after their harnesses were cut from them.