Brain 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.