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Sports This Week - A lifetime of racing chuckwagons and eating dirt

When it comes to the sport of chuckwagon racing one name stands out as the Gordie Howe of the game, and that is Alberta's Kelly Sutherland.

When it comes to the sport of chuckwagon racing one name stands out as the Gordie Howe of the game, and that is Alberta's Kelly Sutherland. 

Sutherland has 12-time Calgary Stampede Rangeland Derby Championships, and earned seven Calgary Stampede Aggregate titles. 

Other highlights for the World Professional Chuckwagon Association racer ( include; 

* 77 Champion final heats on World Professional Chuckwagon Association Circuit 

* 25 Victories in Championship heats on the World Professional Chuckwagon Association Circuit 

* $300,000 highest bid chuckwagon canvas sold at Calgary Stampede Canvas Auction (2012) 

Sutherland, now retired from driving, began competing in chuckwagon racing in1967 when he was age 14. He was 22 when he won his first race. 

It's the sort of career that had the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame come calling in 2020, inducting the long-time driver. 

"I was extremely honoured when they contacted me," he said in a recent telephone interview. "... It's an honour." 

That said Sutherland said it wasn't something he had anticipated, in spite of a resume he said he recognizes is at the top of the sport. 

"It (the induction) wasn't a tick on my bucket list, but if they feel I'm worthy of being there, it's humbling," he said. 

While the list of wins is a long one, it's not taking the checkered flag that stands out for Sutherland, but rather like Howe in hockey, it his ability to drive wagons for a half century. 

"Probably what made me the proudest the most I won in every decade of my life; my 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s," he said, adding that meant cutting the barrels "over 1000 times." 

It's a career Sutherland admits made it tough to get out of bed the last few years, the bumps, bruises, sprains and strains taking their toll on his body, not that he has any complaints. 

"I did what I wanted in life," he said, and that meant driving chuckwagons and winning races. 

"I love the sport. I'd do anything for the sport," he said. 

Sutherland said in addition to driving, he always lobbied for the sport, wanting it to grow and prosper. Through the decades that has meant touring through Western States trying to get the sport a toehold stateside, pushing for greater sponsorships, and lobbying his fellow drivers to form a union to take more control of the sport, in particular the money they receive from race events. 

The need for a union remains something Sutherland said is critical even as he steps away from the sport. 

Pointing to the National Hockey League, Sutherland said players need a union to push for a more equitable share of the money generated by the sport, and chuckwagon drivers should follow that example. 

"But, our drivers are not thinking like that right now," he lamented. 

Sutherland said drivers most certainly need a strong voice today because the sport is facing something of a crisis in his mind. 

"I think right now, because they didn't race last year, it's at its most fragile point," he said, adding if not managed carefully it could disappear, even using the word "extinction" as a possible outcome. 

The second thing the sport needs is major television exposure, which in turn would bring greater sponsorships, said Sutherland. 

"No sport survives without TV," he said. 

For Sutherland the sport disappearing would be hard to take, not just because of his own past on the track. He still cares for 80 thoroughbred chuckwagon horses even as he nears 70-years of age. The horses are needed as his son Mark, a brother and his sons remain active - the sport firmly ingrained in the family genes. 

He notes you almost have to grow up in the sport to compete in it. 

"I liken it to ranching, or farming, the capital investment is much too high to venture into it if there's not some assets already there, and some knowledge," he said. In the case of chuckwagon races; "you need the trials and tribulations of what to do and what not to do with horses." 

In Sutherland's case his dad had horses and that would start his career, first riding thoroughbreds at 'bush' races as a youth, and when he became too heavy to jockey, he took a seat at the reins of a chuckwagon. From there a natural competitive spirit took over, a spirit that demanded he be the best. 

Sutherland recalled finishing second in a race as a youngster and being proud of the accomplishment until his father pointed out "they only ever remember the winner ... That imprinted in my mind," making his focus on being first above all else. 

"I have a very competitive nature ... I had to be first." 

And looking at his resume Sutherland was true to his nature for a half century on the chuckwagon circuit.

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