SPENCER—A longtime tradition at the Clay County Fair is racing toward its last ride.
The final two races in the 63-year history of the Chuckwagon Racers of Iowa-Minnesota are scheduled for noon Saturday, Sept. 7, and Sunday, Sept. 8, at the grandstand located at the fairgrounds in Spencer.
Mike McAvoy of rural Hawarden is sad to see the association coming to an end. The 53-year-old Elma native, who joined the Chuckwagon Riders in 1984, retired from competitive racing last year and has served as a race judge this year.
“I’m very disappointed to see a sport die out I have been part of for 35 years and went with my uncle and dad to watch,” McAvoy said. “As a kid, I always asked my dad to take our quarter horse down to Nashua, Iowa, to race in the farmers’ race as it was not more than 20 miles from where we grew up.”
The Chuckwagon Racers dropped down to six teams this year after always having eight since its inception.
That number was going to fall even more after this season.
“It’s just because of the expense of the horses and the majority of the racers are getting a little older and retiring,” McAvoy said.
“A couple of the owners of those last six wagons wanted to get out,” he said. “They weren’t going to run with less than six.”
A chuckwagon is defined as a wagon equipped with cooking utensils and provisions for the purpose of serving people, such as cowboys, who work outdoors.
He explained that chuckwagon racing’s roots can be traced back to the time of the old Wild West during the late 1800s.
“People were driving their cattle from one place to another,” McAvoy said. “In the mornings, when they broke camp, the people driving the chuckwagons would take off and race to the next watering hole.
“They’d set up camp there,” he said. “When the guys came in that evening on their horses, they would have the best spot next to the watering hole and have supper ready.”
Members of the Chuckwagon Racers use authentic wooden-wheeled covered wagons during the association’s competitions.
Each chuckwagon team is made up of a driver who operates a wagon pulled by four horses and four individuals who operate as outriders.
Before the start of every race, each of the outriders has a different position to prepare for:
- The lead outrider holds the reins of his or her own horse and the halters of the chuckwagon team’s lead two horses.
- A second outrider waits to load a cookstove into the back of the chuckwagon.
- A third outrider gets ready to load a tent and its poles into back of the chuckwagon.
- The fourth outrider holds the reins of the other outriders’ horses behind the chuckwagon.
All outriders have to start each competition with their feet on the ground.
“When the gun goes off, the wagon and driver take off,” McAvoy said. “The outriders have to load what simulates a cookstove and a tent and poles and then turn around and swing onto their horses.
“Then the wagon and the outriders have to make a figure-8 around their barrel pattern,” he said. “Then they hit the track and race one lap around the track.”
The Chuckwagon Racers have two heats per competition — there used to be four teams per heat, but this year has seen only three per heat — and then championship and consolation races.
When the association started 63 years ago, it was known as the Chuckwagon Racers of Iowa. Its name changed to the Chuckwagon Racers of Iowa-Minnesota in 1980.
During its history, the association’s members have raced in competitions across Iowa as well as Illinois and Minnesota. They started racing at the Clay County Fair in 1960.
The Chuckwagon Racers at first used quarter horses, but have seen faster and stronger thoroughbreds replace them over the years.
The association started off with just men competing in chuckwagon racing, but over time, women’s teams were added as well.
The Chuckwagon Racers have had as many as 12-14 races per season, but the association has only had eight events this year due to having fewer teams than ever before.
Each time a team wins a Chuckwagon Riders event throughout the season, it receives a trophy for its victory and points toward its season total.
The association’s overall season winner does not get a championship trophy, but it does receive bragging rights.
McAvoy joined the Chuckwagon Racers 35 years ago and started as an outrider. He eventually became a chuckwagon driver.
He bought his own chuckwagon-racing team nine years ago. He always enjoyed competing against other members of the association.
“It’s an association so we are like a family,” McAvoy said. “We compete hard against each other, but if someone has trouble — and you will sooner or later — everyone is there to help out.”
For many years, his stepson Noah Heathcott and daughter Jessa McAvoy were outriders for his chuckwagon-racing team.
“I’d like to give a special shoutout to Dan Albrant of Emmetsburg, Iowa, who partnered up with me the last few years and all my outriders and drivers,” the older McAvoy said. “I never could have done this without all of them.”
The product support specialist for A&I Products in Rock Valley will miss the fast-paced fun as a part of the Chuckwagon Racers, of which he was the vice president for many years.
“I still love the racing, I still love the driving, I still love the competition, but it just got to be too much work handling all the horses,” McAvoy said.
“It was getting to be more work than I wanted to do every weekend,” he said. “I’m going to have to find something else to do in the summer.”