NECHES — Oklahoma chuckwagon racer George Bowden missed a spill Friday afternoon. The tongue on his “classic” class wagon broke as he started toward his run in a 750-yard mad-dash around a series of barrels across uneven ground in a wagon built as they were in the 1800s.
The wooden wagons are built to 1800s specifications with no springs, no steel bearings in the four wooden/steel spoke wheels.
Hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls and even more spectators lined the race track at the inaugural 1836 Chuckwagon Race in Neches, about 10 miles north of Palestine on Farm-to-Market Road 321, to watch racers in several classes of wagons try for the best time around the barrels. Teams will run again today and Sunday. The best average time over three days wins.
There also will be mounted cowboy shooting competitions, bronc fann'n (bareback riding on open ground) and live music today and Sunday.
Organizer and Diamond B Ranch manager Moon Swanson said today's “grand entry” will be an ode to Texas independence and that the first day of competition couldn't have been better.
The race is sanctioned by The National Championship Chuckwagon Race and The Texas Chuckwagon Racing Association.
Additionally, he said the ranch has a farm store where people can buy beef and other merchandise. There also will be various clinics, Dutch oven biscuit cooking classes, a horse-pulled plow demonstration and music from the Kimberly Dunn Band and Adam Brown & the Triple Crown Band tonight.
Swanson said teams are coming from around Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is expecting anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 people attending the event over the weekend.
As Bowden looked on, the second turn turned near tragedy as the lead wagon's tongue broke sending the driver tumbling to the ground. The cook, whose job is typically to lean into the turn to keep the wagon from rolling over in turns took the reins as other mounted cowboys raced to her rescue.
Bowden said if a broken tongue sticks in the ground it can cause an end-over-end catastrophe. His father and cook broke his back in a spill, Bowden said.
Bob Hill, a 22-year racer in every class and who Bowden called a “legend” in the sport, said the spill is part of the thrill of open ground wagon racing as it is in any racing sport, such as NASCAR and motorcycles. Hill is a two-time national champion in the “big mules” class. Two mules pull Hill and driver Opie Brines in a wagon similar to a go-kart, built low to the ground and with a light metal frame, as their outrider Ben Hartwick races around to pass them before the finish line.
The races are no less furious or clouds of dust inducing. After Day 1, Hill's team, “What About Bob?” had the best time.
“It takes a weak mind and a strong back to make a racer,” Hill said laughing before taking a more serious tone. “After that gun goes off, it can all unravel quick.”