Anticipation is high among chuckwagon drivers as they wait to see what bids from sponsors will look like on Tuesday evening, during the first canvas auction since the 2019 Calgary Stampede.
The last two years without the Calgary Stampede’s Rangeland Derby have taken a toll on the drivers and with the costs of feed and fuel increased, they’ll be looking for a sizeable sponsorship this year. However, some drivers really aren’t sure what to expect when the bidding starts.
“I can’t imagine we’re going to set any records for tarp sales but I’m hoping the average is around that $75,000 for everybody. With that two years off, everybody’s going to need that bit of a boost,” said four-time champion Kurt Bensmiller over the phone Monday.
Bensmiller has gotten some of the highest bids at previous auctions. He said he’d like to see a higher average this year with something closer to $100,000, but he’s cautiously optimistic because of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the economy.
The Calgary Stampede announced in March they’re planning for a full event this summer with the return of the Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races, more live music and a full parade. Stampede was cancelled in 2020 and was scaled back in 2021 due to the pandemic.
The annual auction, where corporate sponsors fight for the rights to put their names on chuckwagon canvases, is set for Tuesday at the Big Four Roadhouse and is considered a barometer of the city’s economic strength.
Kristina Barnes, Calgary Stampede’s communications manager, said it’ll be challenging to compare this year’s auction results with those of previous years because of the two-year gap.
“The average changes from year to year and it does ebb and flow with the way that our economy ebbs and flows,” she said, adding that 2012 was a record-setting year because it was the Stampede Centennial.
“This year is so unique, in that we’re coming out of the pandemic and we know that oil and gas is strong, but other areas may not be as strong. So, surely this year’s auction is a wildcard.”
There are 27 drivers participating this year, which is down from the usual 36. Some changes to the heats were made by the Calgary Stampede after the 2019 Rangeland Derby saw six horses die — the deadliest year in almost a decade.
Barnes said the Stampede knows the sponsorships are vital to the teams, their animals and for their racing season, but auctions are unpredictable. There are some returning sponsors and some new ones registered for the auction, so there is some optimism that bidding will be strong, she said.
The Calgary Stampede will be working with companies as much as possible to accommodate those who might just want to sponsor a tarp for two or three of the 10 nights of races.
Driver Troy Dorchester said chuckwagon drivers have “weathered the storm” for the last two years, with some finding other jobs or signing up for races where they could, but the expenses are up and high bids are needed.
“It’s an expensive year for feed and fuel,” said Dorchester, the 2012 Calgary Stampede champion and third-generation driver.
He said everyone’s hoping for a high sale, or they’ll all be in for another tough year. On average, he’s been sponsored for between $80,000 to $110,000.
“It sure makes it easier for the wagon drivers to run their operations. Supplies for the horses and fuel to get them up and down the road are at an all-time high,” Dorchester said.
Chad Fike, who’s a fourth-generation driver, said some competitors have been knocked out of the sport because of the financial blows over the last couple of years.
“For those of us that have been able to hang on and persevere through this and keep our horses going, it would sure be good to see the support from sponsorship,” he said, adding that he’s optimistic bids will be up.
Obrey Motowylo, the current World Professional Chuckwagon Association champion, said feed is more than three times the normal price right now and the Calgary Stampede sponsorships and prize money can help offset those expenses. He expects the bids could be lower than some of the pre-pandemic years.
“It’s better than not racing again. Whatever I get, I’ll be happy with and just carry on,” he said. “People are itching to do something to show their clients, their employees a good time and there’s nothing better than coming back to the barns in Calgary — buying a tarp and coming back to pet the horses and doing the barn tour.”
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