Legendary Driver: Dave Lewis

Dave Lewis racing early in his career at the 1969 Calgary Stampede. Photo courtesy Billy Melville.

Dave Lewis was born to Joseph and Emily Lewis in Grande Prairie, Alta., on September 3, 1936. His love of horses began at a very young age, and as a youngster Dave started jockeying his father’s racehorses. Through the encouragement of World Champion Chuckwagon driver Ralph Vigen, 1965 saw Dave assemble his first chuckwagon outfit. In 1967 he joined the Canadian Rodeo Cowboys Association (CRCA) and drove his first show as a professional that spring at the Hand Hills Stampede.

On February 17, 1969, Dave married Joan Dorchester, and became father to her three children — Dallas, Rick and Corrine Fraser. Soon after, the Lewis’ welcomed son Greg into the family. The 1969 season saw Dave capture his first career show championship at the Wainwright Frontier Days; establish a track record at the Calgary Stampede, and was runner-up to the World Championship won by his new father-in-law, Tom Dorchester.

The next few seasons saw Dave Lewis become a regular winner on the professional circuit at smaller shows. At the 1973 Calgary Stampede he built up a seemingly insurmountable lead at the Rangeland Derby with just one run to go. He could have nursed his outfit around the barrels to assure a penalty-free
race, but Dave chose not to and that decision, gallant though it was, cost him. In one of the most stunning finishes the Calgary Stampede has ever seen, Dave’s lead vanished when, seven seconds in penalties handed the championship to Slim Helmle. Despite his slow start to that season and the devastating loss at the Calgary Stampede, by season’s end, Dave Lewis was crowned the 1973 World Champion Chuckwagon Driver — the lone World Championship of his career.

Between 1974 and 1979, Dave captured an incredible 15 show championships, but despite all of his success, winning the Calgary Stampede was one thing missing from his resume. When philosophical differences arose between the Calgary Stampede and the CRCA, the pro cowboys association prohibited their members — both rodeo and chuckwagon — from competing at the Calgary Stampede.

Late in 1980, the wagon men decided to leave the CRCA and go out on their own as the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA). Dave was a founding member and after the first season of 1981, the Calgary Stampede announced that they would invite the top nine wagons from the WPCA to compete at the 1982 Rangeland Derby, giving Dave the opportunity to compete at Calgary once again.

But on May 6, 1982, just prior to the start of the chuckwagon season, Dave’s wife Joan lost her battle with cancer at the young age of 42. Then he suffered another setback when it was discovered that following Ponoka, he had a fractured wrist. Just prior to the Calgary Stampede, Dave wore a cast but modified it so he could drive, and turned in a performance that is still talked about to this day.

Over the first nine nights, Lewis posted five first place runs and set a new track record. He qualified for the Rangeland Derby’s Championship finals in first place overall, and won the 1982 championship final with his sixth day money run in 10 days. He was also the aggregate winner by more than seven seconds clear of his nearest rival, in what was arguably the most dominating performance the Rangeland Derby has ever seen in a 10 day show, all the while competing with a broken wrist.

When the 1983 season rolled around, Dave found himself in a dispute with the WPCA, and ran at the 1983 Calgary Stampede as an independent chuckwagon driver. For the second consecutive year he took the aggregate title, but failed to win the Rangeland Derby. At the conclusion of the 1983 Calgary Stampede, Dave sold his entire outfit and looked to retire, but said he would consider competing at the Rangeland Derby if he received an invitation. The dispute with the WPCA would never be resolved, the invitation from the Calgary Stampede did come about, and it was the only show Dave Lewis would continue to compete at for the remainder of his career.

Although he only competed at the one show, with his special companion Betty Sinclair by his side, Dave Lewis won his second Rangeland Derby championship in 1988, adding the aggregate title as well, and in
1990 he captured this third and final Rangeland Derby. After his 1990 triumph, Dave competed at the Rangeland Derby for another five years before retiring for good upon completion of the 1994 Calgary Stampede.

After retiring, Dave stayed involved with horses and chuckwagons, training Thoroughbreds at the race track and helping some of the Grande Prairie-area chuckwagon drivers with their outfits. After an afternoon of spring training with his son Rick Fraser, Dave Lewis passed away suddenly later that day on April 27, 2000 from a heart attack. He was 63 years old.

Dave Lewis’ legacy carries on through the successes of the champion drivers whose careers he influenced, which includes the likes of Kelly Sutherland, Rick Fraser and Hughie Sinclair.

With 30 victories in a 30-year career, many at chuckwagon racing’s most storied events, Dave Lewis is among chuckwagon racing’s all-time most decorated champions.