Thumbs Up to the King

Back in the mid-1960s a horse-crazy kid from Grande Prairie, Alta., headed down the road as a barn hand for chuckwagon driver Dave Lewis. By 1967, 15-year-old Kelly Sutherland was in the saddle and actively competing as an outrider. By 1969, Kelly Sutherland had moved up in the wagon box and hit the trail full time as a chuckwagon driver. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the next 50 years Kelly Sutherland would ultimately become the greatest champion the sport of chuckwagon racing would ever see, and arguably, ever will see. He broke or tied records that were deemed unmatchable. He won chuckwagon racing’s most cherished events multiple times, collected well over 100 major awards and victories, and has set records for championships won, chuckwagon canvas prices and track records. He has performed for and hosted royalty, celebrities and the like, and even brought the Olympic torch into Alberta. The name Kelly Sutherland became synonymous with chuckwagon racing over the last half-century.

In his pursuit of greatness, at times Sutherland has been a vociferous, colourful and controversial individual. He was the chuckwagon racing representative on the Canadian Rodeo Cowboys Association board that “boycotted” the Calgary Stampede in 1979. In 1986, he showed his displeasure with the Calgary Stampede judging and pulled out mid-week to “go fishing.” His reinstatement back in to the Calgary Stampede in 1986 had to involve legalities, and he also showed his displeasure when the Calgary Stampede made wearing flak jackets mandatory in the mid-1990s. Through it all, Kelly’s attitude of “I’m the guy to beat” has made him the main topic of conversation in chuckwagon racing. Despite the battles with the Calgary Stampede, Kelly was awarded the Stampede’s prestigious Guy Weadick Award at their centennial celebration in 2012.

Kelly and his young bride, Debbie. To date, they’ve been married 48 years.

Legendary Calgary Stampede track announcer Joe Carbury tagged Sutherland with the nickname “The King,” and he has lived up to the moniker both on and off the racetrack. You can see it in Sutherland’s collection of gold buckles, silver loving cups, and bronze statues. What you can’t see are the countless visits to places like the Tom Baker Cancer Clinic in Calgary that were done away from the cameras and sportswriters.

Also, often unnoticed, his tremendous career might not have been realized if it were not for his wife Debbie who has been there every step of the way.

At some point in 2017 Kelly Sutherland will turn his last set of barrels and run his last chuckwagon race. It will be a sad day, but a good day. Congratulations Kelly and Debbie on an extraordinary life and career, and thank you both for all the memories

Billy Melville is an author, noted historian and chuckwagon colour commentator on Rural Radio (SiriusXM Ch 147) and CBC Sports. He is the grandson of Orville Strandquist.