Danny Foster said it’s hard to find a sports competition in Alabama more thrilling than a chuck-wagon race.
“From when they fire the gun to start the race, until the wagons cross the finish line is only about a minute, but that entire minute is filled with pure excitement,” said Foster, who owns Seven Springs Lodge and Rattlesnake Saloon in Tuscumbia. “You have wagons pulled by teams of horses or mules running around the track at close to 40 mph at times. Horses and mules are running wide-open, and wagons are racing wheel-to-wheel. Dust is flying, people are screaming, and everybody is having fun.”
Seven Springs Lodge hosted Alabama’s first sanctioned chuck-wagon race in 2014. Foster said the chuck-wagon races there have grown annually. This year’s races were April 27-28 and attracted over 3,000 fans and horse enthusiasts from as far away as California and Wisconsin. The races were part of a weeklong frontier day festival that included trail rides, a rodeo and a tough cowgirl contest.
Susan Hamlin, president and CEO of Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau in Tuscumbia, said Frontier Days at Seven Springs Lodge is one the county’s largest sporting events.
“People from all over the country come to Tuscumbia to race their wagon, ride horses, compete in the rodeo events or just meet friends who share a love for horses, mules and rodeos,” she said.
Bama Mule Skinners of Winfield is among the chuck-wagon racing teams that race annually at Seven Springs Lodge.
Gunter Pendley, who drives the Bama Mule Skinners wagon, said side-by-side racing with teams of mules or horses pulling custom-built chuck wagons is a thrill.
“It’s a pure adrenaline rush like no other,” Pendley said. “There’s nothing else like it. You can’t beat it.”
Chuck-wagon races begin with a standing start. A blank gun is fired to signal the start, and teams lunge into action.
Wagons have a driver and a cook onboard. An outrider on a horse or mule accompanies each wagon and doesn’t mount their horse until the race begins. The outrider then has to catch the wagon and beat it to the finish line. Wagon drivers aren’t allowed to slow their team to allow the outrider to overtake them.
“There’s no holding back,” Pendley said. You have to go wide-open from start to finish.”
Racing divisions are based on the size of the horse or mule and type of wagon. While most divisions are for rubber-tired racing wagons, there are categories for traditional wagons with steel-rimed wooden wheels, too. There’s also a youth division.
Pendley competes in the big mule division, which is for mules at least 52 inches tall. It’s also the fastest mule division.
“I grew up around chuck-wagon racing and mules,” he said. “I remember going to races with my family when I was just a kid.”
He began driving the Bama Mule Skinners wagon last year and has already won more than a dozen races. His grandfather, Jerry Reese, a lifelong mule enthusiast, too.
“We have always raised and worked mules,” said 69-year-old Reese, who began competing in chuck-wagon races about 20 years ago.
The Bama Mule Skinners race nearly every spring and summer weekend in states like Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
Pendley said he and his family were excited when Seven Springs Lodge began hosting wagon races. He said it’s great to have a race close to home, noting it’s usually about a 300-mile trip to a race. While chuck-wagon racers compete for prizes of a couple of hundred dollars, bragging rights are the real prize, he said.
Another Alabama chuck-wagon team is The Hired Hands. Driver Dennis Seals of Hodges said he’d like to see more races and racers in the state.
“We’re working to get more people east of the Mississippi River involved in chuck-wagon racing,” Seals said. “Most of the races and racers are in west Arkansas or Texas, but Alabama is a prime spot to expand the sport. A lot of people here have horses or mules. If we can have more races in Alabama for them to attend and see how much fun it is, they’re liable to get hooked on it like we are.”
Seals competes in the big mule division and plans to host a sanctioned race at his farm next year. Contact him at (205) 300-4387 to learn more about chuck-wagon racing.