John Walters isn’t easily shaken. A veteran chuckwagon driver, his previous career in rodeo included riding broncs and wrestling steers. But cowboy tough doesn’t always keep the nerves from getting to you. Especially when up on stage at the Calgary Stampede Canvas Auction.
“There are definitely some butterflies in your stomach. It’s nerve-wracking, for sure,” Walters said with a grin, clearly back in his comfort zone after the bidding had ended and he was teamed up with the Brakeman Foundation for the third year running.
The Canvas Auction is a high stakes event. Pegged as a yearly barometer of Calgary’s economy, the money raised also plays a big role in the success of a driver’s entire season.
“This auction is very important for us and our season, not only for Calgary but also for the rest of our pro tour,” says Obrey Motowylo, adding “costs are quite high, fuel is expensive, and we also spend a lot of money looking after our athletes.” Those athletes, the horses, are the driving force – literally and figuratively. If you ask, driver after driver will tell you that taking the best possible care of them is the number one priority.
For two-time Rangeland Derby champ, Kurt Bensmiller, there’s no question where the money raised at the canvas auction will be spent. “This auction, the funds that we get, almost 100 per cent go right back into us racing,” he says. “We make sure that the horses are taken care of properly. They’re athletes, so the better care you take of them, the better they look after you.”
The 36 drivers brought in bids totaling $2,297,500 at this year’s auction. Bensmiller earned the highest bid on the night, $120,000 from Tsuut’ina Nation. He credits the relationship that has developed over the past few years for the continued strong support.
“My relationship with my advertisers has been a good one,” he says, adding that with Tsuut’ina it’s about much more than money and advertising. “They look after us second to none, they’ve brought us in like family.”
Aside from the potential to gain extended family members, chuckwagon advertisers sign on for an extremely unique experience. And it has many returning to advertise year after year.
“You can buy a lot of stuff in this city, but you can’t buy a ticket to be a part of the action in the barns unless you are part of the advertising experience,” says Jack Vanstone of The Legends. He and his partners feel strongly about supporting the drivers and the sport of chuckwagon racing. They work hard to ensure all of their guests have a great time, while also allowing their driver to focus on his horses and the race. But it’s not all work and no play.
“Our favorite part is when the races are all done,” Vanstone smiles. “When all the dust settles at the end of the night, that’s when the fun for us happens. We hang out in the barn, chat with the drivers and their families and that’s the most fun for us.”
The Mavericks Chuckwagon Racing team is another long-time advertiser that will be back in the barns again in 2016, and team members say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’ve been doing this for 17 years. There’s no other experience like being down at the barn, or in the VIP area cheering on your wagon,” says the Mavericks’ Zane Novak. He says his biggest thrill is being able to introduce people to the one-of-a-kind behind the scenes experience for the first time. “It’s like taking people who love the NHL into the locker room after an NHL Stanley Cup final game. There is nothing in western Canada that is as unique as the Calgary Stampede and the Rangeland Derby.”