By: Scott Cruickshank, Calgary Stampede
Calgary – The writing on the side of the shiny truck nicely sums up the man’s career. Painted in big letters, white on black, are two lines – 12 world championships, 12 Calgary championships. That snapshot of dominance is digestible even at highway speed. And the licence plate declares who’s in the driver’s seat – KING K. Yes, the King. Kelly Sutherland.
The chuckwagon legend, who will soon know if he needs to update that paint job, is taking his last crack at the GMC Rangeland Derby. Because, whether he likes it or not, the pasture awaits. Aging out at 65 years old, does not mean he intends to tiptoe away from the Calgary Stampede. A household name, the winningest reinsman in history, he remains hungry.
“When you talk about racing, I was a hog – I got to the trough,” says Sutherland, relaxing at his son Mark’s spread, south of Calgary. “When I leave, there’s going to be quite a vacuum… because I’m always perceived to be a threat to win. If I can get there, I can usually get the job done.”
Action – with $1.15 million in prize money – opens Friday at 7:45 p.m. It concludes July 17 with the Dash for Cash. One of 36 invitees, Sutherland has appeared 21 times in the championship heat.
So he doesn’t see why he can’t pad his portfolio.
“Oh, that would be special,” he says of the prospect of nailing down a 13th title here. “Every win has been extremely emotional, especially the last ones. You know you’re coming to the top of the mountain and you’re putting up more flags. That’s how I look at it – you make your mark higher every time you win. The minute you stop doing that, of course, your career starts going the other way.”
Sutherland admits that, physically, he ain’t what he used to be. Even faithfully following an off-season training regimen hasn’t slowed a case of the creaks. As a relatively small driver, five foot 11 and 175 pounds, he’s taken a beating over the past 50 years.
“Shoulders, hips, all moving joints,” says the Grande Prairie, Alta., native. “The last five years have been extremely hard on my body. My body has been telling me for a while that things aren’t so nice.
“I can walk – everybody knows somebody that can’t – so I think that it’s just time for me.”
The sport won’t see another character like him. Peers and fans love or hate the outspoken star, but no one can dispute his profile, which he took measures to enhance. Accommodating reporters. Signing autographs. Promoting himself.
“I was the first chuckwagon driver that actually made posters,” says Sutherland. “It was frowned upon in the ’70s by the old guys. They were very reserved. It was the western way – you didn’t blow your own horn. My whole life has been colourful to say the least.”
Without question. Only 17 years old, and already married to his sweetheart Debbie, he made an erratic debut at the Stampede. At 20, he placed second.
“I thought, ‘Well, there it goes – I’m never going to win this thing.’ ” But in 1974, he became the youngest-ever victor in Calgary – only 22. He claimed four of the next five crowns.
“I thought I was invincible, that I could win at will.”
But over the next 19 years, he registered only a single Rangeland victory. Carousing was taking its toll. Desperately reaching out to Alcoholics Anonymous, he’s been sober since 1995.
“(Drinking) used to consume about eight hours of my day,” says Sutherland. “(Without booze) you’ve got that eight hours to put to use and I just focused on racing horses and winning. “I got cleaned up and I won (the Stampede) five out of six years.”
Along the way to chuckwagon’s pinnacle, he cultivated a couple of trademarks – the eagle feather (tucked into his hat band before his first Stampede triumph and immediately a permanent part of his get-up) and the exuberant post-race thumbs-up.
“That’s emotional,” Sutherland says of the gesture. “When you win something and you beat a bunch of guys … some guys hide emotion, I don’t.” He managed to capture Rangeland Derby titles in his 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s – and one a couple of months shy of his 60th birthday. Imagine that.
“When I was a kid, I always had so much drive to be successful,” he says. “Internally, I felt that I had to conquer some sporting event. Fortunately, I won early and often when I was young. I got the confidence. After that, it was natural.
“At some of the bigger events, like Calgary, (I felt) it’s not mine to win, it’s mine to lose. There was just an air about it. I feel an entitlement that that show is blocked and reserved for me.”
Now Sutherland, a great-grandfather, is done. Nearly.
“Kind of surreal,” he says, “because I’ve witnessed the sport come from the real, real rough, tough, old cowboy stance to a lot of commercialization now. I’m sure I’ll miss it, but I think I’m ready to move onto another chapter in my life.”