Fifty years of racing, winning and family.
That was pretty much the theme of the Salute to Kelly Sutherland & Chuckwagon Racing in Clarkson Hall at Evergreen Park on Saturday.
In an event put by Evergreen Park, the Chuckwagon Heritage Foundation and Stompede, Sutherland - who celebrated his 66th birthday the day after the event - was praised, kidded and cajoled by a group of speakers including long-time chuckwagon supporter Al Side; long-time Stompede volunteer Alex McDonald (who spoke on behalf of himself and former Stompede board member Glen Keddie, who couldn't make the event); former world boxing champion from Grande Prairie Willie deWit; Western Chuckwagon Association member Lane Kimble; Chuckwagon Heritage Association member Justin Tidd; and new Stompede president Trevor Denis.
Side's speech stretched back to the Kelly's early days in the sport in the 1960s and those involved, including people like Ralph Vigen, Dave Lewis, Tommy Sinclair, Tommy Dorchester, Archie Hackwell and Kelly's father Max. Hackwell was Kelly's first tarp sponsor and Max was an important builder of the sport. They, along with people like Side himself, Fred Tissington and others, were instrumental in forming Stompede in 1978.
McDonald, who spent years as a volunteer grooming the track at Stompede cutting figure-eights like no one else, said he was told by Keddie to "not blow smoke up anyone's _ss".
He didn't, talking about several Sutherland "adventures" including one that featured some interesting evenings at Sutherland's bar in Clairmont. He also told a story about looking for Kelly on the grounds of the Calgary Stampede and found him behind the bucking chutes sharing knee-slapping laughs, and a few beers, with a "little" guy. McDonald said that was the first time he ever met former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, who became a very good friend of Kelly's.
De Wit, who is now a judge based in Calgary, had some good-natured jabs to hand out and also praised the toughness of chuckwagon drivers. He said it was appropriate on his last night of racing at the Calgary Stampede Kelly ended the night with blood streaming down from his head after, de Wit said, he had been kicked by a horse..
He added, "a horse whisper had spoken with the horse and the horse told him he had wanted to do that for a long time."
Kimble, one of the most successful drivers on the WCA circuit, credits Sutherland for getting him started in the sport.
He got some horsepower from Sutherland - 12-time Calgary Rangeland Derby champion and 12-time World Professional Chuckwagon Association champion - and several other WPCA drivers and, handily won his first-ever race held at Stompede using a foursome of steeds that had hundreds of races under their belt.
Chuckwagon racing was so easy he was sure there would eventually be a sign - just like the one that says Home of Kelly Sutherland on it at the north entrance to the city - erected for him with "Home of Lane Kimble" on it.
On Day 2 of Stompede Kimble hit three barrels and at that point realized that winning over dozens of championships like Sutherland has might be a little more difficult than he thought. Put the sign on hold . . . winning races is more than just about having good horses!
Kimble praised Sutherland's dedication to the sport realizing, now that he has been in it for a few years, it's a year-round job of worry, planning and expertise.
He said he was also amazed with Sutherland's knowledge of horses relating a story about a time in Dawson Creek when he couldn't figure out why one of his horses wasn't pulling properly. He said he spent a lot of time trying to diagnose the problem checking out the horse from top to bottom and finally went to Sutherland, who walked into the barn and within seconds had it figured out. "Your horse has a pulled groin," said Sutherland, who walked out of the barn past a stunned Kimble scratching his head amazed at the quick, and correct, diagnosis.
Tidd and Denis, who have been heavily involved in the sport through their association with the Heritage Foundation and Stompede respectively, also heaped praise on Sutherland for putting Grande Prairie and the local chuckwagon racing scene on the map.
Mayor Bill Given gave greetings from the city comparing Sutherland to feisty just-retired councillor Helen Rice. County of Grande Prairie No. 1 Reeve Leanne Beaupre sent a recorded message telling Sutherland how much an inspiration he has been for County residents and those around the province, country and world.
And then Sutherland, who picked up the nickname ``King`` during his 50-year career, spoke.
His wife Debbie, who has been a backbone of the Sutherland racing operation for 50 years, was just 16 and Kelly 17 when they got married, he said.
He recalls telling his dad, Max, that he and Debbie were getting hitched. Kelly didn't have a job and money was a bit of a problem in the Sutherland family.
He said his dad was broke "and I was broker."
Max told him he wasn't going to work pumping gas so he phoned a friend and got him a job at a rig site in northern Alberta - three weeks on and a week off.
During one of those weeks off he and Debbie were married on a Wednesday and headed out on a honeymoon - to Pouce Coupe. They spent two days there and then "upgraded" for two more days to Dawson Creek . . . and then it was back to the rig for another three weeks.
Debbie and Kelly have three children - Tara, Mark (a WPCA driver) and Mandi as well as six grandchildren (grandson Dayton is also a driver) and one great-grandchild. Tara is married to WCA chuckwagon driver Dean Dreger. Kelly`s brother, Kirk, is also a driver as is Kirk`s son Mitch. Another brother, Murray, died in an accident several years ago.
Kelly, winner of the Grande Prairie Chuckwagon Stompede in 1979, talked about the importance of family and the role they played in his success. He said it was really tough on the family, sometimes with and sometimes without him, from May to September during chuckwagon racing season missing graduations, weddings and other events in Grande Prairie.
He said there are a lot of people who don't like him, but "they don't know me."
Those who know him know about him visiting children at a cancer clinic in Calgary three times a year to pick up their spirits and encourage them.
His father had cancer so Kelly has some experience with the disease. The doctors told Kelly that Max had six months to live after the initial diagnosis. When he told Max the bad news they agreed they weren't going to give up. They didn't, ensuring Max got treatment, kept positive and kept fighting. He lived for 13 years after that and that's the story Kelly can tell to those young people battling the disease thinking there is no hope.
Kelly, other speakers said, worked tirelessly to promote the sport and rolled his sleeves up to do such mundane things as spending hours picking rocks off of race tracks so drivers and horses would be safe; using his own resources to help shape tracks; sponsor events related to the sport of rodeo and chuckwagons racing; and helping out after the disastrous floods in High River.
He was also one of the first chuckwagon drivers who didn`t shy away from a reporter or camera and was, as Al Side said, ``a fresh face for the sport``.
Sutherland said it didn't matter if fans in the stands were cheering for him or against him, the important thing was they were there supporting the sport.
Kelly said, for years, he and former racing legend Tommy Glass of High River didn't get along.
"It never came to fisticuffs," he said, "but we did bump chests a few times."
That all changed in 2011 when the Royal Couple, Kate and William, visited Calgary.
Kelly said Glass had his nose a bit out of joint when he, and not Tommy, was selected to officially meet the couple while Glass had to remain in the seat of the chuckwagon.
Breaking all protocol Sutherland not only showed the Royals some photos and other items from the time the Queen was in Calgary and had her photo taken with Kelly at the Stampede, he also patted William on the back (a huge no-no) saying he would make a good outrider and then also advised him he should ``go sit on the seat of the chuckwagon with Tommy Glass - he`s a world champion driver.``
Sutherland said, ``Tom and I have been good ever since then.``
Kelly also talked about the sport and how expensive it is and the importance of financial and fan support. He said he has spoken to the organizers of the Calgary Stampede about the fact prize money has not been raised in 15 years. He says he is going to remain involved in the promotion of the sport.
Grande Prairie will always be his home, he said, and he is going to ``give back`` to the community in as many ways as he can.
His first two years in the sport he was an outrider and is looking forward to getting back onto horses and spending time with his grandchildren, including a granddaughter who is in love with them and would ``ride when it`s 20 below out.``
If they ride out to Evergreen Park they`ll be able to trot by a road sign that says ``Kelly Sutherland Way`` - the fist-ever road named after anyone at the Park. That honour was bestowed on Sutherland at Saturday`s event. He also received a beautiful silver belt buckle that included his name, the words ``King`` and ``50 Years".
Others said Sutherland`s records will never be broken, but the King himself feels, because of how sport has changed with training, better athletes and other advances his marks will fall at some point.
It will probably take more than 50 years!