Calgary – It’s undeniable. Kurt Bensmiller is the hottest chuckwagon driver in the land. On day eight of racing action at the GMC Rangeland Derby, Bensmiller posted a total time of 8:36.03, top in the aggregate. For the win, he takes home the Richard Cosgrave Memorial Trophy and a 2017 GMC Sierra 3500 truck.
Settled, too, are Saturday’s semifinal contestants. Bensmiller is joined by the next seven fastest drivers this week (in order) – Logan Gorst, Obrey Motowylo, Chad Harden, Chanse Vigen, Troy Dorchester, Kirk Sutherland and Evan Salmond. Saturday night they will race for a spot in the final dash for cash on Sunday. That race is a winner-take-all $100,000 race.
Kelly Sutherland, racing in his 45th and final Stampede, finished ninth in the aggregate standings, ending his hopes of a 13th championship.
Friday’s fastest times belonged John Walters (1:11.42), Colt Cosgrave (1:11.69), Mark Sutherland (1:11.85), Kris Molle (1:12.00), Layne MacGillivray (1:12.23).
The Keys to Kurt’s Success
(*should you wish to reprint this story, please credit Scott Cruickshank, Calgary Stampede)
Credit for chuckwagon success, bards of the barnyard say, should be parceled out proportionally. To the horses, 50 per cent. To the drivers, 25 per cent. To flat-out luck, 25 per cent. Kurt Bensmiller doesn’t argue.
“But the better driver you are, the better luck you’ll make,” says Bensmiller, grinning. “A long time ago, Kelly (Sutherland) and my dad (Buddy) were talking about it and they said, ‘You’ve got to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good.’ They go hand in hand, for sure.”
It’s well worth listening to this man. Because Bensmiller, top dog of the World Professional Chuckwagon Association, has been blistering the barrels for a month. June 25, he captured the High River aggregate — .15 seconds faster than Kirk Sutherland. July 3, he captured the Ponoka aggregate – .38 seconds faster than Gary Gorst. Hard to imagine that Bensmiller won’t collect the WPCA year-end crown. So don’t short-change the Dewberry, Alta., native’s contribution. Only 25 per cent? Hardly. But even he isn’t sure how deep his role goes.
“There’s different places you can be a good driver, right?” Bensmiller says. “It’s knowing when you should be pulling, when you should be send them. Barrel turns are a big thing. But it doesn’t always pan out, right? Because every night your horses don’t act exactly the same.
“If you mess up, it comes back to you most times – usually it’s driver error, not horses’ error, right? And if it is horse error? Then it’s the driver who shouldn’t have hooked the horse.” Bensmiller isn’t making many mistakes these days. After sitting in the weeds for six nights, he wrenched away the GMC Rangeland Derby’s overall lead on Thursday – Day 7 – pulling two full seconds ahead. He knows what he’s doing in Calgary.
Twice, 2014 and 2015, he's prevailed in the Dash for Cash. Now Bensmiller could make it three championships in four years. He hedges.
“It’s not till it’s over that you get the feeling that you actually accomplished anything,” says Bensmiller, who was undone by a one-second penalty in the 2016 semifinals. “It’s a different feeling every year.” For the growing stretch of dominance, he points to his dad’s summer-long presence.
“A big stride for me was when Buddy retired (in 2012),” he says. “I had him come into my barn and focus on me, right? It made my barn so much stronger and made me so much smarter handling the horses – who to hook and when to hook ’em. Without Buddy being around, there’s no way I’d be where I am today.” Drivers call this stop in Calgary their version of the Stanley Cup final. Bensmiller is no stranger for Canada’s favourite game.
“Everybody likes multi-sport athletes,” says Bensmiller. “Everybody has their own thing they do in the off-season. I mean, Mitch Sutherland is in football (drafted in 2002 by the Montreal Alouettes). Some of the guys are old bronc riders. It’s nice to have different things to talk about. But lots of people like the relationship between hockey and wagons. I use it in a lot of analogies.”
Undeniable, for instance, is the importance of team work. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle whether you’re chasing pucks or rounding barrels. Weak links are costly.
“I have two outriders – no different than your goalies,” explains Bensmiller. “No different than if I let my outriders down or I let the horses down or the horses let me down. It’s the exact same as hockey. You can take the four fastest horses in the world and put them on a wagon, and they might not run (well) because they don’t mesh, right?
"It’s no different than getting the three best hockey players in the world and telling them to play on a line – they might not work out. They have to be able to mesh.”
In the chuckwagon off-season, Bensmiller plays a lot of hockey, and has been part of some top teams including the 2009 Allan Cup champions from Bentley. But he doesn’t pretend that hockey is his priority.
“I used to have a big passion for it,” says the 34-year-old. “Now I like hanging out with the guys afterwards and having a beer and BS-ing. That’s the part I enjoy the most now.” Racing wagons is what he does – and who he is.
“I was always wondering, even in junior (with the Battlefords North Stars), how fast I could get back into the wagon box and start running,” says Bensmiller, a reinsman since 1999. “Lots of times after the playoffs, everyone would say, ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to go home and hang out for the summer?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, now I get to do what I love most – drive wagons.’ ”
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