Kelly Sutherland, winner of 12 Calgary Stampede GMC Rangeland Derby Championships, 12 World Championships and seven Stampede aggregate titles, is hanging up his harnesses this year after 50 years of racing. “The King” will take his final lap around the Stampede’s “half-mile of hell.” Sutherland has reached the Stampede’s mandatory retirement age of 65.
Sutherland has won the most championships in Calgary Stampede GMC Rangeland Derby history. With his 11th championship win in 2010, Sutherland broke the 65-year record held by another Stampede legend, Dick Cosgrave. Sutherland won his 12th championship in 2011. Those victories were, to Sutherland, the most memorable of his career.
Sutherland got his start in chuckwagon racing as an outrider in 1967. He started driving his own team in 1968, and won his first Stampede championship in 1974 at the age of 22. Sutherland remembers that he had, “watched drivers compete for decades and never win the Stampede. I simply felt blessed and could not believe I had won.”
Back then, winners were named by the best aggregate time, meaning the fastest driver over 10 nights. He won three more times in the 1970s. The format changed in the 1980s, when the Stampede started naming an aggregate winner–fastest total time over 8 or 9 nights–and a Rangeland Derby Champion, the winner of the sudden death heat on Showdown Sunday. Sutherland continued winning. He has participated in 21 Showdown Sundays, taking home the top spot eight times, and has also been the Stampede aggregate winner seven times.
Sutherland credits much of his success to his two long-time lead horses, Ralph and Bobby, who ran together for 13 years.
Chuckwagon racing is a family sport for the Sutherlands. Sutherland’s father was an amateur driver who inspired his love of the sport. His brother Kirk, son Mark and grandson Dayton all compete on the circuit. He credits Mark for helping and inspiring him to stay in the game for the last few years, since they train and travel together. Sutherland also relies on the support and encouragement of his wife, Debbie, who has been riding by his side ever since he first started racing.
Sutherland’s Signature Style
Known fondly as “The King,” Sutherland is recognizable by the eagle feather in his cowboy hat and patented thumbs-up to the crowd after each race. In 1974, Sutherland’s spring had gotten off to a rocky start. His friend suggested that he tie an eagle feather to his hat for luck, like many of the bronc riders did. The feather worked, as shortly thereafter Sutherland won his first Calgary Stampede Rangeland Derby. “Somewhat superstitious,” he has worn a feather ever since. Most of the feathers he has worn throughout his career have been gifts from Indigenous Elders. The thumbs-up “started from simple excitement” after a race and has become part of his signature style. It’s his way of acknowledging his fans after each race.
Kelly Sutherland by the numbers:
- 12 time Calgary Stampede Champion
- 12 time World Champion
- 7 time Calgary Stampede Aggregate Winner
- 77 championship final heats on the World Professional Chuckwagon Association circuit
- 25 victories in championship heats on the World Professional Chuckwagon Association circuit
- $300,000 highest bid chuckwagon canvas sold at Calgary Stampede Canvas Auction (2012)
- Torchbearer in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in Grand Prairie.
- Shared the sport of chuckwagon racing with William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, during their visit to the Stampede in 2011. He was supposed to speak with them for two minutes only but ended up taking seven, and even inspired Prince William to sit on the chuckwagon next to Tom Glass.
- 2012 Guy Weadick award winner.