Kurt Bensmiller Photo Credit: Mike Ridewood / Calgary Stampede

Once upon a time, a decent showing made him happy.

 

A nice finish, a nice cheque. Cool. Then onto the next event.

 

But not anymore. Those days are long gone.

 

Kurt Bensmiller, as the chuckwagon-racing world well knows, guns for first place with singleminded intensity and unprecedented success. Anything less is a letdown.

 

“I used to be the guy who, if I made the top four or the top eight, I was excited, but I got over that a few years ago,” said Bensmiller. “To me if I’m not setting (a goal) to be No. 1 at every show, it’ll hinder me. There’s no point in striving for the middle, right?

 

“In my head, it’s doesn’t matter who’s in your corner or who you’re running against, if you don’t push yourself, nobody else can make you do it.”

 

Right now there’s no arguing – he is the sport’s dominant driver.

 

In 2017, the Dewberry, Alta., native ran away with the World Professional Chuckwagon Association’s year-end title, in addition to claiming the Ponoka Stampede and the Calgary Stampede’s aggregate title and showdown dash. Add it up and he’s the first-ever modern-day Grand Slam winner.

 

“Nobody else has been able to do that in wagon-racing history so far,” said Bensmiller. “I’m sure someone will eventually, but to be the first one means a lot. To break records and to set them, it’s definitely meant a lot.”

 

And in 2018 there have been few signs of fading.

 

Capturing the High River, Alta., and Saskatoon shows, Bensmiller tops the heap once again. In the season’s five events, he’s slotted No. 1 or 2 in the aggregate four times.

 

And now he’s back in Calgary, where he’s won the GMC Rangeland Derby three of the past four years. Racing starts Friday night.

 

“The Stampede you have to treat it like it’s in its own category because of what’s at stake,” said Bensmiller. “If a guy treats it like every other show we go to, I think your end result will be the same.”

 

Vying for $1.45 million in prize money are 36 drivers. For the first time in decades, not one of them is Kelly (The King) Sutherland.

 

But the field features the finest drivers in the WPCA – Vern Nolin, Kirk Sutherland, Evan Salmond, Rick Fraser round out the circuit’s top five. Kris Molle tops the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association’s standings.

 

Everyone’s got a hunch.

 

“There’s probably about five guys here that are legitimate contenders who can win with a penalty – and there’s 31 of us that have to stay clean,” said Chad Harden, the 2009 champ in Calgary. “Maybe there’s 10 guys that are actual contenders. And of those? There’s probably three that are guaranteed to make the final eight.”

 

There is plenty of day money – more than ever, in fact – but everyone wants to earn a spot in the Sunday Showdown Final Heat, when $150,000 is up for grabs, including $100,000 to the victor.

 

Bensmiller, of course, is the favourite, a label he embraces.

 

“I always like it better,” the 35-year-old said. “When you’re the one being chased, it’s a lot easier to hang out there. It’s them other guys who have to take the risks to try to catch you. I’ve never liked being the one who chases. I know a lot of the other guys don’t like being on top – they like coming from behind. I’m more (comfortable) being on top and being chased.”

 

Explaining his success in Calgary – he’s been at least a semifinalist for six straight years – he talked about horse power, both quality and quantity. To win here last year, he ran 13 horses.

 

“It’s not like any of our other shows – it’s a marathon,” he said. “Barn depth definitely gets overlooked (by fans and reporters). People don’t understand. I’ll have a couple main outfits, but I’ve been able to swap in other fresh horses as the week goes on as I see fit and still have the running power to stay at the top.”

 

Luck, too, plays a role – barrel draws, track conditions, wreck avoidance – but Bensmiller isn’t superstitious.

 

“Not in hockey, not in wagons,” he said, chuckling. “I’m pretty calm and cool and collected, I would say. I don’t put on one pant leg first or anything like that. My kids give me some rocks and stuff like that to put in my wagon, but that’s more for them.”

 

Whatever he does, it certainly works.

 

Last year’s Stampede, especially, stood as a striking triumph for him.

 

“I was pretty excited because it was just getting back (to the winner’s circle in Calgary),” said Bensmiller. “After I won back-to-back years (in 2014 and 2015) … it showed everyone that I could still do it and I wasn’t just a couple-year wonder. That brought a whole new special feeling to it.”