Rae Croteau acknowleges the crowd following his final race at the Calgary Stampede on Sunday. (Leah Hennel)
BY ERIC FRANCIS, CALGARY SUN
One of the most colourful and influential drivers in the chuckwagon community has ridden off into the sunset at age 34, selling his horses and leaving a sport he loves far too early.
And Rae Croteau Jr. says if the Calgary Stampede doesn’t start working with the drivers and their associations, more prominent drivers will follow his lead, putting the sport’s future in jeopardy.
“It’s a lifestyle — it’s a passion, but people are going broke trying to do it and the Calgary Stampede is basically killing the sport by not trusting our associations,” said Croteau, who drove in 18 Stampedes until selling his outfit Sunday.
“They need to know the sport is in jeopardy and it’s in their hands to make it grow or kill it.”
He believes the drivers’ best way to try saving is it is to start a drivers’ union.
At the drivers’ meeting before Stampede, he and several colleagues expressed their unhappiness with recent rule changes that disregard the standings of the two chuckwagon associations — the World Professional Chuckwagon Association and the Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association. Up until this year the top wagon outfits in each association were given a certain number of guaranteed spots in the Stampede — the Super Bowl of chucks events.
As part of the Stampede’s ongoing steps to make the sport safer and relieve pressure from animal activists, they changed the rules to make it 100% discretionary. The Stampede is the judge and jury now on all entrants, creating fear and frustration amongst drivers who count on the Stampede in a big way.
“They don’t trust what the CPCA and WPCA are doing in terms of safety, and we have no negotiating power,” said Croteau.
“They said entrants will get in based 40% on performance, 40% on safety record and the remaining 20% based on your profile. They invited a guy who is 36th, last, in our association. Meanwhile 20- to 30-year-old guys on the cusp of making it were skipped for 50-year-olds who’ve seen the sport pass them by 10 years ago. The Stampede preaches safety yet Ryan Baptiste, who won the clean driver award, wasn’t invited. So basically everything they preached wasn’t backed up.
“That’s why there’s such an uproar from drivers. We’re not asking for millions — we’re asking for support and trust. You need a guaranteed way in or younger guys have no reason to stay in the sport.”
The volunteer chair of the Stampede’s chuckwagon committee, Mike Piper, isn’t surprised some, like Croteau, are unhappy with change. He says the Stampede’s decision to make it an invite-only affair — a discretion he says they’ve always had — has nothing to do with trust.
“If we didn’t trust them we wouldn’t have them at all,” said Piper, who insists the Stampede takes everything about each driver into account before sending 36 invites.
“We’re not here to undermine. Our vision is safety, sportsmanship and sustainability. It’s pretty hard to argue we’re not doing the right thing for the sport.”
Piper said one of Stampede’s initiatives to help develop future stars is to invite — and pay — two promising young drivers every year to watch how the world’s biggest chuckwagon show is run: what its standards are, how to race safely, how to market themselves and entertain sponsors.
With $100,000 going to the winner, the Stampede is the sport’s big carrot. Croteau fetched $42,500 for his tarp at auction (20% goes to the Stampede) and he made $29,000 in day money last week. A winner of nine major show titles, Croteau is worried more guys like him will soon start quitting due to the economics and politics.
“I’m 34 and shouldn’t be quitting, but if I invest more into this business I don’t want to wake up at 50 hoping to find a sponsor and win a wagon race to survive,” said Croteau, a third-generation wagon driver and father of two who will now focus on his oilfield rentals business.
“The bottom line has to be in black and not red. I don’t know how families do it every year.”
He said he wants to be a voice for current drivers who are fearful of saying anything as the Stampede could choose to snub them next year.
Croteau would like to see the Stampede charge a $2 sustainability fee on every ticket sold to be split amongst the two associations to help run, manage and produce better shows.
“My big vision is we have a players’ association and they give us bargaining power and the Stampede could own the sport across North America,” said Croteau, who praises several of the Stampede’s safety improvements as well as the way they treat sponsors.
“They could go everywhere as Calgary Stampede chuckwagon races.”
Not interested, said Piper.
“We want to run a great 10 days in Calgary,” said Piper, who wouldn’t comment on union talk.
“We’re not interested in owning the sport — we’re not CPR or WPCA. That’s not our vision.”
Croteau said the Stampede’s appeal process for in-race penalties also needs to be improved as does the officiating — things he’s willing to try improving from afar.
“I’m not just quitting because it pisses me off — at the end of day if I can make my mark on the sport it would be to make it better for everybody,” said Croteau.
“The Stampede is the puppet master for the entire sport. They control its fate.”
A fate Piper insists is one full of promise.