GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. - Mitch Sutherland knows all about horsepower. Sutherland, the 31-year-old owner of Grande Prairie, Alberta's, Hitch'em Oilfield Hauling company, can "torque" about horsepower al...
NO SPEED LIMITERS: Mitch Sutherland's trucking business helps fund another form of horsepower -chuckwagon racing.
GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. –Mitch Sutherland knows all about horsepower. Sutherland, the 31-year-old owner of Grande Prairie, Alberta’s, Hitch’em Oilfield Hauling company, can “torque” about horsepower all day -not only because he’s familiar with it from his fleet, but also because he knows it intimately from his summer sideline: he’s a champion chuckwagon racer.
The man comes by both facets of his “horse sense” honestly, having grown up in a family with a long history of driving and of racing. Sired in Grande Prairie, Sutherland spent four and a half years studying “a little bit of this and a little but of that” at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, but quit half a year before getting his degree from the Faculty of Arts.
“I could tell that it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go,” he says. The experience in the halls of academe didn’t propel him directly toward becoming the latest racing and trucking Sutherland, though; for a while he trod a decidedly different path where neither trucks nor horses were part of his stable of interests. Instead, he was into pigs -as in pigskins.
“I played football through high school and a year of junior,” Sutherland remembers, playing linebacker first and later, when he got to college, moving up to defensive end. He was good enough to attract the attention of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, who drafted him. The CFL didn’t work out for him, though.
“It was a little political at that level,” he says, admitting that the experience left a sour taste in his mouth. “But that’s the way she goes.”
He came back home to Alberta and worked construction for a year, “fixing camp shacks and stuff like that,” and then got into trucking with his dad Kirk, who’s had trucks as long as Mitch can remember. “He was hauling mud when he was 14, 15 years old,” the younger Sutherland remembers. Mitch drove for his dad’s company for a couple of years, then made a deal that resulted in him becoming co-owner.
“I could have either had the truck I was driving,” he says, “or half of all the company’s trucks -which was three at the time.”
After opting for the latter arrangement, they spent the next decade building the company to a point where they had 11 trucks in service, though they downsized to four recently and plan to purchase one more to run through the winter “and see how things pan out.”
Hitch’em does oil service work such as hauling rental equipment, pipe and the odd load of mud. Sutherland says they used to get into more things, like end dump work, “but we got rid of those trucks because there are just too many out there. There’s no money in it anymore.”
His busy season is November to April, and he stays mainly around the Peace country, ranging from Hinton in the south to Tumbler Ridge in the west and as far east as Slave Lake. He doesn’t drive much during the summer, which suits him just fine -it frees him up to pursue racing. It seemed inevitable that Sutherland would wear a chuckwagon racing hat eventually: his dad has been racing them since before Mitch was born.
“I travelled with him until I was 17 or 18,” he says, “then when I started into the football thing that took over my summers so I wasn’t around it for about five years.”
When the final gun sounded on his football career, however, he started accompanying his dad to the races again and, when Kirk eventually went south to compete in World Professional Chuckwagon Association events, Mitch took up the Western Chuckwagon Association (WCA) seat his dad was vacating.
“I did that for a couple of years then took a year off before getting back into it last year,” he says. His timing couldn’t have been better: he won the WCA title last year and again in 2009.
WCA events let him stick close to home. Most races are within an hour’s drive of his base, the farthest being three hours away, in Manning.
That suits him for now and lets him keep riding herd on the trucking company which, while he aspires to following his father Kirk, uncle Kelly and cousin Mark into the WPCA, keeps him plenty busy for now.
“Racing locally, you’re home for three or four days a week so you still have time to work the trucks if you have to,” he says. “With the other circuit, you’re gone for two months solid. I do want to get there but it’s going to be a bit of a challenge managing the company from the road. But I think it can be done if you have the right personnel back at home looking after stuff for you.”
Right now he and his wife, Heather, run the business and Kirk “helps out here and there.” Mitch does the dispatching and managing, which keeps him hopping.
“I’ve got my plate full and now with all the safety stuff the oil companies are starting to require to show you’re compliant with the regulations, it’s more or less a full-time job.” And while that makes things a little more challenging for him, “It’s not a bad thing; it’s just time-consuming.”
Being as hands-on as he can be -and being around enough to be hands-on -has other benefits, too. “I have more trucks than I do drivers so sometimes I end up in the truck,” he says. “I don’t mind it and it actually seems that the more you’re out there, the more work you get out of it because you’re out talking to the (customer) and you’re not just a driver collecting a paycheque.”
Business has been quiet since April, but he’s optimistic for the winter and hopes it’ll be decent like last winter was. For the near term though, “It’s basically survival, keeping the wheels turning and the wolves away from the door. The recession is turning around, but the price of oil and gas still has to come back up. Another year or two and that’ll be back -hopefully at that point I can afford to have a manager.”
He admits that his business plans also depend on how much fun he’s having with chuckwagon racing. And fun it is.
“It’s been getting better and better every year,” he says. “We’re getting more drivers and more money. It seems like a natural thing for me, I’ve been around it so much and I love horses to begin with.” He admits there isn’t a lot of money in the sport, at least at the level he occupies currently, “But I can break even and I’m having a whole bunch of fun. It’s just a love for the sport -it’s a lot of fun or I wouldn’t be doing it because it’s way too much work.”
For aspiring chuckwagon racers, Sutherland has this advice: “Ambition goes a long way, especially up in our association. If you’ve got the drive for it, you can make it happen. You have to go out and get your sponsor, and if you can find someone who’ll help you out for the first year, that’s a big help.”
He says a chuckwagon racing newbie can get away with spending only about $10,000 dollars on horses and still be competitive for a year or so, which he says is a good way to get one’s hooves wet.
Perhaps self deprecatingly, Sutherland says success in the sport of chuckwagon racing is “Probably 90% the horses.” He admits the driver does make a difference, and that it probably takes about 10 years to become a really good driver, but “after that it’s horsepower.”
It’s the thrill of competition that keeps it exciting, though. “Our club is getting more competitive every year,” Sutherland says. “The top three guys are within a second of each other.” In contrast, Sutherland says that at the higher level, such as the WPCA, the top 20 only have a second between them. “If you hit a barrel or something, you’re at the bottom.”
Right now, however, with the 2009 championship under his belt, Mitch Sutherland is at the top.