Chariot racing continues

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— Chariot racing is a relatively new event to Winter Carnival's 96-year history and didn't become an integral part of the carnival until the 1980s.

While chariot racing has been around since the Grecian Olympics, the Western variety started back in the 1960s.

"Ranchers didn't have much to do in the winter, so they decided to hitch up some of their old saddle horses and see who could beat who," said local rancher Walt Wheeler.

The original chariots were all homemade.

"They used to make the old chariots out of car axles and 55-gallon drums," Wheeler said. The drums would set on sled runners.

But the sport soon progressed, said Doug Monger, a county commissioner and a longtime racer.

"We went from sled runners to wheel outfits, then there was an evolution to lighter fiberglass aerodynamic bodies to lose weight," Monger said.

The team of racehorses also went through an evolution.

"A lot of them are using ex-racehorses so they get pretty stiff competition now," said local rancher Ed Duncan.

But Wheeler said the wheels are just heavy-duty mountain bike wheels "you could buy at Wal-Mart."

The Winter Carnival in Steamboat has become a popular event for chariot racers from nearby states and the Denver area because of the crowds.

"Back in the '70s, we could draw a crowd on the circuit, but not anymore," Duncan said. "We get a crowd and everything at Winter Carnival."

Participants call chariot racing a true race sport that is thrilling for racers and fans.

"You got four horses running wide open, they'll run a quarter of a mile in 23 seconds," Duncan said.

"A lot of times there'll be only a hundredth of a second separating the two teams."

"It's the speed, the thrill, like car racing," Wheeler said. "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

And in cases of agony, it is good to know racers are required to wear helmets.

The chariot races begin at 1 p.m. Feb. 10 and 11.

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