Dan Eoff, 57, says he was "born to be a cowboy." And no one would challenge that claim within a 200-mile radius of his 700-acre Little Red River homestead near Clinton, Ark. (pop. 2,283).
It's not just that Eoff—a burly man with a 10-gallon hat and handlebar mustache—looks the part, which he does. Or that he runs the town's feed store and makes his living raising cattle on a ranch he carved out of a brush pile. Rather, his cowboy fame has spread around the world and back because Eoff is creator and caretaker of the National Championship Chuckwagon Races, which take place each Labor Day weekend at his Bar Of Ranch.
The acclaimed race started as a simple get-together among friends and neighbors. The idea came in 1985 after Eoff and his wife, Peggy, attended a chuck wagon race in Cheyenne, Wyo. When they returned home, he suggested throwing a Labor Day party with their own "little wagon race."
The Eoffs expected a few dozen people to show up, but word of mouth spread and 500 people trekked up the ranch's dirt road to join in the festivities. The following year, more than 2,000 people came and, last year, the chuck wagon race party attracted 20,000 spectators and 375 participants in eight events—from the Oklahoma Land Rush to the Snowy River Race. Although an amateur event, Eoff awards winners with saddles, belt buckles and "Chuckwagon Bucks" that can be exchanged for a variety of goods during a weeklong trade show accompanying the race.
Danny Newland, a rodeo announcer and high school friend of Eoff, hasn't missed a Labor Day at the ranch in two decades. In fact, Newland is the voice of Clinton's chuck wagon races. His rapid-fire cadence keeps pace as chuck wagon teams race across the quarter-mile bottomland track toward the finish line.
"I've never met anyone like him," Newland says of Eoff. "He's a great guy . . . and a workaholic."
Eoff's wife concurs. "Dan always says, 'Instead of talking about what we used to do, let's talk about what we did today,'" says Peggy, 48.
That spirit explains why the Eoffs' "little wagon race" has grown into a national event where cowboys and cowgirls from across the nation come to see and be seen, as well as to match their racing mettle against other competitors. "This is the largest horse event in the country," Eoff says, adding that more than 5,000 horses and mules were "checked in" for last year's event. Not all of those animals raced, however. Many riders participate in parades through town, as well as breakfast and sunset rides on the ranch throughout the weekend. "People want to be a part of it, to dress up and show off their horses."
Some folks savor the Old West atmosphere. Gary Barnes of Pryor, Okla. (pop. 9,115), has camped out at the Bar Of Ranch eight consecutive Labor Day weekends. He and his wife make the event an annual pilgrimage—camping on "staked out" sites, cooking over a campfire, attending trade shows and concerts by country music singers. "It's a lot of fun," Barnes says.
It's also a lot of work. Organizers acknowledge that, over the years, the event has taken on a life of its own. "I don't know if we can stop," Peggy says. To which her husband, a chuck wagon racer who's never taken a prize at his own party, says he'll keep "going 'round the track" until he no longer can.
The 21st National Championship Chuckwagon Races are scheduled Sept. 1-3. Visit www.chuckwagonraces.com for more details.