When the Jackson Hole Shriners Club put the kibosh on its annual cutter races in late 2017, it looked like they were surely gone for good.
In the buildup to what would have been the 47th running of the chariot races in Jackson, organizers struggled to find enough teams to make the event worth the effort. The staple of the race was a snow track, a fun deviation from the standard dirt track used for chariot racing, but time and effort used to build that track made it nonviable.
And as fun as it was for spectators to see the additional layer of snow added to the race, it may have been a major turnoff to otherwise prospective competitors.
Meanwhile, the All American Cutter/Chariot Races pressed on in Afton, where a group dedicated to continuing the legacy of the sport put on races from the Lincoln County Fairgrounds. The idea of revitalizing the Shriners race in Afton was brought up to the organizers of the All American, who were all in from the get-go.
“We wanted to do it for them,” organizer Misty Nelson said. “The Shriners got on board. I knew one of the Shriners. ... We got together with him and he was ecstatic about it.”
And so the Lincoln County Fair Winter Sports Chariot Races were born, with this year’s race the inaugural edition. The competition will take place Saturday and Sunday on the dirt track in Afton. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
“Misty and friends of hers, they kept talking about it,” Shriner Lou Scarlett said. “They brought it to me. They wanted to make it happen, and I said, ‘Boy, that’s outstanding.’ Here we are, back in it.”
In a 2017 Jackson Hole News&Guide story about the end of the Shriners Cutter Race, Shrine Club Vice President Tom Needham said only 13 teams were willing to commit to the race in 2018, when at least 25 teams were needed to make the races viable.
The dwindling participation in chariot racing is a facet enthusiasts like Nelson are keenly aware of. Her husband, Tom, has been running horses for some 40 years, taking over from his father, Archie.
With new teams hard to come by, maintaining these races is about tapping into that heritage.
“A lot of these people that are still running are running in their heritage, their father ran before them,” Nelson said. “A lot of these people are basically carrying on the family tradition.”
There’s a real hope that this year’s race will prove there’s still a market for these races. Right now, Nelson said, 24 teams have committed to running the race, with teams hailing from around West, from Afton and Gillette to Utah and Idaho.
“I think it’s great if we can keep it going, that’s outstanding,” Scarlett said. “I think the enthusiasm and hard work these folks have done down here is pretty contagious. I sure hope we get a lot of people.”
The races are set to take place at noon both days. In the days before the starting gates are filling with horses and carts, the job of organizers will be to keep the track salted, plowed and ready for what they hope is the rebirth of a western Wyoming winter staple. ￼