World champion chariot racer Ralph Atkinson and his mules, Gyp and Jude. Photo by Sandy Powell

What drives a person to compete in chariot racing? Is it the cutthroat rivalry among the competitors that show up annually to strut their stuff? Is it the flashy handmade chariots? Or the costumes that the drivers sometimes don?

I met up with Ralph Atkinson, who lives in Antelope Valley, Nevada (north of Reno) and owns the new world-record in chariot racing. He succinctly answered the question for me—”It’s the most addictive form of Teamster Crack on the market,” he says. “Once you try it, it’s so addictive—the speed, the rivalry. You can’t get it out of your system.”

Ralph didn’t climb the typical ladder in the equestrian world to end up with a world-record in chariot racing. Ralph grew up in southern California on his family’s alfalfa farm and only got to ride horses from time to time at the neighboring stables. He enjoyed riding but never owned horses until later in life.

As an adult, he went to work at Pacific Bell and later was able to transfer to Nevada Bell. He had a choice for the job transfer back in 1979 and chose Reno because of the hunting and fishing in the area. His love for the backcountry led him to purchase some burros in 1981 to help him haul in gear. He started with three burros and then added a saddle mule to lead his pack team. He started showing his burros in the donkey class at Bishop Mule Days in 1983 and soon after began training his burros how to drive.

Photo owned by Sandy Powell. Not for reproduction.
Gyp and Jude in sync with all feet off the ground. Photo by Sandy Powell.

And then it happened. At Bishop Mule Days in 1992, a friend let Ralph try out his chariot. The addiction began and he’s been hooked ever since. His first chariot team, Burros from Hell, entertained the crowds at Bishop for seven years. He then acquired a team of mules, Jim and Joe, who went on to win six World Championship Teamster titles at Bishop Mule Days.

His current team of sister mules, Gyp and Jude, are Tennessee Walkers who have earned eleven World Championship Teamster titles. Ralph says the mules know when it’s “show time” for a chariot race. They get antsy and it’s not easy to keep them lined up at the start. It is also amazing to see these girls go from warp speed in one event to doing a farm show shortly after — a testament to their temperament.

In addition to his mules, Ralph also owns two horses, Bella (a Quarter horse) and Lady (a Paint). But let’s face it, Ralph is crazy about his mules. He tells me that they are treated like “rodeo queens dressed in mule costumes.”

Ralph and his team of mules can also be seen at the Reno Rodeo pulling the Reno Rodeo Chuckwagon. In 2004, he saw the Reno Rodeo Chuckwagon at Bishop Mule Days being pulled by a team of mules. He asked around and learned that they had hired teamsters from different parts of California and Nevada to pull the wagon. Ralph reached out to the Reno Rodeo and shared his interest in pulling chuckwagon. He let them know he was local and he became the permanent teamster shortly thereafter.

Photo owned by Sandy Powell. Not for reproduction.
Showing off the Reno Rodeo Chuckwagon at the Oakdale Rodeo in California. Photo by Sandy Powell.

Currently, for the Reno Rodeo events, Ralph uses a 4-up team of mules to pull the chuckwagon, which includes his team of mules and a borrowed team from Grant Dalen (a past president of the Reno Rodeo in 1988). The chuckwagon makes nine nightly appearances at the Reno Rodeo in addition to bringing the cattle into the arena. At the rodeo, the chuckwagon leads ahead of the stagecoach (pulled by six Quarter horses), and either Jason Goodman’s Percherons or Cal Crush’s Clydesdales for the nightly appearances. He also pulls the Reno Rodeo Chuckwagon at seven parades and gives hay rides at the Special Kids Rodeo.

So how does one go about training for chariot races? Ralph starts the first week of March training three days per week. He usually drives his team of mules for three miles to loosen them up, and then either works with the chariot or practices log-skidding. In April, he adds the other team for the Reno Rodeo—working with either a 2-up or 4-up while training.

Photo owned by Sandy Powell. Not for reproduction.
Full speed ahead at Bishop Mule Days. Photo by Sandy Powell.

And what about those chariots that come in all shapes, sizes, and forms? “There are no Chariots-R-Us stores so each chariot is one-of-a-kind with a little human ingenuity. My chariot is made out of a fiberglass bucket—you know, one of the buckets used by the phone company on the boom trucks,” Ralph explains. “They only use the buckets for a few years and have to retire the buckets which are still in good shape. I still have a few extra in storage.”

His chariot design has made some changes over the years. “In the beginning, I rolled it a few times in Bishop because the axles weren’t wide enough,” he says. He also has had a few bad crashes over the years. One year he was center-punched and his bucket disintegrated, resulting in a cracked sternum. Never one to give up easily, Ralph went out the next day to race by borrowing a friend’s chariot. He now wears a bull-riding vest and helmet to help offset any crash injuries.

Photo owned by Sandy Powell. Not for reproduction.
Leaning into the turn to capture a new world record time: 28.722 seconds at Bishop Mule Days, 2017. Photo by Sandy Powell.

And what goes through Ralph’s mind when he watches the movie Ben-Hur? “When I watch that movie, I always think to myself, how can I get some of those wicked spikes on my chariot… a rubber version of course!” Ralph says with a chuckle. For some good entertaining fun, you can catch one of Ralph’s chariot races at Bishop Mule Days or the Grass Valley Draft Horse Classic. He will be sporting a new red, white, and blue costume this year (and maybe some new spikes on his chariot). He is also easy to spot proudly pulling the chuckwagon at the Reno Rodeo for nightly appearances.

Story and Photographs by Sandy Powell 

Sandy Powell is a writer and professional photographer, based out of the Eastern Sierra. She uses her photography to capture the spirit of the Old American West. She is currently working on a book, Western Life in the Sierra Nevada, which will include a chapter on the Nevada Sierra and comes out late 2019.