Racer looks for an edge

with eye-in-the-sky GPS

July 25, 2004

Steve Makris
Technology Writer
The Edmonton Journal

Mark Sutherland is racing his chuckwagon into the space age.


The 33-year-old Grande Prairie , Alberta , native has been using cutting-edge technology to fine-tune his performance, on the track and off.


Using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, a 24-satellite-based network thousands of kilometres in space, Sutherland keeps a record of his speeds.


“I time my speed during practice, especially during the first crucial barrel-turning 10 seconds, using different combinations of horses until I find the best team of four,” he said.


Sutherland, affectionately nick-named “High-Tech Redneck” by his more down-to-earth colleagues, has been getting by with a handheld $200 GPS unit from Garmin. He duct-tapes it to the handrails of his chuckwagon, leaving it running during races.


But last week he tried a tech upgrade from CSI Wireless, a Calgary-based company that specializes in GPS.


CSI quality control engineer Peter Hill came to Edmonton to wire a $500 wireless self-powered GPS system on Sutherland's chuckwagon. It is similar to systems CSI sells for tracking trucks and cars, and helping farmers accurately steer tractors worldwide.


The GPS information was sent wirelessly from Sutherland's wagon to a nearby laptop computer in the stands and instantly showed speeds and locations during the race.


In one of the races this week at Northlands Park, for example, Sutherland clocked in at 19.2 km/hr (12 mph) going into the first barrel, just metres away from a dead stop, accelerating to 24.3 km/hr (15 mph) on the track, 52.8 km/hr (32 mph) on the backside stretch, and crossing the finish line at 45.2 km/hr (27 mph).


“The accuracy of this system is within a metre,” said Hill. “We can get updates instantly every half-second, and we can analyze this information after the race.”


Sutherland thinks chuckwagon racing can draw new fans with some technological help.


“Spectators could see our speeds during the whole race and understand the inside complexities of four teams of four horse-driven chuckwagons going all-out against each other,” he said.


Sutherland would eventually like to know his speed during the race.


“If I knew how fast I was going on the track, I could better judge when to pass another wagon or follow behind . . . it's like knowing how much more horsepower you have left,” he said. “But now, I have no time to look at the dials. I'm going all out.”


“I would really like to also know how much torque is generated when my team of horses bursts out when the start horn blasts,” he said. “Maybe I can figure that out now.”


Sutherlands admits no computer technology can predict what can actually happen in a chuckwagon race.


“I think most of the race depends on what the horses do – they are different every time,” he said, adding chuckwagon racers depend on instinct and each others' expertise when making split-second decisions during speeds reaching 70 km/hr (42 mph).


Is high tech rubbing off on Sutherland's competitors?


“Some younger drivers are showing interest in what I am doing, but most of them are old-school,” he said. “But you know, today I can find more people who can use GPS than run an old-fashioned compass.”