Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the WH’s February 1986 issue in the “Rodeo Arena” column.
The National Finals Rodeo moved to Las Vegas after being held in Oklahoma City for the last 20 years, and cowboys and fans alike showed up for the big event with great expectations mingled with a little trepidation. After all, the rodeo had been fine-tuned into a well-run operation in Oklahoma everyone knew his way around the Myriad arena, knew what to expect.
Las Vegas made the PRCA and WPRA a deal they couldn’t refuse in the form of a record $1.79 million in prize money, but would the 16, 000-seat Thomas and Mack arena fill up? And what about the size of the new arena floor? The building had been built primarily for basketball games, and the floor was definitely smaller than most rodeo arenas. What about the grand entry? Would everyone fit inside horseback?
Well, everyone did fit, and any concerns about how well the rodeo would run were laid aside after the first couple of go-rounds. Bobby DelVecchio, the popular bull rider from the Bronx, did plow into a flag girl opening night during the fast-paced grand entry – his horse scotched on a turn at the far end of the arena. But the seats were filled for the most part, the crowd was exceptionally warm and responsive, and the city made it plain it was glad the contestants and fans were there.
Las Vegas has always been dead after Thanksgiving. That’s why the hotels and casinos were so anxious to lure the December contest to town. Everyone was happy, especially the cowboys, who were competing for more money than ever before at the finals.
A go-round in one of the five standard events, for example, paid $8,080 to first place in team roping it was $5,050 per roper and in barrel racing, it was $5,050 for first. And first in the average was worth $17, 574 and $10,984, respectively. None of the event leaders going into the contest were assured of winning any world championships with that much cash at stake.
During the Sunday night national telecast of the last go-round, one of the commentators, six-time all-around champ Larry Mahan, noted that calf roper Raymond Hollabaugh had had a relatively poor finals, but had still won $10,000. Mahan said in his rodeo days, the best finals he ever had was worth around $6,000 – “and that was in three events.”
Even the rodeo clowns shared in the unprecedented wealth. The final Wrangler Bullfighting contest was held immediately after the Monday through Thursday go-rounds, and Wrangler kicked in the $100,000 purse. The six bullfighters who qualified for the contest – Rick Chatman, Rob Smets, Miles Hare, Skipper Voss, Rex Dunn and Jimmy Anderson – competed in four judged, 70-second freestyle matches with the best of the bad bulls. Rob Smets won the championship, for a second time, and during the year pocketed almost $65,000 from the contests.
The bucking stock evidently liked the smaller arena, because bulls and broncs fired better than ever. The timed-event hands, by contrast, quickly learned that even with a short barrier – practically lap-and-tap – they had to get out “just right” or the calves and steers would beat them to the bucking chutes at the other end. And there were a few more barrels that got knocked down on the short course. Winning barrel racing times were in the 14-second area, compared to 16 seconds a year ago. A guy had to be 9 seconds – or better – to win top dollars in calf roping 6 or better in team roping and 3 in steer wrestling.
There were a few wrecks, and one of the worst occurred during the second go-round when bareback rider Steve Carter of Klamath Falls, Ore., hung up forever to a Sutton horse, the same one J.C. Trujillo hung to at a previous NFR. The horse eluded pickup men and even a mass attempt on the part of the cowboys to gang-tackle him. Steve’s rigging finally slipped under the horse’s belly, and Steve came free, unconscious, when the bronc’s hind feet landed on his back and popped his hand loose. Remarkably, Steve was back the next night to watch. His head was bandaged, and he had lost part of an ear, but it could have been worse. And, at least he had won the first go-round.
There were some milestones at the rodeo. For one, Roy Duvall, three-time world-champion steer wrestler from Checotah, Okla., became the first man to every qualify for 20 straight NFRs. And he showed the kids he was there to win something, capturing the first go in a one-two tie with Gary Green of Keithville, La., by bringing a steer down in 3.3 seconds.
Fans might have also noticed that the arena was remarkably free of bystanders. In the past, cowboys – particularly riding-event guys – would compete and then hunker down to the side of the chutes to watch the rest of the event. There had been a handful of semi-officials hanging around for various reasons – adding to the congestion – but not this year. The arena cop was non other than Allan Keller of Olathe, Colo., the former steer-roping champ and NFR bulldogger of years gone by. Some of the younger cowboys might not have known him, but Allen has always exhibited a certain presence of command, especially when he scowls. Arguing with him would have been out of the question. Once a guy had finished his ride, he walked briskly to the side gate.
Two other important events were held in Las Vegas during Finals week. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association conducted its annual rodeo convention at the MGM Grand Hotel, and the Miss Rodeo America contest crowned Vickie Vest (Miss Utah) for the 1986 reign.
The rodeo champs were crowned during the course of the last go-round. Lewis Feild of Elk Ridge, Utah, won the bareback riding with $103,247, plus the all-around championship with a total of $130,347. A half-dozen cowboys had a chance at the all-around going into the finals, including calf-roping champ Roy Cooper of Durant, Okla., who had won the steer-roping average a couple weeks earlier at Guthrie, Okla. But Cooper didn’t enjoy his usual fantastic finals, and not only did he miss out on the all-around, he lost the calf-roping title to 20-year-old Joe Beaver of Victoria, Texas, who had a $40,000 finals. “Leave it to Beaver” took the title with $95, 869 in total earnings, which might not be too surprising considering the fact he learned the rope from Roy.
Ote Berry of Gordon, Neb., also moved ahead of the leader in steer wrestling to take that world title. Ote wound up with $97, 273 – after enjoying a $37,000 NFR.
Jake Barnes of Bloomfield, N.M., and Clay O’Brien Cooper of Gilbert, Ariz., locked up the team-roping title late in the week. The two wound up with year-end earnings of $99,048 apiece.
Brad Gjermundsen of Marshall, N.D., won a fourth saddle-bronc-riding championship, edging out Bud Munroe of Valley Mills, Texas. Brad’s total take for 1985 was $84, 652. In barrel racing, 15-year-old Charmayne James of Clayton, N.M., breezed into a second straight world title with $93,848. And Ted Nuce of Manteca, Calif., won his first bull-riding world championship by riding nine of 10 bulls, and winning nearly $43,000. His total for the year came to $107,872.