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La Fiesta de los Vaqueros

Eight days in February: Tucson Rodeo is back

A look behind the scenes with Gary Williams

Gary Williams is about as tall as he is wide. He's one of those guys who's built akin to a World War II tank. He's the sort of guy who might climb on the back of a bucking bull. And he has.

From the stands at the Tucson Rodeo, he's probably most recognized as the guy giving the orders — to everyone. As the general manager, everyone's business is his business.

Make no mistake, the arena is his. Anywhere that people converge with thousand-pound horses and ton-plus bulls, someone needs to be in charge or bad things happen.

On Monday, I sat down for lunch with Gary to talk about the rules of rodeo and how to explain the sport to folks who might go, and would like to get a better grip on the rules. The conversation didn't go that way.

Instead, through conversation and reminiscing, we tried to get a grip on what the rodeo means to Tucson, and where it fits in the community.

Days gone by

Every February since 1925, vaqueros from around the country, Mexico and Canada, have dropped in on Tucson for a weekend or more of showing off their horsemanship, bravery and love for the fabric of a Western lifestyle, as seen in the vestige of the Wild West shows of a century ago.

Williams said that back then, the rodeo was so popular, trains re-routed through Tucson to deliver man, beast and spectators in time for the show.

Tucson fashionista and world-traveler Cele Peterson once told Gary that everywhere she traveled in the world, those who knew of Tucson knew it for its rodeo.

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“Post offices used to close, schools closed, banks closed, stores closed early, and the entire city shut down for the rodeo,” Williams said.

The rodeo gained popularity as one of the first big rodeos of the year and the only outdoor event in the winter. The fair weather and good crowds drew the best in the business, and they still drop in for a week today.

Modernity

Neither the rodeo, nor Tucson are the same as they were in 1925. Change is the only constant.

Williams pointed out that Tucson urbanized quickly. Neither of us being geographers, we agreed that our definition of “urbanized” fell somewhere in line with the notion that ranch houses built before and after WWII had increasingly little to do with ranching.

An economy once driven by mining and agriculture gradually shifted to tourism, service and real-estate development.

Similarly, the present governing body for professional rodeo, the Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association, was not even on the horizon.

Without a national governing board, rules changed from event to event, cowboys were cheated of winnings and entry fees, and there were no standards for stock animals or their treatment, said Williams, who is employed by the PRCA.

Over the years, the PRCA has standardized rodeos, and that generally has been a good thing for participants, animals, and the business of sport, Williams said.

As with any sport, there are grisly stories of broken necks, snapped bones and gaping wounds.

A few years ago, I saw Cody Whitney get hung up under 2,200-or-so pounds of jumping beef. His head bounced off the ground and the bull — all while the bull kicked his ribs and stepped on him.

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Luck and skill conspired to free him and Whitney got off the field mostly under his own power after the bull was chased back into its pen.

Whitney suffered some pretty nasty bruises. A few days later he said, “I'm OK. I feel a little sore.”

The big-show crowd-pleasers like bull riding tend to be the draw for many in the stands, but it's everything else that makes the rodeo something more than just a way to pass the afternoon.

Does Tucson mimic the rodeo?

Williams talked about how rodeo fits into Tucson these days. After all, kids are still let out from classes, vacationers come to see the show and leave money behind, and a lot of us still do our work (even in cubicles) wearing boots.

There is a perception that rodeo is a sport of beered-up rednecks hurting animals and calling it sport.

Williams was quick to point out that participants and stockmen can be fined, disqualified and barred from future participation for hurting the stock. Other than people doing the right thing, the greatest guarantor of good behavior is money. The stock is expensive, and big rodeos hand out big purses. No one wants to blow their chances at making a buck.

Rodeo is a Western holdout, not unlike Tucson. Practically no one ranches anymore. The skills on display in the arena might well be rooted in the practices of ranching, but the relationship is more cousinly than fraternal.

I get strange looks at the grocery store on occasions because of my cowboy hat. I nearly always wear boots. Even the generation of rodeoers behind me quickly took off the Stetson in favor of a Volcom (skateboard apparel) baseball hat.

Yet, every year the stands are full of people in boots, cowboy hats and blue jeans – living out a waking dream and longing for their brand of the Old West where the horses are big, the riders are strong and the action always happens somewhere around noon.

Just as sure as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show must have given readers of Western penny novels an idea of the smells and sounds of the West, rodeo today reminds a community with one foot in the dirt and the other in the city that somewhere the idea of the West still lives.

Rodeo has its anachronisms, though. The PRCA still does not sanction women for any event other than barrel racing. Outside of PRCA events, I've seen women do it all. Other sanctioning bodies allow men and women to compete and cooperate in team roping as well.

Every community has its blow-hards, and certain elements within the organization seek to politicize events beyond the scope of competition. Humor espoused by some rodeo clowns and commentators sometimes plays too much into stereotypes and divisiveness.

Williams told me, though, that one rodeo clown was not invited back this year after making too many of his jokes base and political in the last few years.

Rodeos tend to take on the persona of the community hosting them, and Tucson is a much more liberal or moderate place than some others, Williams said.

“Our presentation should reflect that,” he said.

Williams said that the sport is like no other in terms of the athletes and attitudes.

Generally, there are no coaches at the professional level. Participants must be self-directed and self-motivated.

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He also pointed out that there is a code among its participants at all levels, and that the code comes from an agricultural lifestyle of looking out for others and doing the right thing.

“Competitors don't really compete against each other. They help each other out. Sometimes [airline] baggage gets lost and competitors loan each other equipment at rodeos. You think Phil Mickelson would loan Tiger Woods his golf clubs at a tournament?” Williams said.

Williams said that many of the friendships he has in the United States and abroad stem from his time as a competitor and an administrator.

Professional rodeo may come wrapped in booze, tobacco and automotive sponsorships (what pro sport doesn't?). Down-time may be filled with uninspired Top-40 pop country music in the same way lousy arena-rock bellows at basketball games.

But beneath the corporate varnish, rodeo is about the performance, the comradery, and the tradition, and about sitting outside with friends on a warm Tucson February day.

If life mimics baseball, Tucson mimics rodeo. It is definitely worth checking out, even once. After all, it's a big enough deal that they still close the schools for it. La Fiesta de los Vaqueros might well help us understand the community around us, while affording the chance to sit in the sun with a cold beer.


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Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.com

Cort Scheer, of Elsmere, Neb., hangs on during the saddle bronc event on the second day of the Tucson Rodeo on Feb. 20, 2011.

Professional rodeo rules

Professional rodeo action consists of two types of competitions: roughstock events and timed events, and an all-around cowboy crown.

Roughstock events

Bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding a contestant's score is equally dependent upon his performance and the animal's performance. To earn a qualified score, the cowboy, while using only one hand, must stay aboard a bucking horse or bull for eight seconds.

If the rider touches the animal, himself or any of his equipment with his free hand, he is disqualified.
In saddle bronc and bareback riding, a cowboy must "mark out" his horse; that is, he must exit the chute with his spurs set above the horse's shoulders and hold them there until the horse's front feet hit the ground after the initial jump out of the chute. Failing to do so results in disqualification.

During the regular season, two judges each score a cowboy's qualified ride by awarding 0 to 25 points for the rider's performance and 0 to 25 points for the animal's effort. The judges' scores are then combined to determine the contestant's score. A perfect score is 100 points.

Timed events

Steer wrestling, team roping, tie-down roping, barrel racing and steer roping; cowboys and cowgirls at "the other end of the arena" compete against the clock, as well as against each other. A contestant's goal is to post the fastest time in his or her event. In steer wrestling and the roping events, calves and steers are allowed a head start. The competitor, on horseback, starts in a three-sided fenced area called a box. The fourth side opens into the arena.

A rope barrier is stretched across that opening and is tied to the calf or steer with a breakaway loop. Once the calf or steer reaches the head-start point -  predetermined by the size of the arena - the barrier is automatically released. If a cowboy breaks that barrier, a 10-second penalty is added.

La Fiesta de los Vaqueros

Saturday, opening day

  • 11 a.m. – gates open
  • 11:30 a.m - Canon Rodeo Photography Workshop (reservations only)
  • 12:30 p.m. Dodge Mutton Bustin' and Justin Junior Rodeo
  • 2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. ProRodeo Competition
  • 4:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. Coors Barn Dance ($5 online or at the door)
  • Tickets: $12 general admission (sections C, E, F, G); reserved seats, section A, $20; reserved seats, section B, $22.  Photography Workshop $75; call for reservations.

Sunday, second performance

Cowboys for the Cure: Cowboys and fans wear pink to raise awareness for breast cancer programs.

  • 11 a.m. – gates open
  • 12:30 p.m. Dodge Mutton Bustin' and Justin Junior Rodeo
  • 2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. ProRodeo Competition
  • 4:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. Coors Barn Dance ($5 online or at the door)
  • Tickets: $12 general admission (sections C, E, F, G); reserved seats, section A, $20; reserved seats, section B, $22.

Monday and Tuesday

  • 8 a.m. Timed events competition (slack)
  • Barrel Racing, Steer Wrestling, Tie-Down and Team Roping only.
  • 9:30 a.m. – Noon REACh program  for school children
  • Admission: $5 general admission, children 12 and under free. Available at the gate only. Free parking.

Wednesday

  • 10 a.m. to noon: Barrel Racing slack.
  • 4 p.m. Parade float decorating in the northwest area of Tucson Rodeo Grounds parking lot

Thursday, third performance

  • 9 a.m. Tucson Rodeo Parade, Over 200 non-motorized floats are on display along the one and one-half mile parade route beginning at Park Avenue and Ajo Way, proceeding south on Park to Irvington Road. Tickets for Grandstand seating at Irvington and South Sixth Avenue, $7 adults, $4 kids under 13. Call 294-1280 for grandstand tickets.
  • 11 a.m. – gates open
  • 12:30 p.m. Dodge Mutton Bustin' and Justin Junior Rodeo
  • 2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. ProRodeo Competition
  • 4:30 - 8 p.m. Coors Barn Dance ($5 online or at the door)
  • Tickets: $17-$23

Friday, Feb. 24, fourth performance

  • 11 a.m. – gates open
  • 12:30 p.m. Dodge Mutton Bustin' and Justin Junior Rodeo
  • 2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. ProRodeo Competition
  • 4:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. Coors Barn Dance ($5 online or at the door)
  • Tickets: $17-$23 

Saturday, Feb. 25, fifth performance

  • 11 a.m. – gates open
  • 12:30 p.m. Dodge Mutton Bustin' and Justin Junior Rodeo
  • 2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. ProRodeo Competition
  • 4:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. Coors Barn Dance ($5 online or at the door)
  • Tickets:  $18-$24

Sunday, Feb. 26, final performance

  • 11 a.m. – gates open
  • 12:30 p.m. Dodge Mutton Bustin' and Justin Junior Rodeo
  • 2 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. ProRodeo Competition
  • 4:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. Coors Barn Dance ($5 online or at the door)
  • Tickets: $20-$26