The Return to the E
The COVID-19 crisis shut down most of the United States the same week Guthrie, Oklahoma’s Lazy E Arena hosted its 36th annual Cinch Timed Event Championship, paying all-around hand Taylor Santos $100,000 and change—the last big check paid out before rodeo cowboys found themselves unemployed for the first time since the Cowboy Turtles Association was formed in 1936.
The Lazy E, though, wouldn’t let cowboy sports stay down for long. The team joined forces with the Professional Bull Riders the last weekend in April to host the association’s first event back (and the first professional sporting event back), without fans but to a live audience on CBS Sports. And now, as public facilities across the Western world remain shuttered, the Lazy E—privately owned by the McKinney family—is taking its place as the epicenter of the cowboy world. That’s a position it was originally built for back in 1984, and one the owners and staff have been striving to reclaim.
When newspaper publisher and entertainment magnate E.K. Gaylord II built the Lazy E Arena, he did so to host the National Finals of Steer Roping in conjunction with the National Finals Rodeo just 30 miles south down I-35 in Oklahoma City. When the E opened its doors in 1984, it was just in time for that year’s NFSR. But the next year, the NFR moved to Las Vegas, leaving the NFSR at the E for another few decades.
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In 1985, the Lazy E hosted its first Timed Event Championship, and would go on to host the earliest incarnations of the PBR—Bullnanza—and eventually the Dodge National Circuit Finals and the first few USTRC National Finals of Team Roping.
The Gaylord family sold the Lazy E to Wes Adams and Michael Coronado in 2005. Adams, who grew up with modest means but built a successful Las Vegas-based construction business, had always dreamed of owning the E.
“My dad was very analytical, and he tried to make himself believe that buying the Lazy E was a business decision,” Wes’ son and NFR header Jay Adams said. “But it wasn’t. He just loved the idea of owning it, and they had a pretty good run, too.”
When Wes passed away in 2011, his family started to look at parting with the E—including its famed Quarter Horse breeding operation and the arena it-self. The McKinney family, who also own Texas-based Reliance Ranches, was immediately interested.
“We’d been a client on the Lazy E Ranch side since we started Reliance Ranches back in 2004,” said Micah McKinney, Vice President of Reliance Ranches and current owner of the E, along with his father, Gary. “We were familiar with the staff and the property and all that. We were in Ruidoso in 2011, and we were having breakfast with Butch Wise, the manager of the ranch side. (And the current AQHA President). He said there may be an opportunity to buy it. We started trying to purchase it in 2011, and we went through all the due diligence and couldn’t ever get everything right. We left it alone, and again around May of 2013, it came back to us. We ended up being able to get a deal done mid-June and the closing was in November.”
Like Wes Adams before them, the McKinneys weren’t necessarily looking at the arena purchase as a money-maker.
“The arena was always a sentimental property to us because it’s been a pillar of the Western community since its inception in 1984,” McKinney said. “We were more interested in the ranch side of it and the racing side of it, because that’s what we were doing at that stage. The arena needed a face lift. From a business stand-point, when we purchased the property, it needed a pick-me-up. Our goal from the get-go was for the arena to break even and let the ranch do what it was going to do.”
As the ink dried on the closing documents, the McKinney family started their renovations of the E, adding a covered are-na, remodeling the cantina and restrooms, buying additional property for a warm-up arena across the street, building a bridge across the property’s lake to connect the stalls to the arena and much more.
General Manager and Vice President Dan Wall joined the E as well in 2013, and Wall went on a mission to recruit top-tier events to the facility.
“When I took the job, I hadn’t been out to the E in years,” Wall said. “When I drove in and laid eyes on the property, the stalls, the infrastructure, it had lost a little shine. With a little bit of infrastructure development, some tender love and care and getting out and beating the bushes, you look at our events calendar now and I’d stack that against the top three or four facilities in the country.”
Wall focused his efforts on promoting the Lazy E’s unique features—features that, up until then, had been looked at unfavorably.
“People said the E won’t be able to get big events because it’s so far off the interstate and out in the country,” Wall said. “But it’s a good thing we’re four miles off the interstate. The Lazy E offers a privately owned, single, gated entrance to the property; a lake; and a safe, family-friendly environment. We just started promoting and selling that. If you’re going to spend five days or a week living in your trailer, would you rather do it downtown? Or would you rather go camp on grass, close to your stall where you can cook out, fish and trail ride?”
The facility improvements, paired with the central location of the E, brought the National Little Britches Finals from Pueblo, Colorado, to the Lazy E in 2016, along with the event’s 1,200 contestants and 1,900 horses.
“The NLBRA put their faith in our team, and we’re really grateful they believed in our vision and our efforts before anyone else,” Wall said.
So when COVID-19 struck the country in early March, the Lazy E was uniquely poised to lead. Wall and his team of 16 full-time employees—none of whom were laid off during the shutdown—jumped into action.
“We lost eight events in March, April and May,” Wall said. “But I would be surprised if we didn’t fill all of the open dates we’ve got. I don’t want to be perceived as taking advantage of another’s demise or loss, but when you’re shut down and the PBR calls and says they’ve got this crazy idea, and asks if it’s too crazy for us, we talked through their whole safety plan and how it would fit at the Lazy E. Whether you believe in a divine power or not, it’s one of those things that was meant to happen. We had a very extensive safety and reopening plan in cooperation with the PBR. Once we laid it out in front of our city, county and state officials, and we proved to them that we were going to go forward in a practical and safe manner, we’ve had nothing but support from our local and state government. We’re not thumbing our nose at this beast. It’s nothing to take lightly when we’re talking about the impact this pandemic has had on people’s lives and the economy. But when we handle our sanitation and cleaning properly and give people the chance to social distance, we feel comfortable we can go forward and meet every local, state and federal requirement. We take a 7,200-capacity building and scale it down to 2,000 people to allow for a six-foot radius around an individual. Campers can spread out over 134 acres. All of that puts us in a situation, combined with state and local government support, to get back to work and life as close to normal as possible.”
When the Reno Rodeo canceled in May, the Bob Feist Invitational’s owners Daren and Kami Peterson and Corky Ullman pivoted quickly to the E.
“Honestly, when we first started looking at venues, we knew it would have to be Oklahoma or Texas because those states were opened up more than other states,” Kami Peterson said. “We had several facilities call us, and Dan reached out to us and really wanted the business from the get-go. He was incredibly easy to work with. And when he had the same dates open up, it seemed like it was meant to be. They bent over backward to make sure the prestige of the event was how we want it to remain, and they even found us the host hotels. They were constantly keeping us updated on ticket sales and constantly communicating anything we needed, wanting to keep everything at the level we’re used to in Reno. When we were looking at changing venues, we had to find an arena that could accommodate the hard-running steers and the long barrier.”
The 2020 BFI welcomed a record 140 teams, sold out VIP and club seating and sold some 3,569 tickets. It paid out the historic event’s largest purse in history—some $679,000—and $2.4 million for the week, not including the prizeline. And the team counts for the week: 1,145, including the 138 breakaway ropers.
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Shortly after announcing the addition of the 2020 BFI to the E’s lineup, the National High School Finals Rodeo announced that the association would move its finals from Nebraska to Guthrie—giving the Lazy E yet another premier event.
“My granddad always said if you’re big enough to rope it make sure you’re big enough to handle it,” Wall laughed, when interviewed just days after producing the Ruby Buckle Barrel Race—another national-level event in early June. “We always thought we had more lead in our pants than we did. This many events of this caliber is a monumental task, but with our team, I’m confident we can pull it off.”
The Lazy E brings in some 400 part-time employees for its events, who do everything from waitressing in the Cantina to cleaning the arena before and after events.
“We’re confident in our team at the E,” Wall said. “We’ve got two amazing event directors in Helen Price and Jessica John-son and an incredible maintenance team that can do anything, from heat and air and electrical and welding. We’ve got every piece of heavy equipment. With those guys on board behind us, we know every-thing is not going to go right, but we pride ourselves on responding better and faster than any other facility in the country.”
“Our staff is everything,” McKinney echoed. “From an operational standpoint, nothing is ever too big for them. That’s what’s been really helpful. My dad and I, we always dream big, and nothing is ever too big to go after. We have the same mindset there. From Dan and Jess and Helen and Kay and everybody up there in the office, they just make it work. If we need something, they figure it out. We all work well together. We plan and go, even down to our floor crew. They’re phenomenal.”
For the McKinney family and their staff at the Lazy E, their position in the industry is about far more than the business side of the arena.
“We’re very passionate about the Western lifestyle and the Western way of life,” McKinney said. “It means a lot to be able to give back and just help those events out to keep going. We’ve wanted the BFI for years and years. We always thought it would do very well here. It’s a dream come true to get both of these for us because they’re events we really wanted to be a part of. We wanted to provide those great experiences for the kids and be a part of all of the youth events. Being able to get Little Britches and NHSFR this year plays into what we see for the future of rodeo and Western lifestyle, where they can go and perform out of the elements on one of the biggest stages in Western events.”