As the rodeo world gets set to head back to Vegas after a year away in Texas, the talk of the team roping town includes some surprise partner pairings, a record $13.3 million payoff, a few first-time finalists and some noticeably absent NFR regulars. The 2021 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which will light up the sold-out Thomas & Mack Center December 2–11, is about to unfold. If we’ve learned anything since Rodeo’s Super Bowl moved to The Entertainment Capital of the World, it’s to expect the unexpected. We asked a few of the winningest team ropers of all time—eight-time World Champs Speed Williams and Rich Skelton, seven-time Champs of the World Jake Barnes and Clay Cooper, and three-time World Champion Header Tee Woolman—to weigh in on all aspects of roping for gold buckles in the Thomas & Mack Center, because nobody knows it better.
All but two of this year’s NFR teams roped together during the regular 2021 rodeo season. Begay headed for 2017 World Champion Heeler Cory Petska, and Minor heeled for little brother Riley—whose NFR quest was derailed by a crash on the grass at Pendleton—in September. Kesler roped with 2021 Resistol Heeler of the Year Caleb Hendrix (John Gaona is this year’s Resistol Header of the Year), and Harrison heeled for two-time Champ of the World Chad Masters.
“I wish Cory and Riley could be there, but now that they’re not, I know they want Brady and me to make the most of it,” said Begay, who’ll be spinning at his ninth NFR, and won $10,000 more than Petska in the regular season after placing third at The American heading for Matt Sherwood. “(Washington native) Brady has a place in Arizona, where I live, so we should get to run some together. We were the last two guys without a partner, so it made roping together an easy choice. I think Brady will catch everything I turn for him by two feet. He’s a veteran, he’s a catcher and he wants to win.”
Begay will be aboard his signature sorrel, Swagger. No need to ask his age, because Begay has no idea.
“I got Swagger in 2007, and all the years start to run together,” he said. “It’d be fun to know how old he is, just because I’m curious. But I guess it doesn’t really matter. I know he’s old, so it’s most likely the last time I’ll get to ride him at the Finals. But I thought that last time (in 2018), too. I’ve ridden Swagger forever, and I know what to expect—the good and the bad. So there won’t be any surprises.”
Summers and Kesler are joining the exclusive NFR Switchenders Club this month. Summers heeled for 2017 World Champion Header Rogers at the 2018 NFR, and will now head for the first time for Finals freshman heeler Rosh Ashford. Kesler heeled at the NFR for Sherwood in 2016 and Rhen Richard in 2018, and will now nod his head for the first time in front of Harrison. Summers and Kesler join the rare rodeo company of Trevor Brazile, JD Yates, Speed Williams, Walt Rodman, David Motes, Mark Simon and Bret Beach.
Coy Rahlmann will be backing in the NFR box for the first time on the heading side in 2021, and will head for fellow first-timer Rich to form the only true team of Finals freshmen at NFR ’21. At the opposite end of that spectrum, it will be straight-up strange for team roping fans not to see the likes of Luke Brown, Masters, and Minor and Minor in action at the Thomas & Mack this time around.
2021 NFR TEAM ROSTER
Dustin Egusquiza & Travis Graves
Erich Rogers & Paden Bray
Kaleb Driggers & Junior Nogueira
Clay Smith & Jade Corkill
Clay Tryan & Jake Long
Tyler Wade & Trey Yates
Cody Snow & Wesley Thorp
Clint Summers & Ross Ashford
Brenten Hall & Chase Tryan
Rhen Richard & Jeremy Buhler
Derrick Begay & Brady Minor
Andrew Ward & Buddy Hawkins
Coy Rahlmann & Douglas Rich
Coleman Proctor & Logan Medlin
Quinn Kesler & Joseph Harrison
SHOW ME THE MONEY
The 2021 NFR is being billed as a $13.3 million rodeo, including a record $10,257,048 competition payout, which includes the $1.2 million it takes to cut every qualifier a $10,000 check upon arrival for the feat it is to qualify among the Top 15 in the world. So $9,057,048 will be paid out in the rounds and average.
NFR Go-Rounds Breakdown Per Man:
1) $26,996.97 (last year’s rounds paid $26,231 a man)
NFR Average Breakdown Per Man:
1) $69,234.17 (last year’s average paid $67,269)
NFR stock contractor pay has increased to$3,077,114
TEAM ROPING TIMES ARE CHANGING
What does 27-time NFR qualifier Jake Barnes see as the biggest changes in team roping today?
“One of the biggest changes I see is so many rodeos going to one-headers now,” Jake said. “That’s changed the dynamics in our event as much as anything, in my opinion. Everywhere these guys go, the field is so talented and so deep, and the rodeos are just so tough. One-headers obviously make it more of a drawing contest, which is sort of sad.
“Guys like Luke and Chad haven’t lost a step. They might just not have gotten the breaks they needed this year. It’s so hard to win at the one-headers, I don’t care who you are. With everybody swinging for the fences every single time, the odds of winning all the time aren’t in anybody’s favor anymore. Nowadays, if you don’t draw a good one and max him out, you’re done.”
CLAY O’s CRYSTAL BALL
Jake’s partner in seven-gold-buckles crime is 30-time NFR heeler Clay Cooper.
“I’m a pretty big fan of all three timed events,” Champ said. “I don’t really lock in on the roughstock events, but there are so many interesting stories for me to watch and people for me to analyze in the team roping, tie-down roping and steer wrestling. I love the back stories. I knew a lot of today’s guys when they were kids, and I just love watching all the talent out there right now.
“I’ll be tuned in along with the rest of the rodeo world when the NFR kicks off. There will be some guys who get in the zone and get on a roll, and that’s fun to watch—great athletes at the peak of their mojo. Some will struggle. You hate to see that, but it’s part of it, and sometimes it’s just not your year. It’s all interesting to me. I’m a fan, and I like to watch the story unfold. Guys like Junior Nogueira have been knocking at the door. That’s like watching Kory Koontz for 30 years. The talent’s there, so odds are it’s going to happen sooner or later.
“I’d like to see Junior or Travis Graves win the world, because they never have and they have the talent. Same way with Brady Minor. There are guys like that that you’d like to see turn the corner and realize their goals. Jake Long hasn’t won one. Whoever ropes the best is who deserves to win it. For now, all we know for sure is that it’s going to be good watching.”
Tee Woolman’s won five NFR average crowns, which is second only to Leo “The Lion” Camarillo’s record six. His advice on how to close the NFR average deal?
“The easy answer is, ‘Catch all 10,’” said Woolman, who’s also won 28 NFR go-rounds. “My philosophy on the Finals was that I didn’t go for first in the rounds. I set my runs up. Back then, I thought if I could be 5 flat every night, that would maybe win fourth. Some nights I was faster, and some nights I was slower, but fourth in the round was worth about $7,000. So over 10 nights, that was about $70,000 in the rounds alone. Placing along in the rounds like that also puts you in good position in the average at the end.
“The steers are different and they rope faster, so you’d probably have to turn it up a little bit to win fourth in the round now. But the concept is still the same. If you can’t win the world, the National Finals average buckle is next in line. That’s the way Leo taught me, and that’s the way we went at it. If you miss the barrier, take one more swing. You have to catch that steer, no matter what. When they all get to going for first every night, a lot of guys beat themselves. They don’t look at the long road ahead. It’s 10 days, and that’s a long week. The main thing you have to do is score good and take your first shot. Don’t pass one up.”
“To Get Rich, You’ve Got to Have Speed.” That was a popular saying during Speed and Rich’s reign of team roping terror. Williams and Skelton won the NFR average in 2001. But going fast in the Thomas & Mack was definitely their strong suit. Speed’s 28 NFR heading victory laps are third behind only Jake’s 31 and Doyle Gellerman’s 30. Who does Speed like in the NFR rounds this year?
“I’m going with Dustin,” he said. “He’s roped outstanding all year. After he made the NFR in 2017 and ’18, he didn’t make it in 2019. He came and spent a lot of time with me, and we worked on his fundamentals, so he wouldn’t be so one-dimensional. He came back last year, and almost won the world, if not for one oops at the end of the rodeo. And he’s dominated this year. Dustin has the lead going into the Finals, and that guy can go fast.
“But it’s a major different strategy when you come in at the top and are trying to win a gold buckle. Dustin and Junior are #1 on their respective sides. Those guys at the top have never won a gold buckle, and they both love to go fast. That’s what they’re best at. But now it plays in the back of your mind—how confident are you at that level of difficulty in that arena? Mind you, this is coming from a guy who loved to go fast. If you want to win a gold buckle, you’ve got to place in the rounds, but not necessarily try to win first. It’s different for the guys in the middle or down the list. They’re going to go at ’em. When you go in at the top, it’s always harder to maintain that lead. Because you feel like it’s yours to lose, and the bull’s-eye’s on your back.”
What if you had to bet on the 2021 world championship race?
“The three guys I’ve influenced and watched the most would be Dustin, Kaleb and Coleman. Wouldn’t it be a storybook finish to make the National Finals on your last cow of the regular season (like Coleman did when he placed third at the rodeo in San Bernardino, California with Kyle Lockett), then have a great Finals and win it all? There’s enough money there now that it could happen. The one thing I would tell any NFR team roper who asked is when you back off and just try to go catch at the Thomas and Mack, bad, bad things happen. Take your shot.”
Skelton leads all heelers—and all NFR team ropers, for that matter—with 36 NFR victory laps. Let us not forget 1999, when dream teamers Speed and Rich won six of 10 rounds.
“My best advice on winning NFR go-rounds is to show up with a fast-ass header, like I did,” Skelton smiled. “Timing is everything. If you rope at the end of the round, pay attention to what it’s going to take. Drawing a good one never hurts, but making your best run on whatever they pull out of the hat for you is all you can do. When it’s your turn to go first, you just have to go get it on him. Do your homework, and be ready to run what you’ve got.
“I’d like to see Driggers and Junior win the world. They work at it, and they deserve it. They’re a really good team anywhere, and in that situation, they should be great. Generally speaking, you’ve got to have a head horse that doesn’t take your throw away. After the third round, all the steers have gone and you really start knowing what they are. Whoever has the best head horse that scores, runs across the line and sets up the run has the advantage.
“I’ve always said the first three rounds are huge. Who has the momentum sets the tone. The average always comes into play at the end. But the first three rounds set the mood for the whole week.”