As the former owner-operator of Salado, Texas’ Wildfire Ranch and producer of the venerated Wildfire Open to the World from 1999–2017, Billy Pipes, 65, doesn’t need much of an introduction.
Pipes, a Phoenix, Arizona, native, moved to Las Vegas after college and began working in the paving and grading industry. On the weekends, he rode bulls and bareback horses as an amateur, and made a good go of it until his 28th year.
At 30, he began his own business, Pipes Paving, which handled the earthwork, grading and paving for four out of the five major homebuilders in America, before Pipes expanded his business to include real estate development, which he still does today. He started a family, landed the contract for the paving work when the NFR moved to Vegas, and began team roping.
“My boys were 3 and 6,” Pipes remembered. “I bought them a pony and bought myself a horse, and we started riding. All the guys I had rodeoed with who were in business were team roping and I thought, ‘That’s something the kids and I can do,’ so I started team roping when I was 37.”
Nevada jackpots in the late ’80 were about as mythical as unicorns, so Pipes began hosting ropings at a community arena in the valley. When he moved his family to Texas in 1991 (“to get the kids out of Sin City”), he started hosting USTRC Grassroots Ropings for Denny Gentry and, when Pipes returned to Vegas for the NFR each year, he and co-producer Bret Beach (who now owns Total Team Roping), until 1998, put on a mammoth three-day, 2,500-team, single-arena team roping called the Nevada Classic.
“It was quite a deal,” Pipes marveled. “We always enjoyed that we felt like we were giving people a better deal than they would get anywhere else.”
The comment points to Pipes’ drive as a producer throughout the years to create something better for the community, starting with the youth. Back home in Texas, the local youth rodeo association, with no covered arena in the area, was getting rained out of their rodeos, and then getting rained out of their rescheduled rodeos. So, Pipes built the Wildfire Arena.
“Also,” Pipes added, “in Texas, they have all kinds of youth rodeo associations. So, we donated it to the kids and, that same year, we started doing the Wildfire Open to the World Team Roping.”
That was 1999. And, through 2017, Pipes endeavored to produce the biggest and best roping for the pros, contributing a reported $1.64 million in added money along the way. But, in a way, the roping was always destined to fail.
“It could never be number one,” Pipes conceded. “Two reasons. One: ‘The Godfather’ of the Open team ropings, Bob Feist. He started it all. And the second reason was ‘The King,’ George Strait. As long as they continued to put on ropings, you were never going to pass them.”
Luckily for Pipes, though, being number one isn’t his only measure of success.
“One thing I took to heart was that I built that arena, and that arena was built to make friends—not to make money. I always did it so people would have a better place to rope. I made my living in the construction and development business. With the sponsors’ help, we got to be an enormous roping.”
Still, Pipes doesn’t mind that the endeavor to produce the best open roping no longer falls on his shoulders.
“I was a producer and now I’m a participant. It’s a lot more fun.”
In February, Pipes, with longtime friend Dale Martin on the heel end, won the #10.5 Title Fights Qualifier for a team total of $25,920—the biggest paycheck of the roping. Of course, it’s not the first time Pipes has taken home a winning check.
“I’ve always just roped with my friends and my kids. We don’t win a lot, but we have won some big ones. I won the USTRC Finals and was reserve champion at the Finals with my son, Buck, in 2004 and 2006; and I won the 2007 WSTR #10 Finale with my son, Bear.”
When Pipes speaks about what excites him now, he again looks to the kids. He’s on the head end roping for his youngest, college-aged son, and readying the next generation.
“Bear has two little boys that are 6 and 4, so I have two little fabulous grandchildren. They just moved back onto our ranch, so I’m excited that the kids get to be raised there. I just got them a pony, and it’s a great place for kids to grow up.”