Get To Know 1977 World Champ Dennis Motes

Motes is a famous name in the team roping world. But do you know 1977 World Champ Dennis Motes, who won the world heeling for little brother David and is the uncle of five-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo heeler Ryan? Dennis Motes is 72 now, and lives in Hico, Texas, with his wife, Shan.

Q: What was it like being the oldest of Glenn and Hazel Motes’s five kids growing up in Mesa, Arizona?

A: It was a great life. I enjoyed all of it, and the way my dad instilled a good work ethic into us. I grew up driving trucks and tractors starting when I was 12 years old. Our family farmed cotton, and us kids were free labor.  

Q: Your dad was an NFR qualifier. Did he head or heel?

A: Dad headed, and when he roped with Gilbert Nichols at the 1960 NFR, the NFR was held in Dallas, Texas, and the team roping was held in Scottsdale, Arizona. (The first three NFRs were held in Dallas from 1959-61, and the team roping was held in Clayton, New Mexico, Scottsdale and Santa Maria, California those three years before joining the rest of the rodeo from 1962 on.) 

Q: Take us all the way back to the Motes family’s original roping roots.

A: My uncle Kemp Motes, who was my dad’s brother, was the first one in our family to rope that I know of. He lived in Utah, and came down to Phoenix one winter and talked my dad into roping. Once he started, he built an arena and never let up. They called our arena Motesville, all we ever had was Holstein muleys and it was all tie-down (team tying). My dad would not let us kids dally. He thought it was too dangerous. 

Q: Talk about life before the numbering system when you were young and rising up the roping ranks. 

A: Every roping was an open roping when we were kids. There was no numbering system back then, and we learned to rope competing against legends like Dale Smith, Joe Glenn, Art Arnold, Billy Hamilton and Eddie Schell. Those guys were world champions and my heroes, and we roped against them as kids. 

Q: Did you learn to love how the numbering system leveled the playing field to give more people a shot?

A: At first I didn’t believe in the numbering system, because I was a competitor and wanted to rope everywhere. But it’s been good for the business. And they needed to do something, because people got sick of seeing the same winners all the time. The losers got disenchanted and stopped showing up. The industry’s gone uphill all the way since they started handicapping roping. 

Q: Name the nine years you roped at the Finals, and your partners.

A: I roped with David the first year I made it in 1973. If people wonder why I get a little jealous watching the Finals now, David and I won three rounds and split another one at that year’s NFR, and won $1,200. In 1974, I heeled for Billy Darnell (son of Fred from New Mexico). I roped with David again in 1975 and 1977. I roped with Roman Figueroa at the Finals in 1978. I heeled for Mark Arnold in 1979 and 1982, and roped with Doyle Gellerman at the 1980 NFR. I roped at my last NFR with Julio Moreno in 1984. Only 15 total guys qualified for the NFR back then—not 15 headers and 15 heelers, like today. I ended up 16th twice, in 1976 and 1983, and got bumped out both times at (the last rodeo of the regular season at) the Cow Palace (in San Francisco). 

Dennis Motes
After rodeo, Dennis worked 25 years in the movie business. He’s shown here on the set of Far and Away, which starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. 

Q: How did you make your living after rodeo?

A: I lived in Newhall, California for 25 years working in the movie business after I got done rodeoing. I was a cowboy, so I got into wrangling and taking care of horses. Then I did some stunt work, like horse falls. I was about to leave LA when they quit making Westerns, and one of my neighbors suggested set construction and helped me get into the Carpenters Union. The first set I worked on was a movie called Hook, which at that time was the biggest movie of all time. Our construction budget for that movie was $10 million, and we had 300 carpenters working on it. It was unreal. I worked on 50 movie sets, including Maverick, Far and Away, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Assassins, Eraser, The Alamo and Toy Soldiers

Q: What took you to Texas, and when did you make the move?

A: I made the move two years before I retired, in 2008. I moved to Texas to get out of LA and back to my ranching roots a little bit. It let me get back into roping for a few years, too. Most of the time I worked in the picture business I rodeoed very, very little—sometimes one rodeo a year—because our average day was 12 hours and there was just no time to rope. Our average work week was 12 hours five days a week and a 10-hour Saturday. That’s what we did for years and years. The movie people always want it yesterday. 

Q: How much have you continued to rope over the years, and how much do you rope now?

A: I have a couple horses, and rope maybe once a month now. When I first retired from the movie business, I roped a lot and still competed quite a bit through about 2014. I have an over-70 World Series card now. They give us old guys a free card to wave the carrot in front of us to go try to beat the kids. But I was always a competitor, and when I don’t win, I don’t like it. So I don’t enter much anymore.

Dennis Motes
Dennis and Shan Motes at the Grand Canyon. 
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