Q: What was it like growing up the son of California ranch-manager parents Ralph and Pilar Camarillo for a kid born in 1946?
A: We were kids in the era when your children helped you make a living. Whether you plowed fields, built buildings or ran a ranch, like my family did, we (Leo, his little brother, Jerold, and little sister, Christie) learned character, responsibility and work ethic at an early age. By the time I got to the arena, I was so horse and cow savvy that I had a big advantage.
Q: Talk about growing up in California’s scenic Santa Ynez Valley.
A: The Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Solvang and Buellton area where we were raised is beautiful and the upscale place to be, like Scottsdale is in Arizona. And there’s no place like it anymore. When I was a kid, I thought it was out in the middle of nowhere. But as I look back, it was a great place to grow up. (Cousin) Reg was a year ahead of me in school, and Jerold was a year behind me. As soon as we had the chance, we moved to Oakdale, which to this day is my favorite town. When Jerold was still in school in Santa Ynez, he took a bus to come visit. As soon as he got out of school, he joined the party. As a cowboy, I was a rare commodity in Santa Ynez, but Oakdale was cowboy mecca. It was ranch and cowboy country, and you wore your spurs to town.
Q: I know you and Jerold didn’t play video games as kids, so what were your days like?
A: There were no toys or bicycles. Our dad made us an amazing dummy to rope. You headed it, then it swiveled around and you heeled it. That roping dummy was our toy, and it was an everyday match roping. Reg and the neighbor kids got in the game, too. We were either roping the dummy or on a horse. With our dad, it was always work first, then we rope. They ride bulls last to keep the crowd at the rodeo. We stayed hooked the same way, and were eager to get the work done, so we could rope. That’s all we wanted to do. Kids today don’t know what life would be like without a TV, microwave, automatic transmissions, cell phones and social media. We didn’t have any of that, and I think there was a different appreciation in the world we grew up in.
Q: Looking back, which of your many arena accomplishments really stand out?
A: I did a lot of things that I’m proud of. I was like every kid who grows up wanting to be the president or a doctor or lawyer, only my goal was to be a world champion. The things I learned along the way to accomplish that goal were pretty rewarding to me. The world championships, the National Finals wins, winning the Timed Event Championship twice and winning all three timed events at my favorite rodeo—Salinas—all meant a lot to me. Winning the all-around at the Cow Palace back in the day, when it was a who’s who of rodeo event, meant a lot to a cowboy who grew up on a ranch with nothing but burritos and enchiladas to eat, too.
Q: You still own the record for most NFR team roping average titles, including three straight won with Reg from 1969-71. Talk about your team chemistry.
A: Reg is like my real brother. I worship that guy. There’s rarely a solid, genuine trust on teams, where if you miss or have a little heck you aren’t looking over your shoulder wondering what that other guy’s thinking or if your partnership is in jeopardy and you’re going to get fired. Reg and I are blood—family—and we always knew we were in it together to the end. I could sleep at night, because I always knew Reg and I were going to work at our roping together again tomorrow.
Q: Your career partners list is legendary, and you helped finish raising a lot of them. Talk a little about the likes of Tee Woolman, Jake Barnes and H.P. Evetts.
A: I’d never met anybody besides myself that was as confident as I was about what we were doing when I met Tee. Roy Cooper introduced us at the NFR in Oklahoma when Tee was down there going to college, and it was immediately evident to me that in addition to that confidence, Tee had the arena intelligence it takes to win. Jake was literally Mister Rope, and he dealt with every aspect of life through roping the dummy. It was amazing to me. When he lived in my bunkhouse, I’d wake up at 2 a.m. to zip, zip, zip, and there was Jake under my barn light cracking it on the horns. There was nobody more dedicated to his roping than Jake, and it’s still that way today. I watched H.P. rope when he was young. He was ahead of his time, and he didn’t have a care in the world. A lot of guys couldn’t heel steers as fast as he was turning them, but I knew I could. I told Jerold and Reg that we needed that guy on our team. When I called H.P., he said, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call all my life.” H.P. was a money-or-mud guy, and his catch rate was maybe 50 percent in the beginning. But watch out when he connected, and H.P. is another person I truly love.
Q: Stick stands out as your signature horse. Talk about him, and what made him special.
A: Stick loved his job so much that it was like I didn’t have to ride him and all I could think about was roping. We were one, and we were great together. Stick just knew the play, and showed me the shot. I didn’t think I could miss off of that horse. He was easy to ride, an easy keeper and just a peach.
[Read: The Evolution of Team Roping]
Q: Tell kids today about the days when team roping wasn’t a standard event at every rodeo.
A: Back in the day, every roping was an open roping and only about a sixth of the 600 or 700 professional rodeos even had team roping. A lot of the team ropers of today don’t realize that at one time, team roping was the step-sister. We paved the way, and I’m proud of how far we brought our event.
[Read: Tee & Leo: Together Again]
Q: Talk about roping’s role in your life, then and now.
A: When I was roping for a living, I didn’t think they could have a roping or rodeo without me, and I resorted to planes, trains, automobiles, buses, helicopters and whatever else it took to get there. After I turned 65, my knees and ankles hurt, I wasn’t as agile as I once was and my balance wasn’t what it used to be. I will always love to rope, but there comes a time when it’s not all you do from sunup to sundown.