Turtle Powell and Travis Graves Grab $100 Grand at 11th Annual Wildfire Open to the World Roping

In the wise words of Turtle Powell, “A roping like this takes care of your whole year.”

Held February 13-15 in Salado, Texas, the 2009 Wildfire Open to the World Weekend rolled out more records for the ropers and more great watching for the packed house of fans on hand to witness the roping funfest for themselves. Powell paired up with Travis Graves for the $100,000 win in the 11th annual Wildfire Open to the World, which was presented by Bloomer Trailers and sponsored by Montana Silversmiths.

Powell and Graves roped six steers out of the 16-foot box and over the 17-foot open scoreline in 43.28 seconds to grab the $100,000 lion’s share-which, by the way, was all added money. Saturday’s main event, the Wildfire Open to the World, which is go-twice and $500 a man to enter, is run under Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rules and does not allow crossfires. Powell and Graves, whose second partners were Marty Becker and Charly Crawford, respectively, posted times of 7.14, 6.34, 7.29, 7.28, 7.83 and 7.4 to best the 177-team field and win it all at the 2009 Wildfire Open to the World.

“It’s hard to win $50,000, and with the prestige this roping has, well, this is a hell of a notch on my belt,” said Powell, 35, who makes his home in Stephenville, Texas, with his Wrangler National Finals Rodeo barrel racer wife, Molly. “I won the 2003 George Strait with Kirt Jones, and the 2004 BFI with Monty Joe Petska. Now I’ve won the Wildfire. The only big one I haven’t won now is the USTRC Finals.”

Graves, who with wife Tamika calls Jay, Okla., home, has now won the Wildfire Open to the World two of the last three years. He and Colter Todd came tight on the 2007 Wildfire Open title. Graves and Todd were thrilled to split $75,000 that year. Graves and Powell raised the bar this year with their joint $100,000 paycheck. On top of the loot, each also was awarded Cactus Saddlery briefcases, one-of-a-kind Steve Miller-designed buckles by Montana Silversmiths and Resistol Black Gold hats.

“This roping’s been a big help to us,” Graves said. “Tamika and I want to buy a place, and maybe we can do that now. We still have our place in Oklahoma, but we want to move to Stephenville. We stay at Turtle and Molly’s all the time now, so we can practice every day. Stephenville’s centrally located for the rodeos, and that’s where Turtle lives, so that’s where we want to be.”

Travis and Tamika’s Wildfire history actually runs even deeper than that. When he placed fourth at the 2005 Wildfire Open, he used the money to buy her engagement ring. This year, there was a special Valentine’s Day present in it for her. All their Wildfire riches have been won aboard the back of his now 15-year-old Superstar. Graves says Superstar is his jackpot horse, occasional rodeo horse “and Tamika’s baby.” He’s had the horse since Superstar was 4, and the bay bomber is pretty fond of Travis too. In fact, he’s been known to follow him around out in the pasture.

Four of the top five high teams finished at the top of the leaderboard when the curtain closed on this year’s Wildfire Open, by the way. Right behind Powell and Graves at 43.28 on six were reservists Brandon Beers and Jade Corkill, who roped six steers in 43.54 seconds, third-place finishers Derrick Begay and Cory Petska at 44.14, and the fourth-place team of Charly Crawford and Russell Cardoza with 45.65. California’s Cardoza also deserves an honorable mention for finishing fifth with Brock Hanson at 45.94 seconds. The only top-five team to go out of the roping right there at the end was Nick Sartain and Kollin VonAhn, who entered the short round in the second spot.

Powell and Graves have been hot, hot, hot. Together, they qualified for the 2008 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo last December. It was Powell’s fourth Finals (he roped with John Paul Lucero in 1999, Tyler Magnus in 2001 and Monty Joe Petska in 2003), and Graves’ first. “It had been pretty dry at the rodeos in that little gap (between 2003 and 2008),” Powell smiled. “I ended up in the top 20 a lot, but no Finals.”

Getting to his first Finals was a giant relief for Graves. “I hate being known as just a jackpot roper,” said Graves, who turned 25 a couple weeks after Wildfire weekend. “A great roper can do it all. It was huge for me to make the Finals. I’ve worked for that my whole life. To be considered one of the best ropers, you have to make the Finals. Now I have the monkey off my back. Once you’ve been there you want to go back that much more. It’s like you don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve been there.”

They’ve got a good start on a return trip in 2009. “We’ve been doing pretty good at the rodeos this year too,” Graves said. “It’s been a great couple weeks, and it’s pretty exciting to have this kind of momentum.” They won the PRCA rodeo in Fort Worth right before the Wildfire Open, and made some money at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo the week of the Wildfire.

Powell is keen on Graves’ consistency, and said, “I knew when I caught that last steer that we’d won the roping. Travis has been known as a great jackpotter since he was a little kid. He hardly ever misses. He won’t throw unless he knows he can catch. And he can rope fast.”

Powell and Graves joined forces in the spring of 2007. “Turtle’s a great guy, and he takes care of business,” Graves says of the team’s senior partner. “He treats his animals great. No matter how late he gets in, he’s up feeding his horses by 7 a.m. In my eyes, he has one of the best head horses out there right now. As soon as he started riding him, we started winning. And he loves his Chihuahua Ziggy so much.”

Per Turtle, Molly Powell, “Makes us write our goals down. One of Travis and my main goals was to do better jackpotting, so this is a big boost. What a way to start the year-$50,000 at a time instead of $1,500 at a time.”

Besides Graves, Powell’s secret weapon in recent times has been a gray horse he calls Vegas. He rode him at the BFI as a 5-year-old, and at the NFR as a 6-year-old. Still only 7, Vegas was a gift from his parents, Richard and Linda Powell. (After the Wildfire Open short round, Richard thanked his son for the heart murmur. Turtle called him right before their last run to let them know he and Travis were the high team. “Why would you do that to me?” his dad wondered. Richard was Turtle’s first call when he rode out the back end victorious. And with the words, “We’re the champs,” mass, ecstatic chaos erupted at the other end of the line.) “That makes it a sweet story,” Turtle says. “I’d never have paid what they (the horse’s previous owners) wanted for him as a 4-year-old. And he’s probably the best horse I’ve ever had. He’s a very honest horse, and it makes it even sweeter that he’s pretty. He’s really smart, and he’s willing. There aren’t a lot of horses who love it like he does.”

Powell put his Wildfire buckle on his belt moments after receiving it. Graves was right behind him. “Billy Pipes is a great guy in this sport, because he loves team roping,” Powell said. “We don’t get many opportunities like this one. He’s behind us all the way, and this roping gets bigger and better every year. The steers were really good this year. They weren’t quite as strong as in the past, and we drew good all day long. Life is really good right now. We’re getting to do what we love to do, and we’re making money doing it.”

Ladies Open Wildfire Winners
Alyssa Zuniga and Tracie Doud Drag Down $25,000 at Richest All-Girl Roping Ever Held

Wldfire Ranch Owner Billy Pipes is a huge fan of women who love to rope as much as he does. He’s noticed how grateful they are to anyone who gives them a shot at a great roping and sometimes wonders, only half jokingly, if he shouldn’t consider shifting a few more of the big bucks over to the ladies pot. So it’s really no wonder that he and Team Wildfire just put on the richest all-girl roping ever held as part of the 2009 Wildfire Open to the World Weekend festivities.

“We had 356 teams in our ladies roping this year,” Pipes said. “My goodness, we broke all the records a couple years ago. Now this. It’s amazing to me, and I think it’s awesome. What’s really neat is how appreciative all the women are.”

Cowgirls came from Canada and coast to coast, California to Florida, to compete at the 2009 Wildfire Ladies Open. In the end, it was a pair of perfect strangers who cleaned up at this year’s seventh annual Wildfire Ladies Open to the World, which was presented by Bloomer Trailers, sponsored by Wrangler and featured $25,000 in added money.

Alyssa Zuniga of Jourdanton, Texas, and Tracie Doud, a Wyoming transplant who now calls Stephenville, Texas home, roped four steers in 34.14 seconds out of the 16-foot box and over a 12-foot scoreline using USTRC rules. They were presented their $25,000 first-place cash prize in Cactus Saddlery purses, and also were awarded Montana Silversmiths buckles and Resistol Black Gold hats. The first three rounds of the Ladies Open were held Friday for the first time this year, which was a huge hit with ropers and fans. The Ladies short round was held with Saturday’s Wildfire Open to the World short go.

“I never met her until I got here,” beamed Doud, who was cheered on to the winners circle by her husband, Troy; baby girl, Kaycee; and 14-year-old daughter, Lexi. “A friend called and asked if I had another run, because one of Alyssa’s partners couldn’t come. She was very easy to rope behind. She never did anything wild or fancy, she just ran up in the middle of them and turned them all.”

Zuniga, the 20-year-old daughter of proud parents Danny and Sita who’s a junior computer information systems major at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, was impressed that Doud was able to grab all four steers by two feet. “Tracie did great,” she said. “I want to rope with her from now on.”

The 2009 Wildfire Ladies Open added a whole new meaning to the term “drama queens.” The girls put on a show, and the spectators loved it. Colorado heeler Jimmi Jo Montera, who looks a whole lot more like a runway model than a ranchy roper, made up three of the top six high teams. Zuniga and Doud were the high team, but Montera came back second with Jody Kirchenschlager, fifth with Taya Ellerman and sixth with Jamie Mader. Montera hammered the high-team steers for both Ellerman and Mader, and moved up to second and third in the average with them. She missed one for Kirchenschlager or she’d have won three of the top-four holes. Whoever said “girls can’t heel” wasn’t at this year’s Wildfire roping.

Another interesting fun fact to point out at this year’s Ladies Open was the numbers on the top few finishers. While Zuniga and Doud are a combined No. 8 team (both are No. 4 ropers), most of the other top teams, including Ellerman and Montera (a 12 team) and Mader and Montera (an 11 team) were much higher numbered.

It was Zuniga’s fourth trip to the Wildfire Open to the World Weekend, at which she’s made a couple of short rounds previously but never before scored like this. “This is the best all-girl roping in the world,” she said. “It pays like no other roping.” Zuniga rode her sorrel head horse Moses. She’s ridden him since she was 16, and he’s “just so smooth that we click.”

Doud climbed aboard Martin Lucero’s old faithful gray horse Blue, who’s taken many an all-girl roper on the victory lap. Doud lives a couple miles down the road from Lucero, and they practice together quite a bit. Doud hadn’t actually heeled at a jackpot in a couple of years. “I had a baby, and I headed,” she said. “I called Martin five days ago and asked if I could ride Blue, and luckily he said yes. Before I quit heeling, I had an old mare I retired. Her name was China. Blue feels exactly like her, so it was really easy to ride him.”

The Douds moved to Texas a couple years ago from Gillette, Wyo., where they produced ropings. They got tired of “feeding cows in the snow banks every winter.” She’s an equine massage therapist. It was her first time in the Wildfire Ladies Open lineup, but certainly won’t be her last. “I planned on entering it last year, but was too pregnant,” she laughed. “I won’t miss it again.”

Zuniga dubbed their Wildfire win, “My biggest win yet-by far. We appreciate everything they do and how much effort they put into the ladies roping here every year. The key at this roping is trying to be smooth and consistent. I just try to focus on not breaking out, roping my steers and giving my partners a good handle. This is great. I’m really excited.”

Doud’s previous career highlight was winning the all-girl roping at Dennis Tryan’s first-ever Wrangler Team Roping Championships in Billings with Kayleen Brock in 2006, where she won her first saddle. “This roping is extraordinary and fun,” Doud said. “From the moment I got here, I’ve had a blast. Girl ropings are fun, because everybody roots everybody on. It’s just a great atmosphere.”

Sponsors Make Wildfire Winners Circle

The Wildfire Sponsor Roping is a four-steer average that uses a pro/am format. An “am” at this one is a USTRC No. 5 or under. Louisiana’s Hannah White topped the heading herd at this year’s Sponsor Roping. Representing Fast Back Ropes, she and 2005 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association World Champion Heeler Patrick Smith stopped the clock four times in 29.73 seconds over a 12-foot scoreline for the win, which earned her the black Cactus Saddlery parade saddle decked out in Montana Silversmiths custom silver and a Resistol Black Gold hat.

Hannah is the heading half of the White family, which is much better known in the bull riding arena. Her husband, Mike White, is the 1999 PRCA World Champion Bull Rider and a perennial Professional Bull Riders contender. In fact, he was “at work” on Wildfire Open to the World Weekend at the PBR event in Oklahoma City. He also loves to heel steers. Hannah and Mike are both Fast Back Ropes endorsees.

“Hannah gets to keep this saddle,” declared Fast Back General Manager Al Benson. “She and Mike do such a great job promoting our ropes. This is a special event. The Wildfire Ranch is a great place for people to come rope year-round, and they take care of their sponsors. Fast Back is proud to support all their ropings.”

It takes nerves of steel to be a bull rider’s wife. And that strength came in handy when Hannah and Patrick entered the short round with a commanding lead over the pack. “I don’t usually get nervous, but when we rode in the box to rope our last one I couldn’t help it,” said the USTRC No. 5. “You don’t want to mess up for these (pro) guys. It’s an honor to get to rope with them. This is one of the ropings you want to make sure you attend every year. If I have to rearrange my schedule to be here, I do it.”

“We can’t ever stress enough how thankful we are for the sponsors at this roping,” Smith added. “There are only a few life-changing ropings a year, and this is one of them. The Wildfire is something to be excited about every year, and I’m grateful for what everybody does to make it happen. It’s fun to see the sponsors get some fun out of all they put in. This roping is something we look forward to, and I’ve been with Fast Back a long time. It’s great to get the job done and come through for them, so they can get the title and the saddle.”

On the heeling side of the sponsor roping, Cactus Ropes’ Jeremy McDonald cleaned up for 2007 World Champion Header Chad Masters. They roped four steers in 42.11 seconds for the Cactus Saddlery parade saddle with custom silver by Montana Silversmiths and Resistol Black Gold hat.

“I started working for Cactus Ropes when I was in high school,” said an elated McDonald, now 28 and the head rope waxer at Cactus. “Back then, I was doing a lot of sweeping and cleaning. I’ve roped since I was a kid, and had never won a saddle before today. It’s pretty cool that my first saddle happens to be the best saddle out there.”

It was McDonald’s first trip to Salado from the Cactus Ropes manufacturing plant in Pleasanton, Texas. He was actually supposed to head twice in the sponsor roping, but a last-minute partner swap forced him to switch ends. “I usually head,” he said. “So it was pretty cool to be 6.5 (in round three) heeling for a world champion. This is the greatest experience of my roping life. Cactus Ropes has been very good to me, so it made me proud when the announcer (Bob Feist, whom Billy Pipes has dubbed, “The Godfather of the Open Ropings”) said, ‘Representing Cactus Ropes, Jeremy McDonald.’ ” Feist’s special flair for fun and inside scoops on all the Top 15 types and sponsor ropers alike were a popular and much-appreciated twist to this year’s Wildfire Sponsor Roping. His 32nd annual Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic will be held June 22 at the Reno Livestock Events Center.

Cactus Ropes General Manager Mike Piland and Production Manager Barry Berg are equally proud to have Jeremy on their team. “Jeremy’s part of the family,” they said of McDonald who, like White, is a No. 5 USTRC roper. “He’s such a good guy, and he’s been with us a long time. He works hard, so he never gets to go anywhere. We thought it’d be fun for him to rope at the Wildfire, and when he brought that pretty silver saddle back to the shop he got lots of pats on the back.”

Piland, Berg and McDonald are just three of the people who make the Cactus crew so special. “I’ve been with Cactus since 2001, and being on their team is like being in a family to me,” Masters said. “It’s not just about the ropes, which I obviously use because I think they’re the best out there. It’s about the people too. You couldn’t ask for a better family than those guys. I’d also like to personally thank Billy Pipes for all he does for all us ropers at every level. He takes good care of every roper in every roping, and we all really appreciate it.”

Asked why Cactus chooses to spend its sponsor dollars in support of the Wildfire Ranch ropings, Piland and Berg respond in unison and without hesitation. “Billy Pipes is the No. 1 reason,” they said. “Billy and the crew he has around him are top notch in the industry. He’s not in it for profit, he’s in it because he loves the sport. He’s a fun guy to be around, and great for the team roping and rodeo industry. He’s also got a talent for surrounding himself with hard-working, classy individuals.”

One such right-hand man is Wildfire Marketing Director Bill Hall, who again enlisted sponsor support from the companies that are the lifeblood of the Western world. “All our major sponsors are back this year, and in this tough economy that’s pretty special,” Hall said. “Everybody dug down deep, because they wanted to be a part of this. The ropers appreciate their support, and so do we. We call it the ‘Wildfire Stimulus Package,’ because it all goes back to the ropers.”

Back to (Wildfire) Business
Held Sunday, February 15, the 300-team 2009 Wildfire Businessman’s Roping, which was presented by Bloomer Trailers and sponsored by Cactus Ropes and Fast Back Ropes, shelled out a record $75,000 to champs Lyndal Van Buskirk and Chase Harris. Van Buskirk and Harris roped four steers over the 12-foot score in 35.83 seconds. In addition to the huge financial windfall, Van Buskirk and Harris also were awarded Gist buckles, Cactus Saddlery briefcases and Resistol Black Gold hats. Jim Bob Brent and Jeff Bacon won the short round and $2,000 with a 6.65-second run.

The format of the No. 11 handicap Wildfire Businessman’s Roping, which, new in 2009, was also a World Series of Team Roping qualifier, was capped at a USTRC No. 6 and open only to ropers 25 and older. Ropers, who paid $750 a man to enter, could pick one partner and draw one, or pick two partners and draw two more. Every team who caught their first three steers advanced to the short round in the four-steer average, and the 20 teams with the fastest time on any two steers roped in the bonus three-steer average. All ropers who placed in the Wildfire Businessman’s four-steer average qualified for the World Series of Team Roping Finale, which is slated for December 9-11, 2009 at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Doug Harrigal and Jeff Sewalt took the bonus three-steer average in 22.88 seconds for $5,000. The bonus average short round and $1,000 was won by Mel Smith and four-steer average winner Chase Harris in 6.73 seconds.

The Wildfire Open to the World Weekend is the premiere event of Wildfire Ranch. But Billy Pipes and Company work hard year-round to continue to raise the bar in every area of the roping business. The extra effort is obviously appreciated by the roping community, especially in these recessionary times when more and more ropers are having to “pick and choose” which events to enter.

“We have six ropings here in a year, and have had a waiting list at every one of them for the last year and a half,” Pipes said. “All our ropings pay big and have guaranteed payoffs and prizes. As the economy’s gotten worse, that kind of sure bet seems even more important to people. Rather than go to a bunch of smaller ropings, they’re coming here where they can make a big hit. Providing those kinds of opportunities to ropers is very rewarding for us. But in the end, the coolest thing about this deal is all the friends we’ve made over the years. It’s all about relationships, and we have some great, great friends in this industry.”

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