ProRodeo isn't like other sports. There are no team charter busses, airplanes or hotels. There's no guaranteed paycheck and cowboys have to pay to enter every rodeo in which they compete. That brings up a myriad of expenses that most professional athletes don't consider. While the struggles of professional rodeo cowboys are widely known, rising fuel prices are putting an even tighter crunch on an already tough way to make a living.
The United States Department of Energy estimates that personal vehicles burn 65 billion gallons of gas and diesel each year and that Americans drive 2.5 trillion miles each year. A typical rodeo cowboy travels well over 75,000 miles per year, participating in between 75 and 100 rodeos and other events. Compile that with nearly $3 per gallon diesel and cowboys are spending over $10,000 on fuel. Last year, the 16th-ranked team roper finished with just under $38,500 in winnings.
"It sure affects how much money you make," said three-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier Blaine Linaweaver. "When you go from spending $75 to fill up your tank to $100 and you're doing that three times a day, that an extra $75 a day you're spending. You're making a lot less money when you go to the pay window."
For Linaweaver, early 2006 hasn't given him many opportunities to get to that pay window. At press time, he was ranked 39th in the PRCA World Standings, over $6,000 out of the No. 15 hole. Rising fuel prices in his mind, however, are just a part of his chosen profession.
"If the math says that I can't do it, then I'll quit and go home," he says. "But the thing about it is, in the summer it just takes one run. One run at Reno and you're the second high team back and you catch that last one and win the rodeo, boom, there's $12,000. Next thing you know, I could be seventh in the world. It only takes one run. I feel like I'm kind of a veteran now where the pressure's not going to bother me as far as where I'm at or how much money I have won. Really, my year doesn't start until Reno.
"Anybody who is dedicated and wants to make the Finals or win a world championship isn't going to pack it up and go home. It's just like interest rates for home builders and stuff, it's going to go up and it's going to go down, but you just have to work through it if this is what you're going to do.
"It's just one steer at a time. Be aggressive and don't worry about fuel. Keep rolling because it's crunch time."
That said, Linaweaver has adjusted his rodeo strategy somewhat to compensate for the rising fuel prices. He recently reunited with heeler Jory Levy and instead of traveling apart, they will haul down the road in one rig.
"Now my fuel costs are going to be cut in half," he said. "It's going to be a lot better. Other than that, it's not going to change my game plan much. I'm not going to enter a one header that's 500 miles away and adds $3,000 now. It might change a few of the rodeos I enter, but for the most part it's not going to change anything."
The header in the number one spot in the world, Speed Williams, on the other hand, might make changes considering his position.
"It's been a discussion about whether we're going to the Northwest or not," Williams said of he and his partner at the time Clay O'Brien Cooper's strategy.
The Good News for Diesels
Typically, diesels will deliver 30 percent better mileage than gasoline. In more demanding applications like towing, diesels can deliver as much as 50 percent better mileage depending on the specific transmission, gear ratio and mission description.
Truck owners who like modifying their vehicles should also pay attention to how accessories and body changes affect fuel economy. For example, dually trucks will get less fuel economy because there is more wheel surface contacting the ground. Even big mirrors can contribute to drag as can trailer design.
Williams and O'Brien Cooper, however, have a new angle they can work to mitigate the costs of fuel as they rodeo: schools and clinics. Hosts will organize a roping clinic to coincide with their local rodeo and have Williams teach. His costs are covered for the week he's rodeoing and it still allows him to compete.
"We've got a school booked during Caldwell and we're trying to get schools booked for Kennewick and Bremerton and maybe Ellensburg," he said. "The way we're rodeoing, we're doing schools and going to the bigger rodeos and we have our expenses paid and the week's prosperous whether we rope good or not. In the past, me and Rich were always trying to win a world title, so diesel was not a factor in what we were trying to do, it was just part of the expense you paid and you went and did it. Now, there's no sense in spending $1,000 to go to a rodeo that pays $1,500 to win first."
The vast majority of ProRodeo cowboys, of course, don't have that option. For most, the regular season is a dogfight and the Wrangler NFR is the only way of justifying a season.
"If you want to get mathematical, it doesn't make sense what we're doing," Williams said. "It's hard to rodeo all year long and go in the red just to profit at the Finals. Most guys rodeo all year long and are in the hole and have to win in Vegas. We do it because we love it."
But what about that No. 16 guy? The guy who didn't get over the hump. In the steer wrestling last year, Gabe Ledoux was that guy. In his first full year on the road, his winter was pretty cold. Then, he missed the majority of the lucrative spring rodeos when his younger brother died in an accident.
"I was 15th after (The Pace Picante ProRodeo Chute-out in) Reno in June and I never got higher than 13th and never got lower than 17th. I had to rodeo all year," he said. "I spent more money the last two months I rodeoed than I had all summer, and you don't win nearly as much right there toward the end. It cost so much because you're having to fly and still pay fuel in the rig to have it pulled around for you. Then you have to get a rental car, fly back out and get another rental car and hotel room; it adds up quick. Everybody else is coming right at you, so you can't slow down. When I got done last year, I had the same amount of money in the bank when it ended as I did in Reno earlier that June.
"You rodeo to make the Finals, you don't rodeo for a living. Once you get to the Finals you can make a little."
And according to PRCA officials, entries are holding steady, if not rising in the face of increased fuel prices.
"Instead of one guy or two guys piling in a rig going to a rodeo, they're taking three or four," said Aaron Enget, Co-Director of Rodeo Administration. "Who knows, that might be a correlation as to why the entries are up. They talk guys into going with them and sharing expenses. We're actually looking at proposing a rule to the competition committee where guys could buddy even though they're not in the same events and help some guys out, but we haven't seen a slow down in entries yet."
At the amateur level, there's not much change in entries, either.
"We haven't noticed a change," said Loren Telleen, co-owner of Rope the Rockies and United Roping Producers based in Colorado. "Maybe some guys are saving up to go to the bigger and better rodeos rather than go every weekend. Some guys are staying close, but our ropings have been up.
"Think about it, if diesel fuel was $2.50 or $2.60 like last year and people were filling up and going, what's another $.50 when they've got a $50,000 pickup, an $80,000 trailer loaded with three and four $15,000 horses?
"People are regionalizing and all of our ropings are within a 200 mile radius."
However, while people are still going to rope, the costs the producers are incurring are rising, too.
"The cost to get a steer from El Paso, Texas, to Greeley, Colo., has gone way up, as has the cost to feed that steer," Telleen said, and added that they're not planning to raise the entry fees or stock charges.
"We're all in it together and inheriting the wrath of increased fuel costs," he said. "I'm hopeful people will still go and my partner, Dale Atkinson, and I will work harder so they're glad when they get to one of our ropings."
It appears, for now, the fuel costs aren't dramatically affecting people's behavior when it comes to roping as their profession or their hobby. But there's no doubt it's on everyone's mind and that any edge drivers can get-they'll take.
Tips to Improved Fuel Mileage
• Check and Replace Air Filters Regularly - Replacing a clogged air filter can improve a vehicle's fuel mile- age by as much as 10 percent. The air filter keeps impurities from damaging the inside of your engine, as well.
• Keep Tires Properly Inflated - Check tire pressure once a week to maintain optimum air pressure and to make sure the wheels are in alignment to prevent tires from dragging. This can improve mileage by around 3 percent. Under-inflated tires can lower fuel mileage by 0.4 percent for every 1-psi drop in pressure of all four tires. Properly inflated tires are safer and last longer. Tires are the most fuel-efficient in the second half of their life, when some of the tread is worn down. Also, radial tires can return as much as 8
percent fuel economy over bias tires.
• Use the Recommended Grade of Motor Oil - Using the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil can improve fuel economy by 1-2 percent, and likewise, using a lower grade oil than recommended can decrease your fuel mileage by 1-2 percent. Using a higher-grade oil than recommended can also lower your fuel mileage by 1-1.5 percent. Also, look for motor oil that says "Energy Conserving" on the API performance symbol to be sure it contains friction-reducing additives.
• Keep track of your fuel economy. A drop in your car's fuel economy can be a sign of engine trouble. Keeping track of your fuel economy on a regular basis can let you know when something is malfunctioning.
• Park in the shade. Minimize evaporation of fuel and keep your car cooler in the summer by parking in the shade.
• Avoid Aggressive Driving - Aggressive driving (speeding, accelerating or braking too quickly) wastes fuel. It can lower mileage by up to 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent during city driving. Sensible driving is always recommended for on-road safety.
• Observe the Speed Limit - Fuel mileage decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. Each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph can translate to an additional $0.10 per gallon. The difference between driving 65 mph and 75 mph could easily result in 1-2 mpg difference under many circumstances.
• Avoid Excessive Idling - Idling gets 0 miles per gallon. Vehicles with larger engines (pickup trucks and SUVs) typically waste more fuel at idle than do vehicles with smaller engines.
• Use Cruise Control - Using cruise control on the highway helps maintain a constant speed and, in most cases, will save fuel.
• Use Overdrive Gears - Using overdrive gearing typically causes the engine speed to decrease. This saves fuel and reduces engine wear.
• Use High Gears - Use the highest gear to achieve the lowest engine rpm. This will generate adequate power to maintain road speed with a given load.