When I started roping for a living in the early ’80s, we relied on jackpots just as much as rodeos to make ends meet. With all the rodeos canceled lately, that’s sure true today, too. Thinking back, it’s really pretty amazing how far this industry has come and how much the sport has evolved. Team roping didn’t really get good until 1985, when they brought the NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo) to Vegas. Rounds paid $3,000 a man, which was big money back then, even though we didn’t have equal money in the beginning.
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In the early days of my professional roping career, a luxury rig was a Chevy 454 that got six miles to the gallon pulling a stock trailer. And that was going downhill with a tailwind. There were four guys to a truck to split fuel, so you just got as comfortable as you could.
Leo Camarillo was the first to have a gooseneck trailer, and it was a slant. We went through the Vic McKinley sleepers stage, then Capri campers were the big thing. Now everybody travels around in their own mobile home on wheels with the living-quarters trailers. A lot of guys take their families and stay out on the road. But back in the day, we drove straight home. We couldn’t wait to sleep in our own beds and have a home-cooked meal.
Everything about roping has gotten better over time. When Clay (Cooper) and I made a 4-second run at the NFR it was unheard of, and we held the NFR team roping record for the longest time. Then Blaine Linaweaver and Jory Levy were 3.5. Chad Masters and Jade Corkill were 3.3 to set the world record at the 2009 NFR, and Brock Hanson and Ryan Motes, and Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira have since tied that. Now every time you turn the page somebody’s been 3 somewhere.
As time has progressed, the learning curve in roping has been huge. People at all levels of the game have learned to get from A to Z faster. Clay and I teach a lot of roping schools, and our students tell us all the time how much tougher their category is today versus a few years ago. Ropers have learned that to be competitive, they need to work at it. Luckily for them, there are more roping resources available today than ever before.
Technology also keeps moving forward, including in the roping and rodeo business. We sometimes enter online on a computer now. And more people than ever before get to rope for big money. To think that there are rodeos where you can win $50,000 and $100,000—and that recreational ropers can win $300,000 at the World Series Finale in Vegas—is crazy.
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The ropes that are the tools of our trade have come a long way, too. We have three-, four- and five-strand ropes. They still have a burner and a knot at the tail, but talk about technology in the roping business. King Ropes in Sheridan, Wyoming, were king back in the day. There were only a few people making ropes then, and they started with a huge spool of rope that they strung out in a field to let age before they made it up into ropes. When I was a young buck, we used a rope until the burner wore out, then we’d patch it up with baling wire and keep using it.
Ropes were kind of like horses back then. We practiced with the same rope we used at the ropings and rodeos. A lot of us only had one horse, and he did it all. Our horses were tough. It was forever before I saved up enough money to buy a practice horse. There’s just been so much progress and fine-tuning in every area of roping. Even the way we shoe our horses is specialized today.
Throughout the 100 years I’ve been roping, the fundamentals of team roping have stayed the same. The basic rules haven’t changed, except that they outlawed crossfire at most places. The header still has to get out of the barrier and the heeler still has to catch two feet to be successful. But my goodness, there’s been a lot of progress in every aspect of our sport. Thank God we’re not still driving around in a single-cab truck with a stock trailer.