Over the decades, the National Finals Rodeo has become a cowboy extravaganza without peer, entertaining more than 175,000 spectators during it’s 10-day run. Each December, the revery spills out of the rodeo’s home, the Thomas & Mack Center, onto the streets and showrooms of Las Vegas. There, rodeo fans watch as Nashville’s biggest stars come out to shine.
Since 1959, the National Finals Rodeo has determined world championships in professional rodeo. Only the top 15 riders in seven standard rodeo events qualify for the season-ending finale, which this year features a prize payout of $10 million.
Whether you plan to go or simply watch the rodeo action unfold on TV, we’d like to share with you a history of “the Super Bowl of Rodeo.”
Casey Tibbs was always dreaming of ways to make rodeo bigger and better – and put more cash in his and the other cowboys’ pockets. In 1958, Americans were crazy for cowboys – eight of the 10 top television shows that year were westerns. After an appearance on the cover of LIFE magazine, Tibbs had become the best known rodeo cowboy of his time. After seeing the bright lights of Hollywood first-hand as an extra and stuntman, he recognized that “real” cowboys like himself could profit from a little show business.
Tibbs conceived the idea of a season-ending rodeo featuring the best of the best – the top cowboys in the game on livestock hand-picked for their performance. For three years, he badgered and persuaded board members of the Rodeo Cowboys of America (RCA) to get behind the idea of a “national finals” that would include the top fifteen riders in each rodeo event. Not everyone initially bought the idea.
“Like Casey, I thought it would be great for rodeo,” said Jim Shoulders, who sat on the board as bull riding director. “But some of the members were dead set against it, their viewpoint being that all RCA rodeos were open to any member wanting to enter.”
But after two years, advocates wore down their resistance and the board elected to stage the rodeo in Dallas, Texas. John Van Cronkhite got the huge responsibility of managing the production. In the weeks leading up to the event, he took Jim Shoulders, rodeo’s equivalent of Babe Ruth, on the road to promote the event.
One of their press runs took them to Washington D.C., where Van Cronkhite and Shoulders presented the first National Finals Rodeo ticket to President Dwight Eisenhower. Doubtless, that ticket stub would bring six figures or more today.
In light of the 2016 NFR’s whopping payout, the $50,000 in prize money awarded that first year seems paltry. But back then, a new pickup truck sold for less than $1,000. At that first show, Shoulders fought a close battle with Bob Wegner, switching leads in the bull riding several times before finally steaming ahead by riding nine of his ten bulls. Despite riding with the skin torn off the palm of his hand, Shoulders claimed the World Champion All-Around Title as a competitor in two events – and won an oil well in the bargain. Casey Tibbs also walked out of Dallas a winner, clinching his fifth and final saddle bronc riding world title at the NFR.
After spending its first three years in Dallas, the NFR moved to the center of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles, in 1962. Perhaps influenced by the daring, skin-baring Hollywood actresses, the six women flag bearers riding in the grand entry appeared on opening day wearing low-cut, shoulder-less blouses. One of the very conservative cowboys, Gene Rambo, remarked, “This is a rodeo, not a damn burlesque show.” Chastened by organizers, one of the women stayed up all night sewing new blouses for the following day.
Rodeo never quite got comfortable with Southern California. As rodeo chute boss Sonny Linger tells it, the production costs were astronomical and the facilities at the LA Coliseum were worse than terrible. And the crowds hardly merited the name – ticket sales were abysmal, with photos from that era showing rows of empty seats.
America was changing, too. In 1964, a British rock band called The Beatles landed at Heathrow Airport in New York. Suddenly, cowboys weren’t as cool as before. So, when Oklahoma City offered to host the NFR, the RCA board heartily agreed to move the rodeo east, into the heartland of cowboy country.
At the 1965 NFR, rodeo fans witnessed the emergence of a new generation of outstanding cowboys unafraid to upstage the veterans. Among them were Paul Mayo and Jim Houston, who became known for a radical new style of bareback riding which involved laying back along the spine of the horse, eyes fixed on the rafters. Critics derided the new style as “the flop and pop,” but it thrilled audiences. Mayo and Houston waged an exciting battle that resulted in Houston taking home the buckle.
Another young rider, 22-year-old Larry Mahan of Oregon, claimed his first-ever bull riding world championship. It was a harbinger of things to come. Mahan would become the most dominant all-around cowboy of his era, earning a record six World Champion All-Round Cowboy titles, eclipsing the record previously held by Jim Shoulders.
Notably, in the midst of civil rights unrest across America, the 1966 finals included its first-ever African American, a bull rider named Myrtis Dightman. The Crockett, Texas, cowboy knew the sting of racism first-hand: while on the circuit, rodeos would often make him wait until the audience went home before allowing him to ride. At a rodeo in Little Rock, Ark., gatekeepers even tried to stop him from entering the grounds until fellow cowboys intervened on his behalf. Cowboys, at least, treated Dightman with respect, sharing car rides and inviting him into their homes when he couldn’t get a motel room.
Roughly 54,000 people attended the 1967 NFR, but Jim Shoulders often said that ten times as many claimed to have been there. The reason? A legendary matchup that occurred between Shoulders then unridden bull, Tornado, and an ageless former world champion bull rider named Freckles Brown.
Tornado was 1,600 pounds of frothing anger wrapped in cow hide. He’d bucked off 220 cowboys over a seven year career and was thought impossible to ride. Four times at the NFR, he’d been named bucking bull of the year – the meanest bull alive. As rodeo wit Frank Boggs said, “His reputation had not been gained smelling flowers. He was rodeo’s orneriest critter, a massive assembly of muscles and guts and powerful old bones.”
At 5’7” and 140 pounds, Brown was all sinew and synapses. In 1962, he’d won the bull riding world championship. But after undergoing neck surgery following a calamitous accident at a Portland, Ore., rodeo, Brown was considered to be past his prime. In a sport of young men, Brown was but one month shy of his 47th birthday. Though they respected him greatly, the cowboys gave him little chance.
“Everyone thought Freckles was gonna get bucked. And Tornado wouldn’t just buck you,” said esteemed rodeo photographer Ferrell Butler, “If you didn’t get out of there, he’d camp onto you something fierce. Then he’d go wipe out the barrel. We were all scared.”
Ferrell recalls that the normally boisterous crowd grew eerily quiet as Brown lowered himself down onto the bull’s back and called for the chute men to open the gate.
“The bull understood what was happening,” Brown told a Sports Illustrated reporter many years later. “After I got on him, and just before the chute was about to open, his hide went hard as a tabletop. He knew what he was supposed to do.”
Chute No. 2 exploded open, and the crowd bellowed in deafening noise. Brown was riding him, all right, but panic set in as he lost his position. He adjusted, throwing a leg out and finding the center of the hurricane – or rather, Tornado – and weathered the last few seconds of the storm.
“It was right before the whistle that I felt like I had him rode,” said Freckles, who was so focused he couldn’t hear the whistle marking the end of his ride. As the clowns moved in, he loosed his grip and jumped to the ground. The crowd went wild.
“The applause didn’t die – it just kept going,” said Brown. “This was the greatest and biggest thrill of my rodeo career.”
Radio host Paul Harvey got wind of the epic duel between man and beast, and featured the story on his weekly radio show, which famously included Harvey’s catch phrase “And now, for the rest of the story.” And suddenly, across the country, rodeos began to draw large audiences like the ones they’d seen during the hey-day of rodeo’s “golden age,” the 1950s.
As Larry Mahan sat out the 1971 NFR with injuries, a young multi-event phenomenon named Phil Lyne did something unthinkable: he qualified in the NFR at both ends of the arena! Lyne could ride saddle broncs and bulls, wrestle steers and rope calves. In an age when rodeo cowboys were becoming more specialized by event, he was a throwback to a previous generation of rodeo hands who “did it all” just to put food on the table. Lyne not only won the all-around world championship (a title Larry Mahan had owned since 1966), he won the calf roping world title, too.
In 1973, Larry Mahan returned to the NFR in style – driving a limo that he owned! “The Bull,” as fellow cowboys called him in a show of esteem, had qualified in all three roughstock events. Mahan ended the competition the way he started – leading the world all-around standings by a mile. It was the charismatic cowboy’s sixth and final all-around championship. Years later, when the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame was built, Mahan was among its first inductees.
“I left the ’73 NFR with that sixth world champion all-around cowboy buckle. The goal had been reached, but in my heart I knew I would never rodeo again with that fire in my belly,” said the great one.
Briefly, from 1976 to 1978, world titles became decided solely by the contestants’ performances at the NFR, rather than on their earnings over the entire rodeo season. Many of the leading cowboys hated the new format; after working hard all year to earn top positions in their events, the frontrunners naturally wanted all of those earnings to count when it came time to determine world championships.
In 1979, an eleventh round was added and the world title went from dollars earned to a point system nobody seemed to care for or understand fully. By 1980, these experiments were shucked and rodeo returned to its tried-and-true system of awarding world titles to the individuals who’d won the most money over the course of the year, including money won at the season-ending NFR.
In 1982, the racial barrier that had been knocked down by Myrtis Dightman in the 1960s created a clear pathway for the sport’s first African-American world champ, the well-liked bull rider Charles Sampson. That season, Sampson seemed invincible, coming into the NFR with a $21,000 lead over Bronx-born bull rider Bobby DelVecchio. Naturally, the two drew a great deal of media interest.
“We had been kidding each other all year about the kid from New York City and the kid from L.A. being one and two in the standings, so we had been doing a lot of talking all week,” remembers Sampson. “So I told him if I beat him, it would be payback for all those years the Yankees had beaten my Dodgers in the World Series!”
Sampson, whose career began as a young boy working at a public riding stable in Los Angeles, understood that a lot was riding on his shoulders. Historically, black cowboys hadn’t always gotten their due in the rodeo arena.
“People had told me that Myrtis should have been the first black cowboy to win a world championship, but that had been in a different time. I wanted him to be there for my last ride and be a part of the world championship,” said Sampson. “I drew Red Lightening, the bucking bull of the year in 1978, for the last round. And I called Myrtis Dightman and asked if he would fly down and pull my rope for the last night.”
Dightman did indeed pull Sampson’s rope, standing witness for all the black cowboys who’d blazed a trail in the West before them – historians estimate that about one-third of the cowboys who rode in the Old West were African Americans. Most had been freed from slavery following the Civil War.
In 1980, John Travolta had starred in the box office hit Urban Cowboy, and a cowboy-hat wearing president named Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. Albums by country musicians like Willie Nelson, George Strait and Dwight Yoakum went platinum, and suddenly, cowboys were cool again. Rodeo was ready to move back into the mainstream. This time, Las Vegas would be its home.
Headed by casino owner Benny Binion, Las Vegas put together an offer that guaranteed an extra $1 million in prize money, paid entry fees, and comped hotel rooms for contestants. The cowboys told Oklahoma City’s leaders, “well, it’s been nice but…”
Almost from the beginning, the 16,500 seat Thomas & Mack Center arena on the UNLV campus sold out. The town, normally sleepy during December, suddenly woke up for the 10-day event, and cowboy hats and boots could be seen everywhere on the Las Vegas Strip and downtown. In the years to come, the NFR would make for a lively and lucrative time, becoming Las Vegas’ single largest annual sporting event.
While some of the old school cowboys groused about the change (some didn’t feel, rightly, that Las Vegas presented a healthy family environment), a new generation was emerging to claim Las Vegas as its own. Two young riders, in particular, emerged as NFR superstars with staying power.
The first was a blonde-haired teenage barrel racer from Clayton, New Mexico. While just 14, Charmayne James claimed the world title at the last NFR held in Oklahoma City. In 1985, she and her horse, Scamper, came to Las Vegas to prove the win was not a fluke. What happened there would become rodeo legend.
The seventh round of the NFR ominously fell on Friday the 13th. Just as Scamper was about to enter the arena, he scraped against a concrete wall, causing his bridle to break. But it was too late to hold back, and Charmayne ran her pattern as if nothing was wrong.
Carrying the bit in his mouth, the reins limp along his neck, Scamper ran the first two barrels like he was on rails. But as he rounded the third, the bit and bridle dropped between his forelegs, dangling there as he galloped home. James thought she’d been eliminated, but there was no rule against running without a bridle. She was amazed to learn she’d won the round in a time of 14.4 second.
Charmayne would go on to win her second world championship with Scamper, followed by eight more in succession. It remains the longest streak of world championships in barrel racing, and the duo’s incredible “bridleless run” will forever be recalled in rodeo lore.
Joe Beaver was a pro rodeo rookie, a talented 20-year-old Texan who wasn’t intimidated by more seasoned competitors. Ranked fourth in the world going into the NFR, he held onto his place among the frontrunners until the last tie. When the money was tallied, his NFR earnings had put him over the top.
“I remember being in awe of Las Vegas as we drove into town that first year,” he said later. “I guess that first Finals headed Las Vegas and me in the right direction. We’ve done pretty well at NFR time ever since that first year.”
Well, indeed. Beaver would go on to win four more calf roping world championship, plus three all-around cowboy world titles. He gained so much acclaim and was such a fan favorite that, for a time, the press referred to the Thomas & Mack Center as “the house that Joe Beaver built.” In later years, he would serve as a much-beloved NFR television commentator.
Bull riding likewise made stars of many NFR cowboys, but none more so than four traveling buddies who laid siege on the sport in the late 1980s. In 1986, Richard “Tuff” Hedeman was the first in the truck to win a gold-and-silver buckle. The following year, his close friend and main adversary, Lane Frost, captured one too. In 1988, it was Jim Sharp’s turn, and the young rider they called “Razor” upped his two buddies by riding all 10 bulls at the NFR – a first.
But tragedy struck the boys in July, 1989, when Frost was killed by a bull at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Hedeman took it especially hard. Sharp came back and rode his first nine bulls in Las Vegas and seemed poised to repeat history in the final round. But he’d drawn the mythical beast Mr. T, whose fame for planting cowboys like lawn darts was nearly as great as Tornado’s. In the end, Sharp bucked off. Hedeman now had the chance to win, if he could ride his final bull.
Riding more for his fallen friend than the world title at stake, Tuff Hedeman covered his last bull and then, to everyone’s amazement, he stayed aboard the bull for an extra 8 seconds, fanning the animal with his hat in tribute to Lane Frost. For those who were there, it was a poignant moment that touched everyone’s heart.
Meanwhile, a young kid named Ty Murray was competing in his first NFR. But even at age 19, he already wore the No. 1 back number signifying the earnings leader going into the event. Murray, a friend to Hedeman, Sharp, and Frost, was a three-event roughstock competitor, just like his childhood hero, Larry Mahan. When Murray was in third grade, his teacher had asked the kids to write down what they most wanted to do in life. Murray wrote, “I want to beat Larry Mahan’s record.”
Murray dominated the NFR ranks as an all-around contestant throughout the 1990s, becoming the NFR’s biggest star. He won six consecutive all-around titles from 1989 to 1994, before being sidelined with a succession of surgeries to repair his rodeo-damaged knees and shoulders. After a grueling period of physical rehabilitation, he finally surpassed Larry Mahan by winning a then-record seventh world champion all-around title in 1998. As Murray emerged from the arena after his final bull ride and clinch the all-around, Larry Mahan was waiting ringside to be the first to shake Murray’s hand.
“It’s hard for me to put into words, but when the whistle blew that last time it was like everything stopped,” Murray later wrote. “I knew at that split second that I’d achieved my lifelong dream.”
Coincidentally, a little-known team roper named Trevor Brazile made his first appearance at the 1998 NFR, and was there to watch Murray claim the all-around title. In the years ahead, Brazile would go on to become Murray’s worthy successor and the winningest cowboy in pro rodeo history. A timed-event specialist, Brazile has earned in excess of $6 million and a whopping 22 PRCA World Championships, including an astounding 13 all-around championships.
Brazile’s success surprises even himself.
“I remember starting out rodeoing and not being able to make the National Finals. I contemplated what I was going to do for a living to support my rodeo habit,” he said. “But I went from wanting to go to the National Finals to winning a world championship to not wanting anyone else to get that world championship.”
In 2014, Trevor Brazile won $211,509 at the National Finals Rodeo – more than four times the entire payout of the 1959 NFR. His take for the year surpassed $518,000. There aren’t many cowboys who witnessed the first NFR in 1959 who are still alive, but the few still remaining can only shake their heads in wonder at how the event has grown, and how much better the best cowboys are today than they were when the finals debuted in Dallas.
And the future will only be brighter, both for the NFR contestants and those lucky enough, and determined enough, to buy tickets for the next round of world championship rodeo. In 2014, Las Vegas Events signed a ten-year agreement that will keep the NFR in town until 2024. During that time, there is no doubt that rodeo history will continue to be made and cowboys’ dreams of gold buckles will be fulfilled.
Gavin Ehringer is an award-winning writer who has covered 18 National Finals Rodeos for magazines and newspapers. He is the author of the book Rodeo Legends and co-author of Rodeo In America. Gavin lives in Denver and is currently working on his seventh book, Coming to the Fire: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Horses & Cows.