August 24, 2009

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By Brian Danko

Yes, I generally write about Northeastern pavement Modifieds.

Then why, you may ask, is Brian Danko covering a rodeo?

When I went away on vacation, my usual, two week tour of the country, I figured that I wanted to do something “racing connected,” but featuring a different sport.

One of the towns that I visited was Cody, Wyoming, also known as “The Rodeo Capital of the Country.”

The Rodeo and more specifically, bull riding, has been gaining more and more fans across the country, even being featured on ESPN and other television networks.


Does NASCAR and Rodeo have anything in common?

Now, honest, did you even think that Poker would be so big?

I know, you’re saying what do auto racing and rodeo have in common? Well, actually it is more than you might think.

As my friend and I embarked on out first rodeo adventure, I was excited about what I was to see. At the end of the night, I wasn’t disappointed.

In my quest for information, I asked several in the rodeo whom I should talk with.

One of the first people I talked with was Mark Cotter, a breeder of horses. Perhaps he could be compared to the “racing chassis fabricator” or “car builder.” Mark hoped that some of them will become the “bucking horses.”

My first question to him, after looking at all of the youthful faces in the “pit area” was, “Do kids start out young doing this, much like children running Go-karts, to get experience?”

That turned out to be correct.

“Yeah, they do start off quite young, much like auto racing,” Mark said, a veteran of rodeos, and wearing the traditional garb of cowboy hat, blue jeans and boots. “Many of the kids involved now are because their families grew up doing it, that’s the way it tends to be.”

That sounds very much like our sport, both on a local level and nationally.

Cotter also said that the people follow a circuit. Again, much like the auto racing. They may be in one city one Saturday, and another city in another state the following weekend. “It’s almost like a family,” he added, “because you see each other weekly.”

One of the big differences that I found was in the competition.

While in auto racing you’re competing against the other drivers, in the rodeo, you are competing against the animal.
“Like auto racing, everything is done by a draw,” Mark said of pitting cowboy against horses or bulls. Of course in auto racing, drivers qualify by a draw.

On of the reasons that Cotter believes rodeos and in particular, bull riding is getting so big is because of the danger involved.

“People go to see a wreck,” said Cotter. “In auto racing, it’s big accidents. In rodeo, (people go to see) the rider getting thrown off, the horse kicking or the bull stampeding. Everyone wants to see it but they don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

That too is just like racing, where fans anticipate thrills and spills, but want to see their heroes on the track walk away unharmed from the accidents.

Cotter also said that the riders exchange a lot of information and help others with advice, much the same as in racing when teams pull together to help out a driver or team in need.

One of the young riders that Cotter wanted me to talk with was 17 year old J.R. Vezain, whom Cotter refers as too the “next big thing” in rodeo.

Cotter brought over the baby faced Vezain. Much like many of the young drivers in racing, he is shy and doesn’t like to talk about himself.

“None of my (immediate) family was into it but my uncle was,” he said, as to how and why he actually got involved in participating in rodeos. “I always looked up to him and one day we started off. I was about four when I started riding sheep and then once I was good enough, I moved up to steers when I was about seven, until I was 13.”

Just as NASCAR has an age limit, so does the rodeo.

For people who want to ride bulls, that age is 18 to ride on the professional circuit but not in the local rodeos.
Vezain is not only the champion in rodeo in the state of Wyoming; he is also the only member of his high school rodeo team.

I asked Vezain if he was a follower of NASCAR, or racing in particular, and he said “no,” adding, “Racing is for rednecks.”

Interesting that he had that view.

I talked with many that night in the rodeo circuit and everyone indeed pointed to Vezain as the “one to watch” as he won the bronco horse event and finished second in another. But like all the riders before him, he wasn’t able to beat the bull in the bull riding.

When others referred to him, it was like all the hype that Joey Logano received working his way up the NASCAR ladder. I’m sure that some night watching television and the rodeo, that I will see another up and comer.

Modifieds At Bristol

I was quite excited about the first event for the NASCAR Modified Tour at Bristol Motor Speedway. And, like many of the faithful followers of the Modifieds, I was quite pleased with the whole night.

As a dedicated lifelong fan of the division, and member of the media covering modified racing since the late-1970s, my biggest fear was that it would be a wreck fest. But the drivers on both the Northern-based Modified tour and the NASCAR Southern Modified tour performed great.

With just four caution flags, and one for rain, it was a good race to watch.


Donny Lia (4) during the UNOH Perfect Storm 150.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images for NASCAR)

While the event, like Martinsville, was of the “follow the leader” category, I still thought the first race for the Modifieds at Bristol was quite good.

Event TV announcer Mike Joy, a Modified fan, was the perfect choice for that role. However, I didn’t think that Dr. Dick Berggren added much to the broadcast. I also thought the production of the race was quite good.

I would also believe that the crowd of more than 40,000 was thrilled with the first event for the Modifieds at that oval in its present, high-banked configuration.

Hopefully, the folks at Speed TV, along with NASCAR, were pleased enough to go with more television in 2010 and beyond.

And while one of the major complaints of the race heading into it was the purse, maybe O. Bruton Smith was impressed enough to not only have the open wheel Modifieds back to Bristol, but to also increase the purse to a New Hampshire Motor Speedway payout. That would make it somewhere in the $165,000 range.

Ted Christopher appeared to be the class of the field, faded at the end but still ended up second to increase his points lead.

While driver Donny Lia will be in the record books as the first winner of the NASCAR Modified Tour race at Bristol, the entire Tour came out in first place in the eyes of this veteran observer.