Shawn Davis is the “big boss” at the National Finals Rodeo. He has been involved in the event in some capacity since 1959. Today he’s the event’s president and general manager.
As a contestant, Davis won four saddle bronc world championships, all when the sport was staged in Oklahoma City. In the winter of 1984, as an executive with the Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association, he delivered the tiebreaking vote to snap a 6-6 deadlock among PRCA officials that effectively moved the event to Las Vegas. Davis does the big stuff—beginning with moving the entire show halfway across the country and making it one of the city’s more significant annual tourism draws. NFR has a total attendance of more than 170,000 at the Thomas & Mack Center and about 37,000 unique visitors to the show (most attend multiple nights). The event also fills 6,000 Las Vegas hotel rooms per night over its 10-day duration.
But Davis does the small stuff, too. On an early morning trip around the stalls on what is usually the intramural field complex adjacent to the Thomas & Mack on the UNLV campus, he welcomes a rodeo interloper with a wide grin.
It’s 5:30 in the morning, and after fulfilling the niggling duty of standing for early morning TV interviews, Davis curls into the passenger seat of a Chevy Malibu driven by his administrative assistant and entrusted deputy, Ann Bleiker. The two make frequent stops, seemingly pointless halts as they wind around the stall-strewn expanse. Davis drops his window to talk briefly with the help, then moves along.
Why this routine? the interloper asks. Davis is reading his team, is the answer.
“I can tell by the way they say good morning to me if they are having problems,” he says. “If they pause before responding to me, or give me a troubled look, I know something isn’t right, and I ask them, because an unhappy employee is more likely to neglect or mistreat an animal than a happy one.”
Davis can read the equine disposition, too. He checks to see if they have been properly cared for, groomed and tended to regularly, by asking for a horse’s hoof.
If the horse gives him its hoof instantly and instinctively, that hoof has been scrubbed daily.
“What if it doesn’t?” the interloper asks.
“Then that horse is not being taken care of properly,” Davis says simply, “and I won’t stand for that.”
Benje Bendele punches at a half-dozen keyboards spread out in front of him at his post behind this night’s announcers, Boyd Polhamus and Randy Corley. The three work together like a power trio. A steer wrestler throws a calf to the dirt and Polhamus calls, “Timber!” and instantly, Bendele cues up a track of a guy crying, “Timbeeeeer!” very loudly.
Bendele has music to set any scene at the NFR. Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” is a natural for the event. The bareback, saddle bronc and bull riders favor rock ’n’ roll, and quite a lot of it. AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” is dialed up several times. “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, too, is sampled, as is (in an odd blend of sensibilities) Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.”
Bendele is asked how many songs, approximately, he holds in his holster.
“About 8,000,” he says, without hesitation, “and I need ’em all.”
One of the sport’s top stock contractors, Don Kish of Red Bluff, California, says South Point owner Michael Gaughan has earned the highest praise any rich man could hope for in the rodeo world.
“He’s a wealthy man,” Kish tells the interloper, who is wondering how Gaughan has earned such devotion in the rodeo culture, “who doesn’t act like a wealthy man. He’s so down to earth. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how many people he has helped in this sport in his career, and he never talks about it. He has my utmost respect. He’s real cowboy.”
Bareback riders Will Lowe and Wes Stevenson are signing autographs on Fremont Street. They are competitors and good friends, traveling the country as bareback barnstormers in a close-knit group of riders called the “Wolf Pack.” They are small guys, about 5-foot-6, and weigh in the 150-pound class, but they are tough as saddle bags. They love the character-enlivened Fremont Street scene, filled with Spandex-clad contortionists, tubby guys dressed as Elvis and even two men in Kiss attire (Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, of course). Lowe describes the scene as “Woodstock, everywhere you look,” and they agree there is no other rodeo in the country that comes close to rivaling the NFR in Vegas.
The interloper confides that he is also in costume, sort of, dressed in Wrangler jeans and a snap-button shirt under a bulky NFR jacket. Stevenson looks down at the boots and says, “Those are Justin. Let’s see the tops.”
“The tops?” the interloper responds. “You can see them—check out the stitching on the toes.”
“No,” Stevenson says, “the tops, the tops of the boot.”
After several seconds of awkward, confused silence, the interloper pulls up his pant leg to reveal the intricate green, orange and white stitching at the top of the boot.
“Nice!” says Stevenson, laughing. “You look like a cowboy.”
An annual event tied into the NFR is the Exceptional Rodeo, staged for its 20th year. It’s a session where special-needs kids are taken around the Thomas & Mack’s temporary dirt floor and shown how to perform the rodeo’s various disciplines. Working with the kids is bullfighter Dusty Tuckness of Meeteese, Wyoming.
Tuckness’ job is simple: To dress as a clown, climb in a barrel and protect the safety of the rodeo’s roughstock event contestants (those who climb aboard bulls and horses). It’s his second NFR, but he was bred for the job. His father, Timber, also fought bulls—these guys are called bullfighters, not clowns—and Tuckness says he knows no other lifestyle.
“How’s it feel to be out there?” he says, repeating the interloper’s question about his first experience climbing into a barrel. “It’s awesome. Awesome. It’s like being in a dream. To do this as a career is a dream come true.” Then he excuses himself, walking—well, maybe slightly limping—away to meet some kids.
The day of the Miss Rodeo America pageant at the Orleans Showroom, one of those who has watched the event over the week says there are two favorites: Miss Rodeo South Dakota McKenzie Haley, and Miss Mississippi Katie Jo Vanderslice. The person jokes that if one of them doesn’t win, that person will never watch another Miss Rodeo America pageant.
Haley wins, claiming four categories (Appearance, Photogenic, Speech and Personality) and picking up more than $20,000 in scholarship money. She is studying elementary education at Black Hills Gold State in Colome, South Dakota. Days later, playing with the kids at Exceptional Rodeo, she is one of the last to leave the arena floor.
The NFR’s production meetings are no place for communication devices, a long-held tradition. During the 1984 vote that brought the show to Vegas, Davis demanded that no phone calls be taken to interrupt the important meeting. But those were the days of land lines. Today, anyone caught texting, tweeting or even pulling a cell phone to his ear will be fined a bottle of whiskey. A tally is kept on a sheet of paper nearby.
Also in these meetings, Davis warns that anyone representing the NFR adhere to a simple dress code: Essentially, don’t look at all unkempt.
“Represent us with dignity,” he says. “No dirty hats. Make sure your hats are brushed.”
Announcer Bob Tallman tells the interloper a secret about how anyone calling a rodeo gauges his performance at the end of the night.
“If you aren’t stopped on the way out of the arena by someone complaining by what you did or didn’t say,” he says, “you’ve had a good night. You don’t want to be stopped.”
During the Rodeo Queen contest at the Pub at Monte Carlo, on the night when the “best buckle” is awarded, Holly Madison entourage captain and occasional Playboy model Laura Croft is the emcee. “If you like number 5,” she says, “mark number 5 on your voting sheet.” As the voters make their selections, she tells the interloper, “I have no idea what’s going on here.”
The interloper asks a bartender if cowboys are good tippers. He thinks and says, “Cowgirls are better than cowboys.”
The NFR’s most popular animal, at least behind the scenes, is not a horse or bull. It’s the canine owned by Davis, the famous Shorty, a 10-year-old Corgi who follows the rodeo executive everywhere. This includes meetings and during Davis’ regular inspection walking tours around the grounds at the Thomas & Mack.
Clipped to Shorty’s collar is one of the NFR’s “infinity” passes, allowing the holder to venture anywhere in or around the event unencumbered.
Davis is walking along the freshly laid dirt on the arena floor, having just asked a tractor operator to cut the motor so Davis could stand for yet another video interview. As the 70-year-old cowboy and his devoted pet mosey across the dirt, Shorty stops short. Davis doesn’t notice and continues walking.
And Shorty, the sport’s top dog, drops a deuce. There are a few snickers, but no one admonishes the pooch. If there is ever an arena that accepts such behavior, it is the NFR.