So, 95 of the winter's top ProRodeo riders and ropers are set to embark on the Tulsa (Okla.) Convention Center for the Pace Picante ProRodeo Chute-out, Friday and Saturday.
Inside the arena, up to 8,900 rodeo fans will witness the ultimate in rodeo drama and theatrics, played out in a unique, two-day, tournament style format that usually keeps them talking until the next rodeo stops by.
And by Sunday night, all the questions will have been answered. But until then, various storylines persist about how the Pace Chute-out will unfold.
Will a previous or reigning world champion continue his momentum and hoist another championship crystal cup, such as bareback rider Will Lowe or team ropers Clay Tryan and Patrick Smith?
Or will the Pace Chute-out serve as a launching pad for tomorrow's next star, such as reigning world all-around champion Ryan Jarrett, who won Pace events in Omaha, Neb., and Dallas in 2005 en route to his first gold buckle at the conclusion of last year's Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas?
With 23 world champions representing 69 world titles in attendance this weekend, it's comparable to the Wrangler NFR in terms of talent and livestock. But whereas the Wrangler NFR holds 10 rounds, this weekend's Pace Chute-out offers only one chance to advance or be eliminated.
In Saturday's first round, all 12 contestants compete in their respective event. Only the top eight advance to Sunday's semifinals. The top four scores from the semifinals move on to the winner-take-all final round, where the top times and scores will be rewarded with a hefty paycheck and a crystal cup.
Welcome to the mini pressure cooker, Tulsa style.
With virtually no room for error, the Pace Chute-out almost serves as a litmus test for those trying to make it to the next level. It worked for Jarrett, who cut his teeth at Pace events not only to reach the Wrangler NFR in two events, but prove he could perform in the high-pressure atmosphere only the Pace events can provide.
And it certainly helped his transition once he finally arrived in Las Vegas for the Wrangler NFR.
"Being in the Pace events were a big help, and not just because it jumped me up there in the standings," Jarrett said. "Those were the same kind of situations as in Las Vegas at the NFR."
Dan Mortensen, who has six world saddle bronc riding championships and another in the all-around, agrees that the Pace events have ultimately shortened the curve for which Wrangler NFR rookies can thrive quickly.
He has also qualified for 15 of the 16 Pace events and owns three crystal cups, too.
"It used to be that when a guy goes to the NFR for the first time, he'd never been exposed to that kind of pressure," Mortensen said. "It usually gets to them. Nowadays, the new guys at the NFR have been to the Tour finales, and that's really prepared them for the NFR. You don't see the big wide eyes there anymore."
With half of the season still remaining, seasons won't be made or broken in Tulsa. But every year, a handful of cowboys look back on the season's first Pace event as a corner turner. Or what might have been.
Cup or no cup, all paychecks earned this weekend count toward the ProRodeo Cowboys World Standings and qualification to the Wrangler NFR. In 2005, every cowboy and cowgirl who raised the cup at any of the three Pace events went on to compete in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
And winning isn't everything this weekend. By making it through the first two rounds and into the top four, cowboys clinch automatic berths into the Pace Picante ProRodeo Classic, Nov. 11-12 in Dallas the last rodeo of the regular season.
Pace Chute-out notes:
A total of 32 previous Pace champions will compete in this weekend's Pace Chute-out, representing 53 total titles. Included in that field are 13 Pace Series champs from 2005 Andy Martinez (bareback riding), Ryan Jarrett (steer wrestling, but competing in tie-down roping this weekend); Clay Tryan/Patrick Smith and Steve Purcella/Britt Bockius (team roping), Cody DeMoss (saddle bronc riding), Fred Whitfield and Jerome Schneeberger (tie-down roping) and Brittany Pozzi and Sherry Cervi (barrel racing).
Each event boasts at least three former Pace champs, led by tie-down roping with six (Whitfield 3, Jarrett 2, Blair Burk 2, Schneeberger, Cody Ohl, Cade Swor). All are here this weekend.
Mortensen and Burk are appearing in their 15th Pace event, the only ones to have made them all except one (Mortensen missed the 2003 Chute-out and Burk failed to qualify for the 2004 Pace Challenge.
The Pace Chute-out joins the list of events held in the Tulsa Convention Center. Since its grand opening in 1964, the TCC has accommodated more than 25 million people and nearly 20,000 events, from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to rock concerts, trade shows, political conventions, religious rallies and high school graduations.