There are many "weekend warrior" cowboys who don't compete full-time, but instead mix rodeos into their busy schedules that are often packed with full-time jobs, families and other commitments. It's for those competitors that the Dodge Circuit Finals Rodeos are so important it gives them a shot at a championship, a big payday and some extra recognition.
"The greatest thing about the circuit system is it allows the cowboys that chose not to rodeo full-time for a living to still be competitive and still compete for year-end awards," said Tom Richter, president of the Badlands Circuit. "For many of them, their goal is to win the circuit finals."
And for the talented cowboys and cowgirls who do win their respective circuits, along with year-end champions, a trip to the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo (DNCFR) awaits. There, the top 24 competitors in each event battle for the title of national champion.
The circuit system was created in 1975 to recognize the competitors who might never have the chance to make the Wrangler NFR. Instead, the circuit cowboys compete throughout the year within a designated circuit, and top competitors from each circuit qualify for the circuit's finals. Then, the top cowboys qualify for the DNCFR, the crowning event.
"They try to compete as often in as many circuit rodeos as they can," Richter said about circuit competitors. "(Circuit finals) are the best of the best in your circuit. It takes quite a bit to qualify for the circuit finals, so there is high-caliber competition, both with the rodeo athletes and the top stock within our circuit too. The quality of the competition is very good."
The Dodge Circuit Finals begin Nov. 3-4 with the Dodge Prairie Circuit Finals in Guthrie, Okla., and the Dodge Badlands Circuit Finals in Deadwood, S.D., Nov. 4-6. The circuit finals conclude Jan. 12-14, 2007, with the Dodge California Circuit Finals in Norco, Calif., and the Dodge Montana Circuit Finals in Great Falls, Mont.
For some circuit competitors, the circuit finals are a once-a-year opportunity to experience a large rodeo. Unlike many circuit rodeos that are one day or one performance, the circuit finals rodeos span two or three days and include multiple performances, giving cowboys a chance to really shine.
"I think there's a championship feel to it," Richter said. "It's a three-day event, which is abnormal to most rodeos, and it's a culmination of the year. Competing three days in a row or three rounds, that's unique. And the atmosphere, I think they really enjoy that, because it's their championship."
For the few who do go on to the DNCFR, those cowboys and cowgirls get the chance at bigger paychecks and a one-year lease on a Dodge truck.
At this year's DNCFR, bareback rider Chris Timberman was tops with an 88-point ride in the Wrangler Round aboard Sankey Rodeo's Gus. It was Timberman's first trip to the DNCFR, so winning was a big honor.
Saddle bronc rider Steve Dollarhide, who's been to the Wrangler NFR eight times, may not have had the biggest-scoring ride of the whole rodeo during the Wrangler Round at the DNCFR, but his 79 points were enough to boost him to the championship title. He was the only cowboy of four in the Wrangler Round to make the 8-second buzzer.
Winning the DNCFR was sweet for team ropers Wade Kreutzer and Mark Kersting because they're not only partners, but friends too. Their 5.7-second catch in the Wrangler Round was the only run less than 10 seconds, easily handing them the championship.
It was steer wrestler Stockton Graves' first trip to the DNCFR too, and he made it count. Graves turfed his steer in 3.5 seconds for the national title.
Tie-down roper J.D. Kibbe slipped into the Wrangler Round with a fourth-place finish in the semifinals, but he made his mark in the final round with an 8.1-second winning run.
Lisa Novak was so excited to make her fastest run of the DNCFR during the semifinal round that the barrel racer could hardly believe she bested her time in the Wrangler Round, enough to win the championship title.
Bull rider Sonny Murphy was bucked off in the semifinal round, but so were six other cowboys, and with Murphy's third-place average score in the first round, he reappeared in the Wrangler Round, where he spurred Flying Five Rodeo's spotted Jacket for 92 points and the victory.