Wildfire Open to the World Calls It a Day

Wildfire owner Billy Pipes says goodbye to his Open to the World after 19 years and more than $1.6 million in payout.
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Wildfire owner Billy Pipes says goodbye to his Open to the World after 19 years and more than $1.6 million in payout.

Nineteen years and $1.64 million out of his own pocket later, Billy Pipes was looking for a way to send his beloved Wildfire Open to the World Weekend out with a great big bang. A herd of world-class ropers gathered in Salado, Texas, for this year’s February 3-5 festivities gave Pipes the perfect exclamation point when they delivered the best short round anyone can remember.

Pipes billed his roping as a “Texas Gunslinging,” and the 2017 edition was that and then some. The first-ever tie at the top—between Aaron Tsinigine and Patrick Smith, and Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira—also gave Pipes his goal of crowning 20 champs before calling it quits. Against all odds, both teams roped six steers in exactly 37.79 seconds.

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“I’ve seen some pretty rank short rounds, but that’s the best one I’ve ever seen,” said five-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo header and Georgia native Driggers, who also finished fourth with Kollin VonAhn (they were the reserve champs at the 2016 Wildfire). “(Defending champs) Chad Masters and Kory Koontz were fifth high callback, were 5.5, they paid four moneys and they didn’t even pull a check. That’s unheard of.”

“This short go was the toughest I’ve ever seen,” said Brazilian-born Nogueira, who’s roped at the last three Wrangler National Finals Rodeos and is the reigning world champion all-around cowboy. “Every team was 5, 5, 5…that’s not easy to do here, and everybody just kept outdoing each other. This is not a simple setup; it’s tough. The steers were great—fresh, fast and strong—and this is a big old arena with room to run. This is a six-header, and you have to catch ’em all and be fast. There were teams—Chad and Kory, Blake Hughes and Justin Davis, Bubba Buckaloo and Ryan Motes—that caught ’em all clean and didn’t place. Team roping has changed just since I got here to America the first time. Today, it’s crazy tough.”

In 19 years, Pipes got his 20 champs. “Here’s my answer,” he said. “This is the perfect ending.”

And that makes this the perfect time to disclose the fact that Pipes pulled $1.64 million out of his own pocket to bolster the Wildfire Open to the World Weekend payoff over the years and build it into one of the richest ropings in all the land.

“It all started with the Godfather, Bob Feist, and the BFI,” Pipes said. “Then came the King, George Strait, and his great roping. The Wildfire Open to the World has been one of the Big Three, and that makes me proud. I set out to put on one of the biggest, best ropings in the country, and we got that done. Now it’s time for me to stop being a team roping producer and get back to roping. It’s been a ball. And for those who say I was crazy to put $1.64 million of my own money into this thing, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t trade that money for all the friends I’ve made in this industry. It’s been a great ride.”

The cowboy community concurs. Since crowning Speed Williams and Brad Culpepper as the inaugural Wildfire Open to the World champs in 1999 (they won $8,000 a man at that first one), it’s been every roper’s dream to get his or her picture with Pipes and the second-to-none Wildfire Open prizeline on the renowned Wildfire Wall of Fame that surrounds the pay window.

The Wildfire Ranch’s 2017 Wildfire Open to the World Weekend featured a $469,170 cash payout, including $98,400 in added money that came straight out of producer Pipes’ pocket. He again overdelivered. As one example, $50,000 in added money was advertised for the Open to the World this year. When fewer teams entered, Pipes stepped up and personally made up the difference by adding $61,400 to make sure first paid up to par. Each of the four champs got $32,250 in greenbacks stuffed into Cactus Saddlery Briefcases, Montana Silversmiths Buckles and Resistol Black Gold Hats.

“I’ve always seen this Wildfire roping and all the money there is to win here in magazines since I was a kid,” said 2015 World Champion Header Tsinigine, who hangs his Resistol Hat in Tuba City, Ariz. “I’ve roped here four or five times, and have always thought it’d be cool to win the Wildfire one day. The Wildfire’s one of those ropings like the US(TRC) Finals, the BFI or the George Strait—the money’s so big that it’s like another stage and another zone in roping. You just know that the Wildfire is one of the big ones.

“I’ve done good at the (Wrangler National) Finals (Rodeo) and had money at the end of the year. Winning this kind of money is a big day for me. I was kind of living rodeo to rodeo this last year, so this’ll make my winter a whole lot easier. I’ve been wanting to buy another horse, too, so this is going to help me a lot.”

“The Wildfire has always been one of the big, prestigious ropings, like the BFI and the George Strait,” added Smith, who won the world in 2005 heeling for Clay Tryan and grabbed the 2010 gold buckle behind Trevor Brazile. “The Wildfire has always been right there. It’s just a tough, prestigious roping, where you can win a beautiful briefcase stuffed full of cash. I’ve been successful here, but hadn’t ever left with the briefcase and the buckle. This was the one big roping I hadn’t ever won. It’s awesome to finally get my picture on the wall.”

True to his first-class form, Pipes promptly ordered a second set of prizes despite only 71 teams entering the roping this round. He offered the champs the chance to rope it off for first, but they unanimously voted to split the first-and-second-place pies four ways.

“Seeing those four guys, who are the best in the world, up on that stage acting giddy and silly, like kids, was so cool,” Pipes said. “They were kidding around and trying to steal the briefcase from each other. They were just ecstatic.”

Tsinigine spent the hour between the fifth and final rounds pondering which page to tear out of his playbook on their last steer. He and his first partner, Ryan Motes, were the high team at the USTRC Finals last fall, “I thought we had all day to win it, we were 7.2 and ended up fourth,” he said. “When I watched the video, I was asking myself why I backed off of that steer. I should have gone at him.” 

As Ty Murray—and subsequently Jake Barnes—always say, “I either win something or learn something every time.” Lesson learned, Tsinigine did not make the same mistake twice.

He and second partner Smith were high call this time around, and Tsinigine took the safety off of his roping gun, aka right arm. Driggers rode up and asked Tsinigine what he was planning to do, knowing Tsinigine would basically match any dare Driggers threw at him. By the time Tsinigine and Smith rode in last, the lead had changed hands six times right in front of them and short-round announcer Reed Flake let them and the crowd know they had 5.20 to win the roping. They blasted another one, and a blistering 5.21-second scorcher later we had the first tie in Wildfire history.

“I didn’t think Driggers would bomb off like that (he and Junior were 5.17 right ahead of them in the short round),” Tsinigine said. “He’s a businessman, and it’s pretty common to see guys just try to lock down and hold their spot. I hadn’t been that fast all day long, but if I just go catch him and we’re 6 flat we’re going to win fourth. So I was thinking I’m either going to be a hero or a zero. Everyone wants to win the Wildfire, so that kind of amped me up and helped me make my decision on whether to lay up and try to win third or fourth or go for the win. Driggers threw that second option out the door.” 

“Being high team back is always somewhat of an advantage, because you know what you need to be,” Smith said. “But in today’s scenario, everybody caught and made outstanding runs. By the time we roped last, it was literally a one-head rodeo instead of a six-head roping. He (Tsinigine) looked at me when we were riding in the box and asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ I figured we needed to go at him to win fourth, so why not go for first? Tsinigine was the MVP of our team today. He went six-for-six on great starts and great heading.”

In Driggers’ eyes, “winning first at the Wildfire is a life-changing amount of money, and when a roping pays this much you come here trying to win it,” he said. “At the same time, you can’t make things happen that aren’t possible. And second is still a good day when you rope for a living. When you get the right steer, you take chances and try to win. When you don’t, you just do what you can.

“Kollin and I were fourth callback, seven tenths off the lead and went 5.3 in the short round. Then Jake and Coleman, me and Junior, and Aaron and Patrick beat us. Kollin and I roped a good roping. We were pretty aggressive the whole time. We just didn’t draw the right steers to win it. You don’t see people draw bad and win open ropings anymore. It’s so tough. Whose day it is is who’s going to win the roping.”

The 2017 Wildfire Open to the World winners circle was filled with mutual respect. 

“Kaleb and Junior are both really good friends of mine,” Tsinigine said of their Wildfire co-champs. “They started roping together last year and started lighting it up. They’re both good at being able to do whatever it takes to win—to go fast or go catch. They’re a team with a lot of speed and they’re really consistent at doing it.”

Tsinigine rode his bay ace, Smudge, who’s 15 this year. “This horse has made me who I am,” he said. “He’s made my career. I maybe could have done it on something else. But to win this much money and win at these big ropings, like the Wildfire, the BFI and the NFR on the same horse—that’s very rare. When a horse can do all that, that makes him one of the great ones.”

His heeler in the Wildfire win started the day on his old faithful, Amigo, who’s 18 now, “has had two knee surgeries, torn ligaments and about 2 million miles on the rodeo trail,” per Smith. “He’s a legend and still one of the greatest ever, but the Wildfire is tough on one. I got off of him after the first steer. I felt like I was a little behind, so I got on Turbo (who’s 6). I just cracked him out this year, and he’s been phenomenal. He has really stepped up to the plate. What a shot of confidence for me and him to win the Wildfire.” 

Driggers rode his rock-solid 12-year-old sorrel horse Doc, who “just scores really good and is consistent. Him being the same horse every time is what allows me to win.”

Nogueira rode Hali, the gray mare he bought from VonAhn a year ago. He actually took delivery of her at the 2016 Wildfire. “She’s a big horse and she’s really strong,” Nogueira said. “She has a big heart and she’s really fast. Sometimes I need to hold her back a little she’s so fast.”

Nogueira has similar praise for his partner.

“Kaleb roped so good here today,” Junior said. “He turned 12 steers in a row, no barriers, and fast. We know exactly what’s going to happen in our run now, so we’re having fun. We talk about all of it, and ask each other everything. It’s feeling really good.”

The best in the business are sad to see the Wildfire go. Big-money open ropings are just too rare.

“I want to say thank you to Billy Pipes and the Wildfire Ranch for putting on a phenomenal roping,” Tsinigine said. “Without the roping producers and great sponsors we cannot make a living out here, like we do. We get all the nice things we want out of jackpots. These few great ropings pay for mortgages, trucks and trailers. They keep us going. Roping producers and sponsors don’t get enough thanks for doing all the work they do. Without them we couldn’t make a living.”

“I would like to thank Billy for the 19 years of the Wildfire,” said Smith, who lives in Lipan, Texas, with his wife, Christi, and their three kids, Kylee, Kenzie and Eli, who celebrated his fourth birthday on Wildfire Saturday. “It’s been a great roping. It sometimes gets overlooked what it takes to put on an event of this caliber. Billy’s poured his heart and soul into this roping to make it one of the most historic ropings ever. If I’d never won the Wildfire buckle I’d say the same thing for the last 19 years—the chance to rope for this kind of money and prestige—he didn’t have to do this.

“This is a big boost of confidence right off the bat, early in the year. I’d never won the Wildfire, and I’m really excited to have this one on my wall. It’s always nice for a team roper to hit a big lick. It just helps with everything for the year. I’m excited about my second partner and my young heel horse.”

“I told Tsinigine I’d much rather be the one putting the pressure on than having to take the pressure,” Driggers said. “It pays so good to win first, but to have to be 5.2 at the Wildfire is pretty crazy. There are only a few ropings a year that give us a chance at life-changing money. Billy Pipes and his crew go all out and put on a first-class roping.”

“We don’t get many chances like this to win this much money in one day,” Junior added. “This really is life changing for a professional cowboy. It’s a lot of money to keep you going. I love the Wildfire. It’s amazing, it’s one of my favorite ropings and I’m so happy to win it. I love the big, famous ones.”

Hope Thompson and Whitney DeSalvo stopped the clock four times in 30.74 seconds to take the victory lap at this year’s Wildfire Ladies Open, which is a USTRC affiliate roping. After adding $25,000 to the pot, Pipes handed each of them $12,500 in cash stashed inside Cactus Saddlery Purses, Montana Silversmiths Buckles and Charlie 1 Horse Hats. 

Thompson, 31, is a USTRC 5 Elite roper who trains both horses and humans alongside Lari Dee Guy out of the Guy Ranch in Abilene, Texas. 

“I’ve always roped calves and breakawayed,” Thompson said. “I’ve only team roped the last seven years, since I moved here in 2010 (from Atlanta, Texas). It’s always been a dream to say I’ve won the Wildfire. We were practicing at the house the day before we left to come over here and I said, ‘Ok, this is our last steer. Short round at the Wildfire.’ We ran the steer and made a good run. Whitney said, ‘We just got on the wall at the Wildfire.’ It’s exciting to win it. It’s a great roping and one of the biggest all-girl ropings anywhere. There are getting to be more good all-girl ropings now, but we don’t get to go to these big ones every day.”

Given their line of work and being dedicated and driven to raising the bar for female ropers, the high level of competition at the Wildfire Ladies Open gave Thompson great self-satisfaction.

“Team roping’s gotten to be a big deal to me,” Thompson said. “We rope for a living, and I love to rope. There are a lot of girls who are serious about their roping now and they’re winning at the big events—not just at the all girls. The girls have really stepped up their game. Having to be 7 seconds to win an all-girl roping is cool to me. It’s so great to see these girls we’ve helped competing against us and doing good. It makes the whole ‘Rope Like a Girl’ thing cool. Lari Dee and some other girls started that, and it started out as an inspiration and a little quote. Now we can be proud to rope like a girl.”

DeSalvo, who turned 22 last month, is a USTRC No. 6 Elite heeler who lives in Springfield, Ark., when she’s not camping with roper friends.

“All I do is rope,” DeSalvo grinned.

DeSalvo frequents the Guy Ranch, so her dominating performance at the Wildfire Ladies Only came as no surprise to Thompson or Guy. Besides winning it with Thompson, DeSalvo finished third with Guy and fifth with Megan White. Patrick Smith called DeSalvo’s heeling on Wildfire Weekend “inspiring.”

“Even some of the open guys were saying they would enter with her,” Thompson said. “Whitney ropes great, and she was tapped off at the Wildfire. We had to be 7.8 to win it and we were 6.5. Whitney was awesome. It’s no surprise. You don’t see her without a rope in her hand.

“It used to be kind of a knife fight, because there were only so many girls who could heel. It’s pretty cool now to see a lot of girls who heel really good. Whitney’s been coming and roping with us since she was a kid. It’s good when you can rope enough to where you get a chemistry with your partner. It makes a big difference.”

DeSalvo says Thompson is a breeze to rope behind, in part because “she’s always on a good horse. Every time you back in the box you know you have a chance to win something. Hope was awesome here. We drew a little bit of everything, and she really did a good job hitting the barrier right, ran to the middle of them and it was the same spin four steers in a row.”

The Wildfire Ladies Open celebrated its 18th birthday in 2017, and Pipes has always gone way out of his road for the world’s wolfiest women ropers. Former Miss Rodeo America Debbie Garrison is who first suggested he add an all-girl roping to the Wildfire lineup, and it’s been a huge hit since day one. 

“The ladies have always been so appreciative—win, lose or draw—of what we do here,” said Pipes, who for the past 18 years has been bombarded with thank you cards from grateful Ladies Open ropers. “It’s been so gratifying to see so many young women step up over the years. This year’s roping was sort of a changing of the guard. It showed just how many new faces there are and how many girls can really rope these days.”

“Billy’s done a great job with this event, and it’s a great roping,” Thompson said. “It’s an honor to be able to win this one.”

“This roping is one of the best we go to all year,” DeSalvo added. “Besides Reno, it’s the only roping that guarantees this much money. That says a lot about Billy. I’ve come to the Wildfire since I was 15-16 years old, and it’s always paid great.” 

Thompson rode a 14-year-old sorrel mare by the name of Zena. DeSalvo rode a 5-year-old sorrel mare she calls Becky, that she’s owned since April. 

“She came from a really good friend of mine, Jordan Sullivan, who’s one of my best friends from Arkansas who makes rope horses,” DeSalvo said. “He called me one day and said he wanted me to have her. I bought her in April and by June had won close to $17,000 on her at jackpots. She felt solid from the first roping I ever took her to.”

DeSalvo’s worked hard at her heeling for years, and it shows. 

“In the last year, I’ve lived with Shay Carroll and Paul Eaves, and roped with both of them,” DeSalvo said. “I’ve roped with Ryan Motes and Jade Corkill. I’ve bounced around and tried to learn as much as I could from everyone and tried to get better. It feels like it’s finally starting to click. I’m not just leveled off at one spot. 

“I want to try and be the best girl heeler that’s ever roped. I feel like I have a chance, which is good, because I’m one of the youngest right now. To be the best girl you have to learn from people who are way above you. I’ve learned so much from those guys. Roping around people who are way better than me makes me feel sharper. I want to be the best heeler I can possibly be.”

This year’s Wildfire No. 11 Businessman’s Roping winners, Jacob Carr and Brent Mays, piled $37,500 per man into hand-tooled Cactus Saddlery Briefcases by roping four steers in 29.94 seconds. The 185-team World Series of Team Roping Super Qualifier shelled out $223,000 in 2017 and paid 60 ropers. Hank Brown and Denton Jones roped four steers in 30.74 to take the reserve title and $16,000 a man. All eight teams who placed in the four-steer average now advance to the 2017 World Series of Team Roping Finale in Las Vegas.

Carr, who’s 24 and lives in Daisetta, Texas, has two day jobs. He works for his dad’s Shamrock Vacuum Service, and runs Liberty County Tack with his wife. It was just the second year Carr, a USTRC No. 5 header, entered the roping and his first time to scratch at it.

“What a good opportunity to win a bunch of money,” Carr said. “This is one of the biggest ropings I go to all year. Winning it my second year is pretty cool. It’s a pretty prestigious win. They put your picture on the wall and it stays there. That’s pretty cool, too. This is definitely my biggest, proudest win. I’ve won my local rodeo here in Liberty, but this is the most money I’ve won in one place. It tops the list, for sure, and will pay my entry fees for the rest of the year.”

Carr and Mays, who’s 36 and a USTRC No. 6 heeler, have just joined forces in the last year or two. Mays is the operations manager for a hydrovac excavation company in the oilfield industry in Sulphur, La., by trade.

“Team roping is just a hobby,” Mays said. “By far this is the biggest win I’ve ever had in my career. For a guy to put on a roping like this where you can rope and win this kind of money in one day is awesome. It’s hard to explain how good a feeling it is to win it. I’ve been coming since I was 25, and have only placed once or twice. To come out on top with the win is a very big deal. 

“This is one of the biggest, best ropings there is. It’s been on all our bucket lists to win it, and I couldn’t have done it with a better friend. Jacob doesn’t get rattled. He just does his job every time. He rides nice horses, and just goes and makes good runs. We rope together everywhere we go—not much during the week because we both work. As usual, he did an awesome job.”

Mays’ half of the loot was most likely going toward the family’s new outdoor kitchen. “That’s my second hobby,” he said. “I rope and I cook. We eat a lot of Cajun food—crawfish etoufee and stuff like that.

“It’s going to take awhile for this to sink in. We don’t make a living at this, so when we get to come to a roping of this caliber and come out on top it’s a pretty good feeling. It doesn’t happen very often. I sat on the fence and watched the open short round. It all happened so fast. That topped ’em all.”

The Wildfire Sponsor Pro-Am roping is another Billy Pipes special, featuring no entry fees and $12,000 in added money. It’s basically a great big thank you to the people who support the Pipes dream to give back to his beloved cowboy community. This year’s Sponsor Pro-Am heading champ was Charlie Gorzalka, who represented Classic Ropes and headed for Cole Davison. On the heeling side, it was fitting to see a guy who “lives it every day,” Resistol’s Ricky Bolin, who serves as general manager of HatCo, shine. Bolin won the black, parade-style silver Wildfire saddle heeling for Derrick Begay, and also placed third roping with Chad Masters.

“I’ve been trying to win this saddle for eight years,” beamed Bolin, who was a four-time NFR bull rider before taking up team roping. “I’m tickled to death. Now to decide where to put it.”

Bolin believes in the Billy Pipes brand, and Resistol is a longtime, year-round sponsor of all events held at the Wildfire Arena, including Open to the World Weekend. 

“Billy Pipes is like a brother to me, and we’re big supporters of all of his events,” Bolin said. “Wildfire Open to the World Weekend is a great event, and all of Billy’s events are first class because of the man in charge.”

In 2009, Resistol started its Resistol Man of the Year award. The winner of that inaugural buckle was Pipes. “The Resistol Man of the Year award goes to people who dedicate a lot of time and effort to our industry,” Bolin explained. “They do it because they love it. The fact that Billy was the first recipient of the award speaks for itself. Billy Pipes treats cowboy people like kings.”

“Ricky Bolin is one of my best friends, and for him to win this saddle this year is just another part of this being the perfect way to end it,” Pipes said. “Most people have no idea what it takes to put on a roping of this caliber. That’s why people aren’t standing in line to put on open ropings. I’m very proud of what we’ve done here at the Wildfire. And I’m very excited to end on such a high note with great champions. To have four such quality people tie for first in the Wildfire Open to the World is an awesome ending.” SWR