Meet Billy Pipes: Founder of the Wildfire Open

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I have to appreciate and admire a guy like Billy Pipes. He's a self-made success who started with nothing, and he stands up for what he believes is right. Sounds like the kind of person we all want to be. Pipes has developed a world class team roping facility and hosts the top rodeo team ropers annually at his Wildfire Open to the World.

I had a chance to sit down and visit with Billy the other day during his Wildfire Open to the World Team Roping weekend. Everything about the Wildfire Ranch, from the boss on down, is first class. Billy does the most generous things. He rolls out the red carpet for every team roper who sets foot on his place, and intentionally operates this state-of-the-art facility in Salado, Texas, at a net loss.

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This is not a guy who loses at anything he sets out to do-unless he wants to. But he purposefully runs this enterprise in the red simply because he wants it that way-and because he can. It's basically his opted form of community service, and the lucky recipients are the ropers.

Billy's Wildfire Open to the World Roping has taken gigantic strides in its first seven years. When inaugural champs Speed Williams and Brad Culpepper won the first one in 1999, construction of the facility wasn't even completed. That year, the first-place team took home just over $16,000, $10,000 of which was added money. The sport's big dogs saw a fire in this guy, who kept adding on to the building and sweetening the pot. In subsequent seasons, first in the roping paid $26,682, then $29,527 and $34,475, with the added money doubling for the second and third years to $20,000, then increasing again to $25,000 for the fourth year.

By the fifth annual Wildfire Open, the added money doubled again, with titlists Matt Tyler and Kory Koontz hauling off $50,000-in cold, hard cash. They won it three straight years, 2002 to 2004, and Kory cashed in a fourth time, in 2000 with Daniel Green. Kory's banked $80,579 from this one roping alone.

And there's more. In his continual commitment to stepping it up a notch, Billy's planning to shell out $75,000 in added money to next year's victors. (That's just the first-place payoff, mind you.) Then, for the 10th annual Wildfire Open to the World in 2008, the win will be worth a staggering $100,000 in added money-in $100 bills, no less.

That kind of cash gets this business buzzing. And while they're busy praising Billy, they're sometimes quick to wonder why more people don't step up to the plate with such spectacular offers. It's also easy to look around at some of the other big hitters, and start critical comparisons, just for fun back behind the snack shack. But if you think you're going to boost Billy Pipes by putting down his heavy-hitting peers, stop right there. You obviously don't know the guy.

While he is proud of how far his roping's come and the dynamic direction it's headed down the road, Billy is in awe of those who got the big-roping ball rolling in the first place and has no interest in one-upping anyone. This is definitely a case of "it's all good."

"Bob Feist is the Godfather of the big team ropings. They ought to call him 'Bob Corleon,' " Billy joked in his best Italian accent. "He's been doing this almost 30 years (the 28th annual Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic will be held Monday, June 20 at the Reno Livestock Events Center), and was doing it 15 years before the USTRC even existed. And what can you say about George Strait-the greatest country-western singer of all time? (The George Strait Team Roping Classic was held last month, March 11-12 at the San Antonio Rose Palace.)

"These men both take time out of their lives to put on the biggest team roping events in the world. They can do whatever they want in this world, and they choose to do this because they love it and live it. There's no monetary gain whatsoever. The cowboys are so fortunate. Neither of these guys makes a plug penny doing this. Their ropings pay back far more than they take in."

They call it a negative cash flow, and there's only one explanation for savvy businessmen allowing it. They call that "a labor of love."

"I feel honored to be put in the same sentence as legends like Bob and George," Billy continued. "The day these two gentlemen no longer produce team ropings will be a sad day for the industry and the cowboys. There's nothing to be gained by what they do but personal satisfaction."

Billy's in the same boat. And he sees similar drive in Perry Di Loreto, who hosts the rich Reno Rodeo Invitational the day after the BFI and during the Reno Rodeo every year.

"My hat's off to Perry for creating the biggest, best amateur team roping in the country," Billy stated. "What Perry has also done is create the greatest fund-raiser in the western industry. He gives all the money back to the ropers and charities in his community. No one else in this industry does that.

"These guys are for real. They all hit home runs on other fields of business, so they can do this in our industry. These ropings all give a lot more than they take."

Billy then recalled a somewhat frustrating cowboy comment that dates back to last June's RRI.

"A high-profile, Top-15 type team roper comes up to me right after Perry's roping-the day after the BFI-and says, 'Man, I wish someone would do something like this for us,' " he remembers like it was yesterday. "My first response was, 'How naïve can you be? Don't you understand that you just roped in a roping yesterday that paid out more than it took in? In fact, it way outdid what it took in.'

"I honestly took it as a personal insult that somebody with his credentials would make that statement knowing what I've done to pay back more money-$50,000 cash more-the last three years over what the roping took in. That's $50,000 in added money above the ropers' entry fees. At that point, I just wondered, do these guys get it? Do they not understand what's going on here, where people pay out more than they take in and work all year long to produce these major events?

"At Perry's roping, they get 200 teams to put up $5,000 a team, and they have a waiting list to get in. All anybody who enters that roping asks for is the opportunity to compete and know they have a chance. The field is screened by Perry and the USTRC, so everyone does have a chance. Amateurs will put up that money hoping they'll hit a lick, have a good day and win."

I don't think anyone stops to realize the expenses tied up in the year-long efforts of entire staffs of people, which is what it takes to put on such prestigious productions as the BFI, George Strait and Wildfire Open. They don't just throw themselves together in a day and come off without a hitch. Not to mention the payoff and the over-the-top prize packages.

"George has $100,000 up in trucks, trailers and prize lines that are way above the entry fees," Billy noted. "They have nothing to do with the entry-fee money."

I've heard it, too. There are actually those who question whether those trucks and trailers are enough. "George gets them donated," they say. To that, I say, "If it's that easy, get out your guitar, get to strummin' and hummin', and get one of these deals on yourself." Impossible, you say? No kidding. What was your first clue?

Billy also scratches his head over why there aren't more entries in the open ropings.

"As people get to be better team ropers and improve in their roping, they look for the advantage through the numbering system," he's noticed. "In my opinion, there are hundreds of team ropers who can compete on any given day in an open roping that will never go rope and put their money up because they don't feel like they have an advantage. So they don't go. Team ropers as a whole have gotten so much better. But once they get to a certain level they won't go out and compete.

"When ropers are starting out, all they ask for is the opportunity to compete. Then they get to the top, and won't put up their money to rope against the top guys. If they would, there would be ropings like the Reno Rodeo Invitational for the open ropers, where they could get 200 teams to put up $5,000. The top guys say they can't afford it. But $5,000 is just as hard for an amateur guy to come up with as a top guy. Five thousand dollars is a lot of money to anybody. Your roping ability has nothing to do with it. This isn't a knock on the top guys. It's about the guys who don't come out and rope."

Chalk up yet another valid point to Billy Pipes. Had there been a calcutta before this year's Wildfire Open to the World, the team of Steve Northcott-heading-and Cody Guess would no doubt have been a bargain-basement buy and considered long-shot underdogs. Yet-cha-ching-they skipped town $50 grand richer.

"It just goes to show that if you rope well, on your day you can beat these guys," Billy pointed out. "If you play basketball, you can't go beat Michael Jordan in a round of one-on-one. But in this sport, with all the variables that go into it, you do have a legitimate shot if you rope really well and things go your way that day.

"What would be great for the top guys in the industry would be for the guys who rope really good to get off the fence and enter these big ropings. When you have the opportunity to rope at the BFI, George Strait and Wildfire Open, you should take it. If I was a top roper, I'd be at those ropings, just like the amateurs save up all year long to go to Perry's roping. These are great events, and there are a lot more than 100 open teams in this world."

A prime example of Billy's point here would be 2001 George Strait Champs Willie Guerra and Cuco Huerta. Tell me you'd have predicted them to come out on top against the likes of Jake and Clay, and Speed and Rich, and

I'll have to call you a liar. But Guerra and Huerta came out kings that day.

Then there are those Minor kids, Riley and Brady, who topped all at the 2004 USTRC Open Shoot-Out. They don't even shave yet, but on that day they bit all the big dogs in the butt.

"There are certainly more ropers in the United States that can compete at this level than ever come out and show up," Billy noted. "If they had the same mentality once they got good as they had when they were starting out as amateurs and novices, the open ropings would be some of the biggest ropings we have. In 2003, the first year we added $50,000, we only had 56 teams at our roping. So that year the added money actually amounted to more than the payout from the entry fees. If you have the ability to hang with these guys, how could you not enter this roping when, in this case, the added money made up over half of the pot?"

Billy recognizes the behind-the-scenes types for their staunch support of this industry. One such person is Denis Carroll, who owns Cactus Ropes, Fast Back Ropes, Heel-O-Matic and Cactus Saddlery.

"My sons and I had dinner with Denis in Oklahoma City during the USTRC Finals last fall," Billy said. "We talked about family, kids and the team roping business. Denis jokingly said, 'My kids are mad at me. I retired a few years ago from my businesses, and they think I'm spending all their inheritances on team roping.' Here's this quiet, unassuming man most people don't even know, and he does so much to make this whole deal go 'round. Without people like him, this would be a whole different ballgame.

"I challenge all ropers to consider this: What if there was no Bob Feist or George Strait? What if Denis Carroll loved something else the way he loves team roping? This industry would be at a total loss if guys like George and Bob decided to go to the Caribbean instead of putting on a roping. They're under no obligation whatsoever. Unlike the big corporate roping events who have the benefit of using the business to hedge against all of the expenses and risks associated with producing team ropings, these are individuals supporting an event they love by producing the highest-paying team ropings in the world. They're cowboys who want to give back to something they love.

"We need to appreciate these guys who are stepping up. After all, when they're gone, who's going to be next to step into their shoes and support the sport of team roping at this level? George Strait and Bob Feist could be spending their time elsewhere. What if their interest was in another sport? This sport would not be what it is today without them, and we should all recognize and appreciate that. It's just a fact.

"If I could compete at the pro level and I only swung my leg over a saddle three times a year, it would be to rope in the Wildfire Open, George Strait Classic and Bob Feist Invitational for the simple reason that for the combined entry fees totaling $2,300 per year to enter these three events, you get to compete for over $1,000,000 in winnings. If you don't see how those numbers work in favor of the ropers, you need to have your head checked." STW