The Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo is an important championship for each of the 195 contestants who are scheduled to compete this week.
It’s an even bigger deal for 11 cowboys and cowgirls with ties to Oklahoma. From those like steer wrestler Stockton Graves who were born in the Sooner State to transplants like barrel racer P.J. Burger, Oklahoma’s rich rodeo and Western heritage shines brightly.
There’s no better way to put it on display than hosting ProRodeo’s National Championship, set for 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4; 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 5; and 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City. The three days family entertainment, from funnyman Justin Rumford of Ponca City, Okla., to Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey to concerts from top country acts Thompson Square and Chris Cagle.
“I love the fact that the (Ram) Finals is in Oklahoma City,” said Graves, a seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier from Newkirk, Okla. “It’s a great event, and I’m glad to see they moved that finals to Oklahoma City from Pocatello (Idaho).”
The RNCFR was established in the 1970s and was held on the campus of Idaho State University for decades. It moved to Oklahoma City three years ago and found a fantastic home: State Fair Arena is the former home of NFR and has been the site of numerous championship events over the last half century.
“I don’t think it’s a home-field advantage in any way for me,” said Burger, who qualified for the NFR in 2009. “It’s still a good paying rodeo, and it doesn’t matter if it’s close to home or across the country. It’ll be nice to sleep in my own bed and be able to take the horses home each night, but that’s about it.”
Burger moved to Oklahoma 13 years ago after spending her formative years in Minnesota. She married Joey Burger, whose mother, Mary, is the 2006 barrel racing world champion.
“It’s an honor to represent your circuit at that big of a rodeo,” said P.J. Burger, a two-time RNCFR qualifier who earned the right to compete in Oklahoma City by winning the Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo average championship last October in Duncan, Okla. “You rodeo all year for a chance to compete at a deal like that, so it means a lot.”
Page 2 of 2 - The home-state contingent includes team ropers Destry Graham of Sallisaw, Jimmy Thomas of Hodgen, Hunter Munsell of Arnett and Derrick Jantzen of Ames; bull rider Guthrie Murray of Miami; barrel racers Tana Renick of Kingston and Carlee Pierce, who spent most of her life near Freedom and Woodward; and tie-down ropers Hunter Herrin and Bryson Sechrist, both of Apache.
In addition to Graves and Burger, Herrin and Pierce are NFR veterans – Herrin is a six-time qualifier, while Pierce has earned trips to Las Vegas each of the past two years. Now living in Stephenville, Texas, Pierce finished the 2012 campaign No. 2 in the world standings, earning $79,802 at the NFR and finishing the season with $204,322.
“It’s always fun to go back to Oklahoma and compete, especially at that rodeo,” said Pierce, who finished second at the RNCFR last April. “It’s always nice to be able to go back to a place that was home for so long. That’s a place that always feels more comfortable.
“When you go back to Oklahoma and you’re from Oklahoma, everybody gets excited about it, including me.”
Born in Alberta, Pierce moved to Freedom at age 10. She married Steve Pierce years later; the couple began their family in Woodward and didn’t leave the Sooner State until the fall of 2011.
“All three of our kids were born in Oklahoma, and I lived there most of my life,” Carlee Pierce said. “I love competing at State Fair Arena. I’ve always done well there and on multiple horses. It’s a good setup, and the ground is always really good.
“I wish they had more ProRodeo stuff in that arena.”
Oklahoma has a powerful rodeo heritage that goes beyond hosting some of the sport’s greatest events. In addition to the RNCFR and NFR, Oklahoma has been host to the Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping and some of the greatest names in the sport: Shoulders, Brown, Duvall, Etbauer and Ferguson, to name a few.
“I think it’s important to have an event like the (Ram) Finals in Oklahoma,” Graves said. “When you look back at the history of rodeo, there’s a lot of it right here in Oklahoma. This is the perfect place for a championship like this.”