By Lane Karney
Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira left Las Vegas a year ago as the 2021 world champion team ropers, and will return to the 2022 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge as the leaders of the pack. While the Top 15 teams will compete December 1-10 for their share of the record $14 million payoff at Rodeo’s Super Bowl—which is up from $13.3 million in 2021—the NFR payoff isn’t the only money record making headlines. Driggers and Nogueira didn’t just win the regular season—they dominated, shattering the previous regular-season team roping earnings records.
Of course, an up-tick in money won by contestants coming into the NFR is always a good thing, and usually means increased payoffs throughout the season. But this was a jaw-dropping, record-shattering display of team roping. Driggers and Nogueira’s regular-season earnings of $227,878 a man bested the previous records of $150,512 (set by header Clay Smith in 2019), and Travis Graves’ 2010 heeling record of $147,653.
Driggers will ride into the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas campus with an $83,214 lead over the #2 header, Clay Tryan, while Nogueira has won nearly $100 grand ($97,546) more than Jake Long, who comes in second among heelers. For the sake of perspective, Driggers and Nogueira won the 2021 world championships with $263,226 and $277,611 in the final world standings, respectively.
Though the storyline throughout 2022 has been primarily Kaleb and Junior, this year’s Finals field guarantees that we’re all in for great watching during the NFR’s 10-day run. Not only was I able to catch up with Driggers and Nogueira about their dream season to get their thoughts going into the NFR, but also last year’s record-setting NFR average champs, Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins.
Another team that jumps off the page is two-time World Champion Heeler Patrick Smith, who will heel at his first Finals since 2015. He’ll rope with NFR-rookie Tanner Tomlinson. Other NFR-rookie headers include Lightning Aguilera and Jake Orman. On the heeling side of things, Brye Crites and Jonathan Torres will make their debuts at this year’s Super Bowl of Rodeo.
Here are highlights from conversations with some of the top team ropers in the world, as they get ready to ride into the 2022 National Finals Rodeo.
NFRs: 10 (2011-14, 2016-19, 2021-22)
Hometown: Hoboken, Georgia
Partner: Junior Nogueira
Lane Karney: You won the world last year, and obviously set out to do it again. But tell me about this record regular season.
Kaleb Driggers: Winning the regular season has always been important to me, because it’s the guys that do the best that year in every situation. Long scores, short scores, coming from the right side (like Oakdale, California and Prescott, Arizona), and coming from the left side (like Salinas, California). I have won the regular season before and not won the world, because we get to rope for so much money in Vegas. That’s great for us, but being the guys that do the best all year is important to me.
This year, we had a really good winter, which we’ve never really had. We had maybe $80,000 going into Reno. I’ve never had more than like $30,000 going there before. We normally have really good summers. In 2016, Junior and I won $125,000 in three months. We had an even better summer than usual this year, but the biggest difference was our winter.
LK: Ideally, earnings records are routinely broken, which would mean the money is getting better for you guys everywhere. But you and Junior’s win percentage amazed me more than the money. I have heard you guys won money at over 70% of the rodeos you entered. What all contributed to that rate of success?
KD: We have a really good set of horses on both sides of our team. That gives us a lot of confidence when we can play them for their strengths in different situations. It is super special to us, but records are made to be broken and hopefully ours will be, too.
LK: Does this kind of lead do anything for your mindset going into the Finals? You looked so in control at last year’s NFR. How similar is your approach to last year, when you came in just behind the leaders?
KD: I’m going to try to keep the same mindset as last year. It’s easy to get down there and want to blast when they’re going 3 (seconds) in the rounds. But I want to rope every steer for what he is, and not get caught up in what’s going on around me. We have a pretty good lead, but that can go away in about three go-rounds. We’re just going to do our jobs, and win as much as we can.
LK: What are you planning to ride at the NFR?
KD: My plans are to ride the bay, Cuervo (who’s 15), that I rode last year. After Salt Lake at the end of July, I brought him home and he stays with Danita Walker in Lipan. She keeps him on the hot walker and her machines year-round when I’m not using him. He doesn’t need tuning up, and Danita will go to Vegas with us, so hopefully we can keep him sound and ride him for 10 rounds. She’s gone out there with me and taken care of my horses since about 2013, and has been a lifesaver to me. She gives me that peace of mind you get when you’re doing the best you can by your horses. I’ll also take my sorrel, Oliver (7), that I jackpotted on and rode at all the long scores this year. I did good on him at Northside the other day at Charly Crawford’s roping, so that’s my back-up plan.
NFRs: 9 (2014-2022)
Hometown: Presidente Prudente, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Partner: Kaleb Driggers
LK: You’ve won two world titles—the 2016 world all-around championship and last year’s heeling gold buckle. But I know how much it means to you to win the regular season. This is your sixth time to do that, and you and Kaleb shattered the regular-season earnings record. Describe your season.
Junior Nogueira: We had a really good winter, which helped a lot. We never had a great winter in the past, but have done really well in the summer. This year, we won Fort Worth in the winter, which was a blessing, and caught a lot of steers. We were more consistent this year. Kaleb roped great and turned a lot of steers, and our horses were great. It wasn’t perfect, but it was amazing. We are blessed to do what we love, see this beautiful country and make friends for the rest of our lives, plus make a living. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s a great life. I want to thank God, my family, my sponsors and my whole team for another great year.
LK: You’ll show up in Las Vegas as the reigning world champion heeler. What’s your mindset going in?
JN: I’m not going to change the game plan. I’ll prepare and try to do my best every single time. I know my partner is trying 100% and is going to do his job, so I’m going to ride in focused on my job. Nothing has changed. We had a great season, and we feel the same as going in last year. I’m looking forward to doing the best I can, and seeing what God has prepared for us.
LK: What are you going to ride at the Finals?
JN: I’m planning to ride my buckskin, Timon (who’s 12). He’s super comfortable in that set-up, and has done good for me there before. It’s hard to find the perfect horse out there. You see guys who make the NFR and switch horses just for there. During the year, the shapes of the arenas change, the scores change, and I can ride him everywhere. But Timon’s done really good in the short set-ups. I’ll take Hali (his gray mare) as a backup.
NFRs: 3 (2020-22)
Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma
Partner: Buddy Hawkins
LK: You and Buddy had a great season, both rodeoing and jackpotting. Break down your year for me.
Andrew Ward: It seemed like an incredible year. We won a lot of stuff you dream about winning. We started it all off really with winning the NFR average last year, and setting the record on 10 (Andrew and Buddy’s new NFR average record of 54.7 seconds eclipsed Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper’s mark of 59.1 on 10 steers set way back in 1994), then we won the Lone Star Shootout, The American, and won the BFI (Resistol Reno Open) in Reno. It was cool to check off a lot of big wins.
At the rodeos, we won money at most of them throughout the season. Together as a team, we caught a ton of cows. We had a really effective year, so we’ll try to build on it. We do go to some smaller rodeos than other guys, and do it a little different with a big focus on our (Prairie) Circuit Finals—sort of like rodeoing like professional weekend warriors starting on Thursday and finishing on Sunday. We didn’t have to drive very much this year, and had days to rest. We didn’t have but maybe one or two all-nighters, and were able to catch over and over. I know there’s room for improvement to execute at the bigger rodeos, but we caught a lot of cows and won a lot of checks.
LK: You guys obviously had a great year, and it seems like you won just about everywhere you went. Can you put Kaleb and Junior’s incredible year into perspective from your front-row seat to the earnings record?
AW: That was incredible to watch. Everywhere we were up the same, it seemed like they were winning on runners, on lopers—it didn’t matter. I was so impressed watching them. They’ve both got a list of horses that any one of them could be another guy’s best one. Driggers probably rode five different head horses at the rodeos this year, and you can’t hardly tell when he switches.
At this level, Kaleb and Junior can catch with anybody. They can go as fast as anybody. They caught a lot of steers going really fast. Because they’ve got so many great horses, they didn’t skip anywhere, and they had great horses everywhere. I don’t know what Speed and Rich or Jake and Clay looked like when they were dominating, but I’ve never seen a team as elite as Kaleb and Junior this year, no matter the set-up. Clay (Tryan) beat us in the regular-season, too. They’ve got good horses, and I think him and Jade (Corkill) rodeoed similar to us, not flying as much and going to what made sense. They’re dominant, too. If I could duplicate our year, I’d do it every year. So hats off to those guys for the year they had, and the lead they racked up.
LK: After setting the new NFR average record last year, you said there were a few things you were focused on for next time. What are those, and what’s your NFR game plan this year?
AW: There aren’t big changes coming. I want to catch, because that’s my identity. There were two little things that I did kind of wrong. I thought I was swinging too hard and tight, trying to catch up to the cows. The cows were running so hard, and because I was tight, I’d have to ride through where I could have been throwing last year. That made us a little longer on some runs. If I can come up with a smoother, slower first swing, then a little more aggressive second swing and a good, open third one with my horse on good lines, I think that’ll help.
The other thing is I’d never experienced the speed of the steers out there in that set-up before. In the steer break-in, I thought the steers were better, and I anticipated with the barrier at 4’ under that I would overcome the cows on Biscuit. The first night, I tried to see something and felt like by the time I got going, I saw shoulder or first rib out the end of the gate, because he left so sharp. I was just hoping to catch up by the end of the arena. The second night, I came behind him, but he was sharp and I felt late again.
Later in the week, I felt like I got better starts. But I don’t want to be scared of a 10-second barrier out there this time. Last year, I was stressed about beating the (average) record, and I think that backed me off. It’s like we were in a contest with Jake and Clay’s record, and couldn’t afford a barrier at the end. Even though breaking the record didn’t add money to our pockets, those are our heroes. Hopefully, I can block out the noise a little better this year. My plan is to get going at the start, read the cow through the box, react with my left hand, relax my swing and send it when I believe I can catch. If I can get great starts, I think we can be a little faster without taking riskier throws.
LK: Your great brown horse, Biscuit (11), was voted this year’s reserve Nutrena Head Horse of the Year presented by AQHA. You’ve ridden him at the last two NFRs. Will you ride him again in Vegas, and how much did it mean to you for him to be recognized by your peers this year?
AW: Yes, I feel like you get chemistry the more you rope on a horse in there. I know what Biscuit is going to feel like. The building is small, but the barrier is so short and the cows run so hard. He’s my best horse in that arena with that set-up, but I’ve got a gray I call Henry (who’s also 11) who I’ll have out there, too. I was kind of nervous to miss the deadline to nominate Biscuit for that award for his sake, because he went from little indoors to big outdoors to the BFI. He’s done it the last four or five years now, and just keeps getting better, because I’m riding him better. Horses like Biscuit are life-changing for guys like me. I wouldn’t put my horse’s name down for that award unless I thought he was a special horse. I was thrilled other people thought that about him, too.
NFRs: 5 (2013, 2018, 2020-22)
Hometown: Stephenville, Texas
Partner: Andrew Ward
LK: Describe your season and some of the highlights along the way.
Buddy Hawkins: This sport is a lot like every other thing in life I’ve experienced. Your distance between sowing, reaping and the productivity of your crop, if you will, is unique. You can plant the exact same amount of corn, get the same exact amount of moisture and get a slightly different yield. There are a lot of factors in there. There’s the bamboo analogy, that everybody is probably bored with, but it goes like this: When you plant a bamboo tree, nothing noticeable happens for five years. The improvement process is often discouraging, but it’s growing underground and creates a base or foundation for later growth. In the fifth year, the bamboo tree grows up to 90 feet in six weeks.
So, I can’t talk about my season without bringing it back to my faith. I finished 16th (in the world standings) in 2017. In 2018, I divorced from my best friend, then completely reset and quit rodeoing for part of 2019. Since I started roping in 2000, I’ve worked for this. I don’t deserve it more than the next guy, and not everyone gets what they deserve out of this sport. But that makes this sport beautiful, because people do it for the love of it. To look at what made this fairytale possible, where every big check they gave away in a four-month period they gave to us (last year’s NFR average through The American in March), you can’t summarize that appropriately. It takes a whole lot of little things—my whole family, my sponsors, my partner, his family, people throughout this industry—to have big wins.
LK: You and Andrew set the NFR record last year on 10 steers. How are you using that experience going into this year?
BH: For me, a lot of my perspective is the same as it has been at every NFR. Perspective always acquires previous experience, so you can’t have the exact same perspective after you’ve had an experience. More recently, I try to be the best follower I can be to my partner and his horse. On paper, I’m the team leader in terms of strategy and navigating that. But when it comes to the actual event, I’m playing on the team.
I very much try to follow my partner’s start, and his pursuit of the cow. This is my first repeat NFR in this building with the same partner. Right now, we are planning on riding the same horses and using the same ropes in the same building, and the steers look similar. It’s a shot for me to actually show up on the same court with the same team and see if we can improve on it.
LK: What are you planning to ride at the Finals?
BH: I plan on riding X (15), which is the horse I rode last year. He’s the best horse in the box that I’ve ever had. He scores really well also. Now that we have futurities, that means more to more people. He’ll stand in there motionless on a tight bridle for as long as I want, then explode off the bridle reins when I drop. I was watching an old video from the NFR in Arlington (in 2020), when Andrew had to reset a couple times. We stood motionless for, like, 47 seconds, then got our start.
I think that’s the #1 thing that makes X special there. He follows the steer really well, and if we are in a really good spot, there’s really not much I have to do. I can tell him how I want to leave the box, and when. Some of my horses maybe score better, but leave 10 different ways. This horse will leave one of three ways that I dictate. If anything, he’s going to leave harder than I want, which is a good thing there. In my experience, I’ve ran 30 steers there, 20 on X. And 20 in a row, I left and never had to touch the reins again. I may have because of a bad habit, but I never had to.
NFRs: 1 (2022)
Hometown: Angleton, Texas
Partner: Patrick Smith
LK: You were the 2020 Resistol Heading Rookie of the Year, and turned 22 this year. Has making your first Finals sunk in yet?
Tanner Tomlinson: I tell you what, it hadn’t hit me since being home until early November. I’ve dreamed about this my whole life, and it’s a dream come true. With it almost here, practicing and watching all the NFR reruns, it’s finally just hit me here lately.
LK: How are you preparing for your NFR debut?
TT: Patrick has the NFR arena built into his arena, so it’s the same measurements and dimensions. I’ve been running about 60-70 steers in there every day. Patrick tweaked his back, so he’s been running about 15 and I’ve had other guys coming to heel. But we’re about to get after it pretty hard.
We are trying to get a run lined out, and are working on not having too much rope out if I reach. We are working on a run together that’s not too kamikaze, because I’ve always tried to go so fast. Some people have told me you don’t want to go so fast there that it makes it hard to get a run going all week. So we are finding that happy medium. Trevor (Brazile) has come over to help me a little bit, and get a run down.
LK: Trevor and Patrick had some years at the NFR where they had arguably one of the best runs ever inside that building night after night. What’s it mean to be in this position with Patrick?
TT: Being around Patrick has taken my heading to another level. He’s helped me with my horsemanship and how to keep a horse under me all year. We’ve really worked at getting a run together, and to build consistency together. Andrew and Buddy have a run together better than anybody, and they’re so consistent. Same with Kaleb and Junior. We got a run down mid-season that let us get on a roll and make the Finals. Patrick has been a blessing to me as a mentor the last two years.
LK: What are you planning on riding at the NFR?
TT: I don’t know for sure what I’m going to start on, but I do know I’m taking Coy’s (Rahlmann) horse Blue, that he rode out there last year. I’m also taking Wishbone, which is a horse Trevor rode out there last time he was there. Trevor just got him back, and I’m going to take him. My gray I rode all year doesn’t come up the wall very good in little arenas, and is a little more elevated leaving the box than them. Coy’s horse leaves super flat, and stays in the bridle leaving the box across the line. Everyone feels like the head horse being flat and easy is the main key there, so you can have a good first swing. The go is so important, so that’s why I’m taking those two horses.
NFRs: 13 (2003, 2005-2015, 2022)
Hometown: Lipan, Texas
Partner: Tanner Tomlinson
LK: This is your first NFR qualification since 2015. Was this a resurgence?
Patrick Smith: In 2016, I didn’t rodeo when we did the ERA (Elite Rodeo Association). I’d like to say I didn’t rodeo those other years since then, but I just didn’t get off to great starts, and came home early. As much as anything, I’ve got really good heel horses and a good partner now. All of that creates a resurgence. A good partner, good head horse and good heel horse are the three things that set you up for success. Winning is a motivator, and makes you hungry to get back in the circle.
LK: You heeled at your first Finals in 2003 for Matt Tyler, who was at his 18th NFR that year (Matt and Patrick won the average, with 62.3 seconds on 10 head). What’s it feel like to be on the other end of that, and to be taking Tanner to his first NFR?
PS: It’s almost a mirror image. My first year I roped with a guy who had been there so many times, and I was the first-timer. I’ve been telling Tanner about those feelings I felt, that I’m sure he’ll feel, too. I was so nervous that year, but then you ride in the box and see the chute with a steer in it, and it’s the same thing we do all year. There’s so much pressure out there, but it’s horns and feet, and making your run. I’m excited to have the knowledge I do have, and hopefully it’s an advantage to be able to share that with him.
LK: You’ve got the 2022 Nutrena Heel Horse of the Year presented by AQHA, Turbo (12). How much are you looking forward to riding him at the Finals?
PS: I’m really excited. Turbo’s so fast and has such an amazing finish, so that set-up fits him really well. He’s so good everywhere, but he has all the things you look for in a horse for that building, especially roping with someone like Tanner, who is so fast. Hopefully, I can show everybody what Turbo’s all about. We haven’t gotten to compete in there (the Thomas & Mack Center) together yet, so I’m very excited.