Driggers and Nogueira set a new single-season earnings record in 2022 with $340,708 a man. They also finished second in the NFR average with 71.4 seconds on nine steers, for a $112,830 Finals per man. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Phil Doyle
By Lane Karney
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association team roping record book received a facelift in 2022. Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira notably shattered the regular-season earnings record clear back in July, just 39 official rodeos into their year. Heading into the 2022 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo presented by Teton Ridge, they had won $227,878 a man on the year, with nearly a $100,000 lead over the field. Combine that with their $112,830 a man in NFR earnings, and you have a new single-season earnings record of $340,708 apiece en route to their second consecutive team roping world championship.
Driggers and Nogueira weren’t the only team to surpass the annual earnings record previously held by Clay Smith and Paul Eaves of $289,921 a man. NFR rookie Tanner Tomlinson and two-time World Champion Patrick Smith ended their stellar NFR with $307,095 a man to be the 2022 reserve champs. Oh, and they set a new NFR team roping earnings record of $199,726, besting Levi Simpson and Jeremy Buhler’s 2016 gold standard of $186,000 a man.
Contributing to Tomlinson and Smith’s rich 10 days in Las Vegas were checks in seven rounds. They won or split two of those, and set a brand-new NFR average record of 53 flat on 10 head. Keep in mind that was with two legs, in Rounds 1 and 7. While Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper’s 10-round, 59.1-second average record lasted from 1994 until Andrew Ward and Buddy Hawkins broke it last year with a 10 head total of 54.7 seconds, Tomlinson and Smith broke that record, too.
“I told Patrick I was going to try my best to turn 10, but was personally hoping to get out of the barrier and turn six or seven and win some go-rounds,” said Tomlinson, who was the 2020 Resistol Heading Rookie of the Year. “We never even looked at the average record, but that’s pretty awesome. I never would’ve thought Andrew and Buddy’s record would be broken as good as their NFR was last year. It was a blessing.”
Night in and night out, Tomlinson and Smith looked poised to make their run. Their team roping talents were on full display for the NFR’s entirety. And for Smith, it was his third NFR average title.
“What do you say, our NFR was way beyond what a guy could ever dream about out there. It was never part of our plan to get the average record, but it’s super special, because a couple of my heroes (Jake and Clay) owned that record for so long. And congratulations to Andrew and Buddy for their feat last year, as well,” said Smith, whose other NFR titles came in 2003 with Matt Tyler, and 2008 with Trevor Brazile. “This was the only average that Tanner and I won all year. We did good in a lot of go-rounds and one-headers, but if you could pick an average to win, it’s this one. It’s also pretty special that both Tanner and I got an NFR average win at both our first NFRs (Patrick’s first Finals was in 2003).”
Both teams—Driggers and Nogueira, and Tomlinson and Smith—share extremely tight bonds way beyond the arena. All four men are quick to praise their partners, and it’s evident that these partnerships are fully developed friendships through thick and thin.
“My partnership with Junior is special. I tell him all the time, it’s more than just team roping. We get along really good, and are more like brothers, because we’ve been together so much in the last seven years. We have good chemistry, and we take full responsibility when it doesn’t go good, instead of pointing fingers and passing any blame,” said Driggers, who turned 33 on December 19. “I also want to say about Tanner’s heading at the NFR, I don’t even know if he knows the magnitude of what he did out there. I know the mentality he has, like when I was younger—foot on the throttle. It’s easy to get caught up in the adrenaline of going fast when everyone else is, and Patrick does a good job mentoring. But for him to go execute, and turn 10 steers like he did is impressive to me.”
Nogueira battled through some uncharacteristic challenges throughout the week. But it was his faith and their partnership that allowed him to rally through it victoriously.
“Since day one, it was a tough NFR for me. I usually get there and rope pretty good, but a couple rounds in I roped some legs, then my horse stepped in my loop and it was frustrating. I had to get the ball back rolling, and thankfully, we did,” said Nogueira, who now holds three gold buckles, including his 2016 world all-around championship. “When I’m down, Kaleb picks me up. And when he’s down, I believe in him. That’s what being a team means. I don’t worry about his job, and he doesn’t worry about mine. We respect each other, and I know we are both trying as hard as we can when we back in the box.”
Tomlinson and Smith are also connected more deeply than just riding in to rope together.
“Our partnership is more than a partnership. It’s family. Our friendship is gold, and means way more than our partnership,” said Tomlinson, 22. “I can’t thank Patrick and his family enough. They are such a blessing to me, and it would mean the world to me to win a gold buckle with him next year.”
Mirrored much like the veteran Tee Woolman taking Patrick under his wing early in his career, Patrick is assuming that role and mentoring Tomlinson through their partnership.
“I’ve been telling people for a while now that he’s just getting started. Tanner is so talented. The relationship we have makes it so much more special. We put a plan together, and it took last year and this year, but it’s so gratifying to see it come through,” Smith said. “He is such a blessing to my family and career. For it to be Tanner’s first NFR and my first time back in a few years (since 2015), one of the peaks of my entire career was not only going back to the NFR, but then having the week we had.”
With complete confidence in their partners, another common theme in these winning teams is their respect and admiration for their horsepower and their outlooks for the coming year to follow up their remarkable 2022 season.
Driggers called on the same mount, Cuervo, that he rode to the world title at the 2021 NFR. Besides Round 3, when he jumped on his young sorrel, Oliver, it was all Cuervo again.
“I was riding Cuervo in the grand entry the night of Round 3, just loping him around there getting him ready. He’s had trouble in his front feet since I bought him, and thank you to Danita Walker and Dr. Josh Harvey, who are so important in keeping him sound, but he just gave himself a stinger. I got off to get my ropes, and then walked back to meet Carlos (Kaleb and Junior’s main man), and get on during the steer wrestling. I bumped into Brady Minor, and he asked if I’d talked to Dr. Harvey, then I walked back there to get on and Cuervo wasn’t there. As the bulldogging was getting over, Carlos came trotting up on Oliver,” said Driggers, who made a businessman’s run that night to stay solid in the average (Driggers and Nogueira finished second in the average with 71.4 seconds on nine). “Cuervo worked so good, as always, and he’ll probably get even more time off next year to make sure he’s sound for the Finals next year. Our horses are so important to our success, so I’m always looking forward for good rodeo horses, and I’m ready to try to keep the ball rolling in 2023.”
Nogueira, too, made a horse change at this year’s NFR. His came in Round 7, when he switched from Timon to Lucky Bucky. The change was not a reflection of Timon not working, but rather Nogueira looking to change up the luck to finish out the Finals.
“My horse Timon did great. I was struggling a little bit, and we went and practiced. I had been jackpotting on Lucky Bucky in Arizona on our way to Vegas, so I got on him to just catch one and stay hooked,” said Nogueira. “We are very blessed to have great horses that allow us to do our jobs. That’s what it is all about is getting the best horses you can, and doing your best and see if it falls your way. Kaleb roped amazing, and my horses worked great. 2021 and 2022 are in the past now, so it’s all about 2023. Team roping is getting tougher and tougher every year, but we have the same outlook going forward and many blessings.”
Tomlinson put on a 10-day heading clinic on his good friend and 2021 NFR header Coy Rahlmann’s great horse, Blue.
“Blue was the main part of my NFR. I can’t thank Coy enough for letting me ride him. He was the only horse I took out there, so I wouldn’t have any second thoughts and even rode him in the grand entry. He did the same thing for me every time,” said Tomlinson. “This sets my 2023 goals pretty high. I want to get Patrick another gold buckle before he retires, and I feel like he’s getting pretty close. So I guess we better start off the new year strong, and hopefully end it on a high note for him.”
Tomlinson’s talent provided a resurgence in Smith. But it was also his 2022 Nutrena Heel Horse of the Year presented by AQHA, Turbo, that gave him a lift.
“I was as comfortable there (the NFR) as I’ve ever been. Amigo (Smith’s great heel horse from years past) is the greatest horse ever to me, but I had the best team of horses I’ve ever had this year. I had Rooster (Smith’s stud, who has had great success in the Thomas & Mack before with others) there as a backup, and Turbo was amazing. It was Turbo’s first time in that building, and he didn’t disappoint,” said Smith. “So many things have to go well for you to win a gold buckle, and having a great partner and great horses are the starting blocks. We have that. There are great teams and competition, but I feel as good about chasing a gold buckle next year as I ever have. I would love to win a gold buckle with Tanner, and that’s what we’re after while also keeping a perspective that we are blessed to get to do this for a living.”
Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira claimed their second consecutive team roping world championships in 2022. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Click Thompson
Joining NFR team roping champs Tanner Tomlinson and Patrick Smith in the winner’s circle were, left to right, PRCA CEO Tom Glause, Montana Silversmiths’ Judy Wagner and Resort World’s Luke Trusty. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Click Thompson
Smith was aboard his 2022 Nutrena Heel Horse of the Year presented by AQHA, Turbo, all 10 rounds at the 2022 NFR. – PRCA ProRodeo Photo by Click Thompson