The 10-day Wrangler National Finals Rodeo starts Friday in Las Vegas and for eight seconds pits riders against beasts in three categories: bareback bronc, saddle bronc and bull. But the fastest event on the pro-rodeo circuit is steer wrestling, during which a competitor bolts out of a box on horseback, gallops until he catches the steer, slides off his horse and wrestles the animal to the ground. The world record: 2.4 seconds. Cowboys who compete in events at the fast-action fest can snag $5.1 million in prize money. They also trade long nights on the prairie for the plush amenities of Vegas resorts. The rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center is sold out (last year it drew 176,000 spectators) but for the first time ESPN will air selected events from the contest. Each competition has 15 contestants, with team roping, tie-down roping and barrel racing (women only) rounding out the roster. Many of the top finalists already have racked up more than $100,000 in prize money this year, and the cowboy who bags the biggest yearlong winnings is named all-around champ on the rodeo’s last day. The event to track: Ken “Speed” Williams and Rich Skelton, seven-time world champs in team roping, go for a record-setting eighth win. “There’s chemistry between those two guys, but what really matters is the animals they’re riding,” says Kevin Carmody of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. “You can have the fastest rope, but unless you’ve got the fastest horse, it doesn’t matter.” Go to prorodeo.org.
-- Charles Duhigg