Randy Spraggins reminded everybody why he’s one of the best ground experts in the industry when he turned the NFR barrel racing ground around between Round 1 and 2 at the 2023 edition in Las Vegas.
“Last night was about perfect,” Spraggins said. “I’m a fan, not just a dirt guy. I don’t think you could have asked for a better barrel race.”
PROFile: Spraggins is the recipient of WPRA’s Outstanding Individual of the Year Award in 2023. He’s renowned in open, futurity and rodeo barrel racing spheres thanks to his impressive work at events like the Cheyenne Frontier Days, Days of 47 in Salt Lake City and others. He’s back at his fourth National Finals Rodeo in 2023 and is also trusted with two major jackpot events in the city simultanously. Listen to a full episode of The Money Barrel with Spraggins here.
The 2023 NFR experience was unprecedented in every way—a Round 1 postponement disrupted a fragile production schedule, and there were dirty implications on the arena floor when the first performance ran on Friday, Dec. 8.
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“The performances are a huge factor in our setup and preparation,” Spraggins said. “There’s stages as the day goes on with a performance. We missed the performance Thursday, and we tried to give it the same attention as if we did.”
The top 15 weren’t fully satisfied with the conditions in Round 1 and immediately came to Spraggins with their concerns.
“They thought it was loose on top,” Spraggins explained. “Part of that was from the tunnels on each end. During the day, people keep those doors open, and on Friday it was really windy. It just created a wind tunnel in there and dried the top out. We tried to keep those doors closed, but we can only control so much.”
Spraggins set to work immediately to straighten things out before Round 2. Per the production schedule, he has to complete his arena prep by no later than 4:30 p.m. and have all equipment out for the 5:45 p.m. performance. This means the ground has to be set up to withstand the grand entry, victory laps, and five rodeo events in various positions around the arena by the time a dually truck drives around and drops the metal drums in the arena for the barrel racing.
“Barrel racing has our attention,” Spraggins confirmed. “The better we make it for them, the better the race is for people to watch. And if you get the ground right for barrel racers, it’s going to be better for everybody else. I don’t make any big, swinging adjustments, just tweaks here and there. It might be setting the drag differently, adjusting water content, moisture percentages, and then the weather plays a big part.”
Spraggins is confident in his plan for Round 3 and for the remainder of the 10 round rodeo after a successful night of barrel racing during Round 2. All 15 times showed under 14 seconds on the clock, and 14 out of 15 barrel racers were clean on the pattern, with less than .30 separating Stevi Hillman’s 13.62, the round winner from the No. 10 position, to Ilyssa Riley’s 13.91 from the No. 8 position on the ground. See full Round 2 results here.
The NFR dirt
There’s a lot of talk about the footing that separates the top barrel racers in the world from a basketball court in the Thomas & Mack. Spraggins broke down some of the key factors in play with the Thomas & Mack footing as somebody charged with keeping athletes safe.
“There’s a sand blend we use on our cushion that we keep monitored with testing and analyzing before the NFR,” Spraggins said. It’s the same dirt yearly, we check it for particle size and add stuff when we need to in order to keep it good. It’s stored on the UNLV property and then a local company is contracted to bring it on.”
From there, Spraggins—officially know as the arena surface manager during the NFR— floor production manager Stan Rheinheimer and two of Spraggins’ crew take over. This year, the dirt was brought inside early on Sunday, Dec. 3, then had to be ready to go before the tie-down calves run through on Monday evening and Tuesday morning’s first barrel racing practice.
“They asked me to come to Vegas after I worked the NFR in Arlington in 2020,” Spraggins said. “I accepted the challenge based on the agreement that I could bring my equipment. I changed the way we bring in and place the dirt. The installation part is a huge key in the initial steps to getting the ground right. Stan, myself and two others handle all the dirt from tunnel to tunnel. We place all of the dirt.”