When the Clock Doesn’t Stop: Barrel Racing Timing Explained

Fans and barrel racers have faced confusion over failure of scoreboards and live broadcast clocks, but what's the deal on WPRA timing and the backups in place to ensure barrel racers get a fair shake?
Hailey Kinsel and Sister
Hailey Kinsel and Sister at the 2023 Reno Rodeo. Click Thompson Photography.

There’s a lot of misinformation floating around on the internet about how the WPRA and other rodeo organizations conduct timing of barrel racing, so BRM contirubtor and PRCA/WPRA timer Jolee Jordan sought to pull out the facts and break down the rules for barrel racers to learn rodeo timing inside and out.

Picture this…

A barrel racer sprints towards the finish line, a blistering trio of turns behind her and the crowd collectively looks to the scoreboard with held breath, waiting to see how fast the run they just watched actually was . . . only the clock doesn’t stop as rider and horse cross the electronic scoreline. 

What happened? And more importantly, what happens now?

The Reno Rodeo Controversy

This scenario played out multiple times during the nine days of the 2023 Reno Rodeo in Nevada, including on the round-winning, new-arena record setting romp by WPRA World Champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi in the short round on Saturday night, June 25, the run that clinched the $2-million cowgirl her first set of silver spurs for the championship.

When the time of 16.70 seconds was finally announced, many competitors assumed the run had been caught on hand-held stopwatches by the rodeo’s two (human) timers but that was not the case.

“No one got a hand time throughout the whole rodeo,” long-time Reno Rodeo secretary and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Cindy Rosser explained. “At least one of the two [electric eye] timers caught every run and we didn’t have to go to a backup.”

Unfortunately, only one electric eye was “plugged” into the arena scoreboard (which is normal) which was why there was no time shown instantly.

Rules of the Game

In ProRodeo, barrel racing rules are enshrined in the rulebook of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA). Rules pertaining to timing are found in Chapter 13.

  • An electric eye and two back-up, handheld stopwatches must be used. Failure to have an eye can cost the stock contractor a $250 fine.
  • If an electric eye fails to work, every effort must be made to get it working.
  • Eyes must be set no closer than the distance from barrel one to barrel two.
  • Eyes must be set to stand between 36 and 42 inches tall.
  • Position of eyes must be marked with permanent stakes to remain the same throughout the event—eye to be centered over the stake.
  • If the eye fails, the two timers produce a hand (manual) time by averaging their stopwatches and dropping the hundredths.
  • If the electric eye fails on more than half of the contestants in a single go round, all eye times are dropped and the round is paid on the hand times of all competitors.
  • If the eye fails and the timers fail to record a hand time, a contestant is granted a rerun with no penalties carried forward.

Though not required under the rules, many of the largest rodeos utilize two eyes to minimize the chance of any contestant getting a manual time.

The Backup Plan

The ladies (and sometimes gentlemen) in the announcer stands who provide the backup to the electronics at Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeos are required to be card holders in good standing in the PRCA.

In order to get a card, potential new PRCA timers must go through on site training by interning at five performances and at least two rodeos after which they must submit evaluations from a judge, timer and secretary at each event. 

The PRCA Director of Rodeo Administration works with the Secretary and Timer Representative to review new applications and grant membership to those approved through the process. Timers must also participate in a PRCA Timers’ Clinic at least every other year to maintain their eligibility to work PRCA rodeos.

The Process

Though the barrel race uses automatic timing technology as opposed to its PRCA timed event counterparts, there is still plenty for PRCA timers to do during the can chasing.

After the judges or other crewmen set the eyes up, it falls to the timers to check for proper alignment and give the OK if a test run successfully shows the eye is working.

Timers use their handheld digital stopwatches, starting and stopping the watches using the judge’s field flag for their signals.

“As a backup, we are only as good as our flagman,” Terri Gay said.

Gay has extensive experience with stopwatch in hand. She has timed the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) three times and has timed The American Rodeo since its inception. She also timed the inaugural Wrangler National Finals Breakaway Roping in Arlington, Texas in 2020 and annually times large events like the Cody (Wyo.) Stampede, Fiesta Days Rodeo (Spanish Fork, Utah) and Rodeo Corpus Christie (Tex.).

“Your flagman is so important,” Gay said, noting that with good personnel, the hand times will come very close to the electric eye times. “The flagman is equally important as the timers.”

“If the [electric eye] timer fails, your flagman is everything in being consistently accurate [on the hand times].”

Once a racer has crossed back through the electric eyes, the timers document times from both the electric eyes, noting the time down to the hundredths of a second, as well as their handheld stopwatches.

“One timer writes down the backup times to the tenths and then we always both put down the eye time,” she said. “It’s so important to have the official time recorded twice.”

While catching a run with the electric eye is obviously the most ideal scenario for WPRA barrel racers, it’s worth noting that PRCA timed event cowboys depend on the reaction time and accuracy of flaggers and timers throughout the entire season.

“If the eye stops early or the electronics fail, if you’ve got an excellent flagman and timers, you should have a pretty accurate time,” Gay continued. “And when you add the zero [for the hundredths], it’s always to your advantage.”

When a hand time is required for a barrel racer due to eye failure, a tell-tale sign is the use of tenths — a 17.30 instead of a 17.32 for example—but an electric eye can also stop at a 17.30 as well. The only way to know for certain if you received a hand time is to approach the rodeo secretary following the event and ask.

Once timers have documented the times, if no scoreboard is in use, they must also communicate times to the announcers or, as is often the case in slacks, announce it themselves. Likewise, in case of any failure, it is up to the timers to ensure that scoreboard operators and announcers receive the correct information.

How Can it Fail?

According to the website of FarmTek, the company most known in producing electronic timing equipment in rodeo, tens of thousands of wireless electric eyes are in use.

Given the large number of events—think jackpots and not just barrel racing but also roping—and even a few ProRodeos where electric eyes are used in lieu of neck ropes to pull barriers over long scores like Salinas, the rate of failure is relatively small.

Scott Walton of Walton Scoreboards, Inc. notes that while there are some situations which can cause issues, it’s important that the crew in charge are knowledgeable and proactive.

“We work through the problems to minimize them,” he noted, pointing out that each arena configuration can require something different to ensure consistent performance.

The initial setup of the eye is crucial so Walton and many of his colleagues and competitors will assist ProRodeo judges and timers to ensure a good alignment before competition begins.

“As long as the eyes are level, you don’t have one sitting in a divot created by a horse or something that makes them noticeably uneven, but as long as their level pointing across there, you should be good,” Walton said.

Walton sets his tripods at 40 inches and always stacks two eyes such that both are within WPRA rulebook requirements for height. 

Though it hasn’t been extensively studied, setting eyes at the wrong height can cause problems which explains why the WPRA tightened height requirement rules in 2016 with specific numbers (previous language had required “waist high”).

Because weather conditions can factor in in outdoor arenas, Walton always uses heavy tripods which are less prone to wobbling and even falling in strong wind conditions. Others weight tripods when winds swirl.

Even sunlight at the wrong angle can affect the eyes but, as Walton points out, you often know arenas where this may be the case and employ countermeasures like sun-shields built specifically for the eyes. 

FarmTek suggests that receivers (the box with the antenna) be placed such that the rising or setting sun is behind it when possible.

But physical obstacles to the beam between the eyes functioning properly may not be the cause of a snag . . . it could be the transmission of the results back to the timer console. FarmTek recommends making sure a clear line-of-sight exists from the console to the eye and that major electronic equipment is properly spaced from the console.

Walton also notes that a significant distance between transmitter and console can create complications for larger venues.

“When we first started working Cheyenne [Frontier Days] years ago, they had trouble with the eyes,” Walton said. “Now we put a controller down at Chute 9, at the timed event end and with the announcer.”

A larger antenna capable of transmitting further distances can also help alleviate those issues for bigger arenas like Cheyenne.

“We use a taller external antenna and we’ve always gotten a time since doing that,” Walton said.

Then there’s RF (Radio Frequency) Interference, something that Matt Hancock, the Director of Technical Production for the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), knows a lot about. 

In a nutshell, RF is produced by mobile devices, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth technology, radio and television broadcasts amongst other sources. In big events like rodeos and bull ridings, there are many devices cluttering the air which originate from production and spectators alike. In order for each to work properly, the traffic lanes, or frequencies, must be not be crowded.

“We don’t have too much trouble with that for our eyes,” Hancock noted. “But we fight it quite a bit on our tablets used for [transmitting] judges [scores].”

As part of his duties, Hancock oversees not only PBR events but also those produced in cooperation with the World Champions Rodeo Alliance (WCRA).

The electronic eyes used at WCRA events, which interface with RidePass television production, were built custom for those events and have a knob which allows easy change of frequencies. WCRA also utilizes a FarmTek eye as backup.

“RF interference is the biggest problem, particularly if you are near an airport or military base,” Hancock continued. Consider the jackpot arena near Luke Air Force base in Phoenix that can’t use cordless eyes or All State Arena in Chicago which is next door to O’Hare International Airport. “There are some crazy radio frequencies bouncing around out there.”

In the future, Hancock plans to utilize a RF Analyzer, a gadget which scans a venue for all the radio frequencies in use.

“It will basically help us find the clearest channel to use,” Hancock explained, adhering to Walton’s proactive approach.

Sometimes, just a little less high tech can be the answer.

“We use a hardwired eye in Houston,” Walton noted. “We had all kinds of trouble before we started doing that.” Though a backup cordless eye has been working reliably as a test in recent years, the wired eyes are still being used for official times.

Like Hancock searching for open lanes in the highway of the air, Walton also ensures his equipment—which includes judges’ handheld devices used to start time and send scores in the rough stock events—runs at a different frequency to reduce chances of transmission failure.

Finally, while often to the crowd and the competitor it appears that a timer has failed at its job, more often it’s simply a failure to communicate with scoreboards and other display devices. 

“The eyes need to interface with our Daktronics system,” Walton said. “And it’s important for people to realize that these systems average times [in timed events] so while it may look like a contestant is getting a certain time and then the clock rolls back, that’s the system averaging. And it’s always to the contestant’s advantage.”

Like judges and timers, the folks charged with getting the info to the public are working to eliminate errors all the time and to be ahead of challenges.

.“At the end of the day, we all want what’s best for the sport,” Walton said.