1991: It begins in Denver
You won’t find any horses, bulls, or cowboys at this rodeo. What you will find are shovels, gate valves, pipe cutters, gas meters and a teams of ‘gas hogs'(affectionate name for the competitors of the National Gas Rodeo, derived from the “pig” a tool used to clean underground pipe) testing their work skills – and having a good time. “The electric group has had a rodeo for years and years. I liked the idea and thought, “Why can’t we have a gas rodeo?” explained Ric Utesch, manager of gas and emergency repairs. “So I met with some of the people in our department after work one night, had a few beers, and we came up with some events. Unbeknownst to me, Debbie Capra, a friend and cohort, had been assigned to create a similar type of event as well,” he said. “So along with Larry Losasso in Denver Metro Engineering, we put our heads together and came up with a series of events to test the skills of our journeymen and have some fun.”
The trio, with the help of other gas employees, put together the first-ever such event in the country. For the first gas rodeo, each team chose four events out of 12 different activities, each involving a combination of brains, skill and brawn, plus a relay event which included maneuvering a crew truck and trailer through a series of obstacles: picking up an egg with the backhoe, setting a by-pass on a regulator station and a new meter set.
The relay was the only mandatory event. That first rodeo, held in 1991 at the ballpark next to Denver’s Arapahoe Generating Station, was a big success and had garnered the support of all corners of the gas department. However, the organizers realized that too much time and effort was involved in setting up 12 different events, so they narrowed the next year’s rodeo down to the four most popular events plus the relay event.
By far, the most popular event. Gas journeymen dig down four feet to find a buried box, then refill the hole – all done in a flurry of flying dust and dirt and shovels.
Participants open and then close a gas valve as fast as possible.
Competitors have to pick up a pair of pipe cutters and cut a piece of 6″ gas pipe. The record time for that event is a speedy 15.0 seconds (held by Public Service of Colorado’s “Rocky Mountain Bad Gas” Randy Utech, A. J. Morris, Rich Muench, and Joe Copland).
Contestants build a gas meter set-up from scratch.
Each of these events was a timed event. In 1995, Utesch attended the Midwest Gas Association’s (now MEA Energy Association, (MEA)) annual convention in Ames, Iowa. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, he went prepared to give a “rodeo” presentation to see if he could drum up interest for a national Gas Rodeo competition. After the event, several companies called Utesch expressing interest.
Illinois Power was interested enough to send four employees to attend the company’s next Gas Rodeo and learn how to put one on. They organized a rodeo of their own and had such a good time that they called Utesch and offered to host a national competition. “I went through management and told them about the interest that was developing for a national gas rodeo and was told to, ‘Make it happen,'” Utesch said. “So I made a few trips to Illinois to help them set up a national event, standardize the events, find a venue that would work for a national event, and most importantly to get some other companies to attend and participate. I called several other companies to spread the word and drum up interest. In the end, the whole thing just clicked.”
The first MEA managed competition took place in 1995 and involved eight teams from around the country including Tennessee and Montana. “It’s been 10 fun and entertaining years for the ‘Gas Hogs’ and their friends and families,” Utesch said, referring to the moniker taken by Public Service Company’s gas rodeo fans and participants. The ball field at the Arapahoe plant was even named “Pigly Field.”
The Rodeo Association was officially incorporated on April 17, 1996 in the state of Illinois. The event was held in Illinois Power’s service territory in Decatur, IL. Each Board-member company pledged $5,000 per year to offset the operating expenses.
The Rodeo Goes “National”
In 1997, MEA began assisting with the logistics of planning and executing the Rodeo, as well as providing financial assistance. By 1999, operating deficits coupled with the financial burden placed on the Rodeo Board-member companies necessitated a change for the long-term health of the event. Talks continued with MEA and in early 2000, the Rodeo was officially transferred to MEA and the Rodeo Association was dissolved.
The leadership body for the Rodeo was now a partnership of MEA and a Steering Committee made up of utility volunteers and the name of the event was changed to the National Gas Rodeo to highlight the country-wide nature of the competition. Also in 1999, the Rodeo changed locations, moving to its present home in Fairview Heights, IL.
In the wake of numerous utility mergers in the early 2000’s, MEA and the Rodeo Steering Committee focused on strengthening the Rodeo infrastructure and finances such that the event could operate more uniformly and effectively and be financially self-supporting.
The Trail Boss Award, given to an individual whose leadership and contribution to the National Gas Rodeo were exemplary, was first given in 2001; the award has been presented each year since.
A 2 person Team competition was added in 2004. The purpose of the 2 person teams is to provide an avenue for older workers to compete (both members of the 2 person teams had to be age 45 or older – the age requirement has since been lifted) as well as provide a less-expensive alternative for utilities to compete in the National Gas Rodeo.
2005 provided additional milestones in the history of the National Gas Rodeo. The first-ever all-female team, the Gas Gals, from Ameren competed in the 2 person competition, earning third place. New “World Records” were set for both the Overall score and the Hand Dig event. The 4 person Team champion in 2005 was from Atlanta Gas Light, their 4th 4 person team championship in a row, tying the most team championships set by Columbia Gas.
The Wall Street Journal featured an article about the Rodeo in it’s Saturday, September 30, 2006 paper. The article was written by Russell Gold and titled, “Gas Pipe Wranglers Strut Their Stuff At the Backhoe Rodeo”.
2009 the winning 2 person team, Gashouse Gorillas from City Utilities of Springfield, get Rodeo Tattoos in honor of their win.
2011 saw a new Hand Dig record, 25.01 seconds, by the three-peat 4 person champion team, Insane Methane from Piedmont Natural Gas.
2018 the Trail Boss Award is replaced with the Spirit of the Rodeo Award.