The Wild West meets the Midwest for four nights of rip-snorting bulls, top-calibre cowboys, bucking broncos, barrel racing and more.
The Headwaters Xtreme Bulls and PRCA Rodeo celebrates its 40th anniversary July 4-7 at the Jokela ProWest grounds on Highway 34, east of Park Rapids.
Randy Jokela, a Park Rapids High School graduate and the event's founder, grew up around rodeo.
"I spent a tremendous amount of time in Red Lodge, Mont. That's my mom's hometown. Half the town is related to me," Jokela said, calling it "Cowboy Central." "In that part of the country, rodeo is like hockey here."
At 4, he shook hands with world champion and Rodeo Hall of Famer Bill Linderman.
"You end up becoming fascinated with the sport. I got involved with it. I started roping," Jokela said. He rode some bulls, too, but favored rodeo announcing. "It gets in your blood. It really does."
In 1978, after college, he endeavored to bring rodeo to northern Minnesota.
"I always thought Minnesota rodeo could be better. I thought if you brought that good livestock from out West, you'll get the good cowboys on them," Jokela said. "Park Rapids, I thought, was perfectly suited for a good rodeo because it's a mix of rural people and tourists."
Park Rapids' first amateur rodeo was held at the Hubbard County fairgrounds, where it remained a staple for almost 20 years.
At the amateur level, "those learning years are what build rodeo heritage. It builds the sport," Jokela said.
But there's a huge difference between amateurs and professionals, he explained, both in the level of competition and quality of bulls. "It's like NHL players compared to junior hockey. If you saw them side by side, it's day and night."
By the 10th year, Jokela achieved his goal of going professional. The event was sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).
"There's only a handful of pro rodeos in Minnesota, probably a dozen," Jokela said, adding that in terms of attendance and prize money, "we're the largest rodeo event in Minnesota."
In 1998, the bull ride outgrew the fairgrounds and moved to its current location, a 50-acre pasture east of Park Rapids.
Jokela launched similar rodeo events in Detroit Lakes, Fargo, Thief River Falls and Hibbing. When his daughter, Peyton, was born, he quit traveling and focused on Park Rapids.
"We're not cowboy country, but the part of northern Minnesota I love is you're born with a hardiness to survive. Rodeo appeals to them. Rodeo takes try, effort," he said.
He credits family, sponsor support and dedication to the event's four decades of success.
Big, bold action
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Jokela added $40,000 in prize money to the Headwaters Xtreme Bulls and PRCA Rodeo.
The two-day Xtreme Bulls event July 4-5 features 40 new competitors each night.
Since Park Rapids is PRCA sanctioned, all points earned in the events help contestants qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo held in Las Vegas each December.
Last year, five out of the nation's top 15 bull riders competed in Park Rapids, said Jokela.
He uses livestock contractors from Montana, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Wyoming. Fierce competitors and athletic bulls make for fast and furious rides.
A full slate of rodeo action runs July 6-7 - from bareback, saddle bronc and steer wrestling to calf roping, barrel racing, team roping and bull riding.
Gates open at 5 p.m., rain or shine.
Moto X and ATV aerial riders will perform nightly. Kids, ages 5 to 7, can sign up for sheep riding. Jokela recommends that parents register online in advance.
Live bands will entertain under the pavillion all four nights, including Chancey Williams and the Younger Brothers Band. The band's latest album, "Rodeo Cold Beer," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Mountain Heatseekers Chart, No. 5 on the Billboard West North Central Heatseekers Chart and No. 7 on the iTunes Country Albums Chart.
There'll be a dedication to veterans and the armed services on July 4.
More information and tickets are available at www.parkrapidsbullride.com.