LEXINGTON, N.C. – Richard Childress grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, wearing Wranglers and watching The Lone Ranger.
While loud rumbling engines, squealing rubber, and checkered flags would be his path to glory as one of the most storied and successful team owners in stock car racing history, the 16-time NASCAR Championship owner’s fascination for and affinity to cowboys has never faded.
He’s proudly lived the Western lifestyle his whole life.
Childress keeps prized photos of rodeos he attended with his grandsons Ty and Austin. Austin would grow up to pilot the famed No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, once driven by Dale Earnhardt Sr. to six championships before a fatal wreck at Daytona International Speedway in 2001 took “The Intimidator” and shook the entire sports world.
Among Childress’ highest highs in the sport that can produce gut-punch devastation was celebrating with Austin in victory lane after his grandson drove that iconic No. 3 Chevy to the checkers at the 2018 Daytona 500, 20 years after Earnhardt, following years of heartbreak, had finally won “The Great American Race.”
Now grandfather and grandson are teaming to attempt to claim another equally challenging trophy – the golden belt buckle that comes with bull riding supremacy as they operate the Carolina Cowboys, one of eight bull riding teams in the new PBR Team Series.
When you consider the two sports, PBR and NASCAR have a lot in common – traveling circuses barnstorming the country in an all-star showcase of the world’s best with a solemn prayer and hands-over-heart presentation of the National Anthem preceding the thrilling action, which can be deadly.
Just as stock car racing has deep roots in the Carolinas, bull riding has rich history in the area.
From the early days of PBR, there have been events in cities and towns across the state including Archdale, Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Colfax, Elizabeth City, Fayetteville, Gibsonville, Greensboro, McLeansville, Oak Ridge, Raleigh, Richlands, Summerfield, Troy, Tryon, Raleigh, Waynesville, and Winston-Salem.
Two-time PBR World Champion J.B. Mauney is from the Tar Heel State as is 2021 Rookie of the Year Eli Vastbinder, and one of the sport’s most charismatic stars, Ezekiel Mitchell, lives in Winston-Salem.
While the state’s new team, based in Winston-Salem, was unveiled as the Carolina Chaos at the new league’s launch announcement at Madison Square Garden in early January, further discussions led to a eureka moment and pivot beyond any debate, based on the primacy of the western sports legend who agreed to coach the team – the original “Carolina Cowboy,” Jerome Davis.
Davis, who grew up in a rural area of the state, was named the North Carolina State High School Bull Riding Champion in 1990. At 20 years old, he made what would turn out to be best financial decision of his life when he was asked to join 19 other rodeo cowboys and invest $1,000 in a new standalone bull-riding league called PBR (Professional Bull Riders).
In 1995, at 22 years old, Davis secured his name among rodeo’s elite by winning the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) bull riding World Championship, becoming the first rider from east of the Mississippi to claim that world title.
Three years later, thrown from a bull in Fort Worth, Texas, Davis would be paralyzed from the chest down.
Davis would marry his fiancé Tiffany, begin to raise bucking bulls who’d compete in PBR and build his own rodeo arena at the Davis Rodeo Ranch in Archdale, NC.
In 1998, he was inducted into the PBR Ring of Honor — the greatest recognition a professional bull rider can achieve.
“When Sean (Gleason, PBR CEO) came to me with the idea of putting a team in North Carolina, I was excited, but not nearly as excited as when I found out that Richard and Austin would run the team,” Davis said. “These guys know how to win.”
Among the racing folks, the feeling of admiration is mutual.
“I believe we have the best coach in the business, and I just want to support Jerome in every way I can,” Dillon said. “Bulls have tendencies, as do riders. Our job is to find the best five guys for Jerome to match against the bulls best suited to how those guys ride.”
The Cowboys have picks seven and 10 in the snake-style draft to take place following World Finals on May 23.
“We want guys with grit, who can dig deep and have got some cowboy about them,” Davis said.
One competitive edge RCR Racing may have in the rider draft and then operating a bull riding team is to apply its sophisticated analytical programs used to find speed in NASCAR to help cowboys make their eight seconds more consistently on bulls whose performance can be studied.
Race teams also understand sports psychology. Dillon also sees similarities between the two sports in the crucial mental game.
“In racing and bull riding, there are veterans, and there are guys just having families,” he said. “Everyone has things going on mentally in their lives. We are looking to form a team of young guys with a burning desire to win who can work together and respect one another, want to learn from each other, and ultimately get better together.”
When Davis rode at the elite level, surrounded by older riders such as Ty Murray, Cody Custer, Ted Nuce and Jim Sharp, he was always eager to listen and learn.
“I think guys are open to coaching,” he said. “I have had enough years in this sport where I think these guys will listen and take it in.”
The PBR co-founder, who from the beginning has been along for PBR’s wildly successful ride, marvels at the sport’s current place and continuing possibilities.
“Years ago, when we started PBR, we were just hoping to go home during the week and not have to rodeo every day,” he said. “Now you have (championship) riders getting a $1 million bonus and this new team concept.
“It feels like this is going to take PBR to a new level and change bull riders’ lives. I didn’t know Sean Gleason was this smart, to be honest.”
To a man, the riders are similarly stoked for the new league, which begins at Cheyenne Frontier Days for a neutral site event on July 25-26 and runs to the Team Finals at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Nov 4-6.
“Team events were always my favorite events to go to all year long,” said 2016 World Champion Cooper Davis, who is recuperating from shoulder surgery and took time to be part of the Cowboys official launch at the RCR Museum in Lexington, NC. “They elevate everyone’s riding. It’s almost a magical feeling when you don’t want to let your teammates down and things are rolling well.”
The challenge for the Carolina Cowboys is that bull riders on every team are anticipated to take their performance up a notch.
Childress, who started his race team in 1969 and has won more than 200 races at NASCAR’s top three national series, lives on his terms. He recently donated 1 million rounds of ammunition to Ukrainians under attack, and he thrives on heated competition, whether its winning 500-mile races or producing the best award-winning wines at the Childress Winery, located on 72 rolling acres in Lexington, NC.
Now, teaming up with his equally competitive grandson and a soft-spoken PBR legend, he’s doggedly pursuing excellence in his latest venture.
“Winning that gold belt buckle in Las Vegas will be success,” he said. “That’s the Carolina Cowboys’ goal. And that’s why I’m in it.”
Andrew Giangola is the author of Love & Try: Stories of Gratitude and Grit from Professional Bull Riding coming in May from Cedar Gate Publishing.