Skip to main content

Having a barrel of fun Only 16, Charmayne James is a three-time world barrel-racing champion

Unlike most 16-year-olds, Charmayne James doesn't have to worry
about getting the family sedan on Saturday nights. Wheels for the
weekend are no problem for Charmayne because she has two pickups of
her own and the use of another, won as a prize on the professional
rodeo circuit. Last week she used one of them to take her to the
National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, where she promptly clinched her
third straight world barrel-racing title. When the NFR ends on
Saturday, Charmayne could wind up with $130,717 for the year in prize
money, more than any cowboy or cowgirl has ever won for a single
event. And that's not counting another $40,000 or so in bonuses.
Charmayne is the pride of Clayton, N. Mex. (pop. 2,968), where
signs at the edge of town say HOME OF CHARMAYNE JAMES, WORLD CHAMPION
BARREL RACER. Last year, Mayor Jimmie Butt named her Clayton's first
ambassador of goodwill. She was the perfect choice: polite,
well-spoken, talented. Of course, the usual way to become the pride
of one's hometown is to leave it. Charmayne's ticket out of Clayton
has been Scamper, a bay quarter horse she bought off a feedlot for
$1,100. ''He's probably the greatest barrel horse ever,'' says
Charmayne, who has twice spurned blank-check offers for Scamper.
Barrel racing is the one women's event on the rodeo tour, and it
is second only to bull riding in crowd appeal. As sports go, it is
fast, action packed and easy to understand. A rider and her horse
run a cloverleaf pattern around three metal barrels and then sprint
to the finish line. A five-second penalty is added for each barrel
knocked over, and winning times range from 13 to 15 seconds. This
year Charmayne won the finals at 27 rodeos, and placed in all but 12
of the 77 rodeos in which she competed.
Charmayne was to the saddle born. She was named for her father,
Charlie, an excellent horseman who currently manages one of Clayton's
feedlots, and for her grandmother, Nellie May James. Charmayne was
riding by the time she was three, and running barrels by age six.
''All I did was ride horses when I was little,'' she says. ''It was
all I wanted to do.''
In the arena, barrel racing seems a glamorous flash of sequined
tops, lame pants, fast horses and cheering crowds. The reality more
frequently resembles The Twelve Labors of Hercules, except that Herc
only had to muck out those stables once. Charmayne has eight horses
that must be fed, watered and exercised. And always, she has to
drive. Most of rodeo is road, roughly 100,000 miles this year for
Charmayne. What keeps her going? ''All the glory,'' she says. ''All
the money. And just being at the rodeo.''
Which is where she's been full time since she was 13 and too young
to drive. Charmayne has a license now, and she chalks up most of her
miles in a $26,000 customized Chevy crew cab that includes a built-in
TV set. Sometimes she surrenders the wheel to a relative or friend,
turns on the ''airplane lights'' in the cab and studies. She takes
correspondence classes and is in the middle of her junior year in
high school. Still, Charmayne claims she has a full social life on
the rodeo circuit, even though she is frequently the youngest
competitor there.
Her one constant companion on the road is Scamper. Charmayne
bought him in 1982, when he was 4 years old -- and mean. He had
thrown one previous owner, putting him in the hospital. Another owner
had sold him simply because he didn't like the look in the gelding's
eyes. By the time Charmayne came along, several owners had given up
on the viletempered animal.
When the 11-year-old Charmayne mounted Scamper for the first time,
she was warned to be careful or he would buck. ''So the first thing
she did was put the spur to him, and he came unwound,'' Charlie James
recalls. ''She rode the buck out of him, and I guess he just knew she
wasn't scared of him.''
) Charmayne spent two weeks teaching Scamper to run the barrels,
then hauled him to a small-time competition and won. They've been a
winning team ever since and thrilled last year's NFR with one of the
most spectacular runs in rodeo history.
When Charmayne and Scamper burst into the Thomas and Mack Center
for the seventh go-round, the bridle was dangling from the side of
Scamper's head. That meant the bit was held in the horse's mouth by
the skin of his teeth. Imagine a stock-car driver who has lost his
steering and is about to lose his brakes, and you have a pretty fair
idea of Charmayne's predicament.
The pair rounded the first two barrels cleanly. As Scamper circled
the third barrel, he spit the bit. Now the brakes were gone, but
Charmayne whipped and spurred him through the finish. Incredibly, she
won the go-round with the fastest time of the rodeo's first seven
Charmayne's future in barrel racing depends largely on her finding
another great horse like Scamper, who is now nine. But there just
aren't that many Scampers trotting around and no rider has ever won
world barrel-racing championships on two different horses. Charmayne,
naturally, would like to be the first.
In addition to Scamper, she has two prospects -- bought with her
winnings -- and on a bright afternoon last month she took the most
promising, a 6-year- old bay gelding named Jay's Whistle, to the
arena on the family ranch. As Charmayne worked with Jay's Whistle,
Scamper nibbled at stray tumbleweeds and rolled in the dirt nearby.
''He could have three or four strong years left if he stays sound and
doesn't get sick,'' Charmayne said of her star. As for Jay's Whistle,
she feels he is long on athletic talent if somewhat short on heart.
Still, if bloodlines mean anything, Jay's Whistle and Charmayne
could share a rewarding future. The horse's nickname is S.O.B. No,
that doesn't mean he's ill-tempered; he's Scamper's Only Brother.
What's certain is that the champ of barrel racing expects to stay
on the road. Ordinary teen pursuits don't beckon. ''I never went to a
prom,'' she says. ''Shoot, I don't think I could go back to a high
school now.'' END