If you’re thinking you’re going to find the man running the Days of ’47 Rodeo — Utah’s very own million-dollar rodeo — wearing a fancy sport coat and power tie, assistants trailing behind him, with a Rolex on his wrist, an MBA degree on the wall and a cellphone in his hand, you would be thinking wrong.
Well, except for the cellphone.
Tommy Joe Lucia has been general manager of the Days of ’47 Rodeo for the past six years, dating back to just prior to the move to the 10,000-seat rodeo-specific stadium at the Utah State Fairpark.
If they dusted for prints, his would be all over the transition from a middling, so-so rodeo to one that claims, with its million-dollar prize money payout, to rank among the five biggest-paying rodeos in the world.
Dan Shaw, president of the Days of ’47 board, reached out to Tommy Joe in 2016 to help design the not-a-bad-seat-in-the-house stadium and send the rodeo on its current orbit. The goal was to break even in five years; they did it in two.
Now, the rodeo is a virtual sellout — in 2021 46,000 of the 50,000 tickets were sold over the five-day run — and one of the most popular of the annual Pioneer Days attractions.
All this, from a man whose idea of fancy is a new pair of boots, never went to business school and first learned the rodeo business by smelling the manure. Quite literally.
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He was 3 years old when Tommy Lucia, Tommy Joe’s namesake dad, said, “get in the truck.”
They were headed to a rodeo in Phoenix, where the senior Tommy would perform his act as a rodeo clown. An act that now would now include Tommy Joe.
The bit involved a barrel that young Tommy Joe would crawl into before it was rolled into the middle of the arena. There he would wait until his father, after being chased around by a bull, would dive in for cover.
The announcer would say something about the bull doing something to the clown so badly he’d shrunk — and out would emerge Tommy Joe, dressed exactly like his dad, in a pint-sized version.
Then he’d make his way out of the arena through the dirt and the mud and the manure (“I know I don’t have very long legs now,” says Tommy Joe, “but when I was 3 years old they darn sure weren’t much longer than the holes in the dirt”).
He remembers running to the gate, turning around to bow, “and the house went wild, a standing ovation.”
With those cheers ringing in his ears, he grew up traveling with his dad — who is in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame — from rodeo to rodeo in a pickup truck and an 8-foot cab-over camper, “blessed to see every part of the continental United States and beyond.”
There was the time they were headed to the Calgary Stampede and stopped for customs at the Canadian border.
“It was me and my dad and a chimpanzee monkey named Junky,” remembers Tommy Joe. “Junky smoked Marlboros by the way and didn’t wear pants. When we got to the border Dad said, ‘You and Junky get in the camper and make sure Junky stays quiet.’ So I’m in there and trying to do stuff with Junky to keep him quiet. He’s at the camper table smoking a cigarette and he’s got no pants on, and the Mounties open the back door of the camper. The Mountie sees me, sitting by a naked chimpanzee smoking a Marlboro. He just shakes his head, closes the door and says, ‘Get outta here.’ He’d never seen anything like that in his life.”
Tommy Joe, who turned 53 this year, has 50 years of rodeoing adventures like that to look back on. After performing with his dad — they came to the Days of ’47 Rodeo many times way back in the day — he did his own clowning before segueing into the management end of things, paying his way through college at Texas’ Tarleton State (where he majored in political science) by producing rodeos.
In the years since, he’s performed in or produced in excess of 2,000 rodeos. Of the 600 rodeos in the United States, he reckons he’s been involved in more than half of them.
All of which helps explain why six years ago the Days of ’47 board had him in its sights to run its rodeo.
Tommy Joe calls getting to design a rodeo and stadium from the ground up “a dream come true and an answer to prayer.” He and his wife, Donna, now split their time between their residence in Heber City and their longtime headquarters in Texas.
The rodeo chief looks back on so much that has changed in 50 years of rodeoing, but then again, so much has stayed the same.
At the end of each night’s performance, “When our emcee (his brother Anthony Lucia) says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, have you enjoyed the Days of ’47 Rodeo?’ and they all roar, a small hair in the back of my neck stands up,” he confesses. “It has for 50 years, ever since I left that arena in Phoenix and bowed. That’s when I became an addict to the crowd.”