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, lamè 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 vile-tempered 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 days.
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."