ELLICOTTVILLE — Of the nearly 500 competitors set to appear at the Ellicottville Championship Rodeo this weekend, one likely topped them all in name recognition Thursday night.
That would be Taylor Earnhardt-Putnam, the youngest daughter of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., who competes in barrel racing and roping events nationwide. Traveling with her husband, Brandon Putnam, both ride in the International Professional Rodeo Association.
And everywhere they go — Ellicottville included — they’re likely to see fans sporting No. 3 memorabilia and hear applause for that family name.
“The Earnhardt fans are everywhere,” she said before saddling her horses, Mr. C and Willie, Thursday. “They’re all across the nation, in every state, every way of life. Everybody knew who he was, so down to earth, came from a low-class or middle-class background. That’s everyman. So he related to a lot of people.
“It’s always a big cheer when the announcer (says) ‘Dale Earnhardt’s daughter,’ and it’s great.”
That legacy helped vault Dale Earnhardt Jr., her half-brother, into a position he still holds as NASCAR’s most popular driver. While Taylor tried to make her own name in the rodeo circuits, she said she’s grateful for the affection the surname provides.
“I grew up in the lifestyle of everyone knowing your name,” said the Moorseville, N.C., native. “People ask me if I’m ever bothered by people wanting an autograph or talking to me all the time. It’s never bothered me. It’s always been just part of my life and I’m always willing to meet people and talk to people, because it’s an honor that they have stories about my father. And I really enjoy being able to tell my story and continue his legacy.”
But unlike the rest of the Earnhardt children, Taylor’s half-siblings Dale Jr., Kerry (a former driver) and Kelley (co-owner of JR Motorsports), her career path drifted away from the track. It wasn’t an overnight decision, either.
In her youth, as her dad dominated NASCAR, followed Taylor said she was always more attracted to the the family stables than the racetrack. But even there, she wanted to compete like the rest of the Earnhardts.
“At the track, it was always really busy, really hectic, always having somewhere to be at certain times,” she said. “At home on the farm, you just got to relax, not have to worry where you’ve got to be in the next five minutes.
“Even though I’m at a competition every weekend, I still get to be outside with my animals.”
At age 3 or 4, she first rode horses, and began barrel racing in 2002, at age 13. The past “five or six” years, her passion became a profession, she said.
She became certified in equine sports massage therapy to help the animals, of which she owns 15.
“I thought I’m going to be on the road all summer in the coming years,” Taylor recalled. “(I thought) I can buy a piece of equipment that will do the work for me or do it myself and be that much closer to my animals and I can feel where they’re hurting and I can help make that go away. It’s just another way of me taking care of my animals and being closer to them.”
Ultimately, all rodeo competitors want to reach Las Vegas, site of the National Finals Rodeo. In the IPRA, Oklahoma City hosts the finals in January.
“Starting off the year we didn’t do a lot of IPRA rodeos, we hit a bunch at home that were just local,” Taylor said. “Just getting ready and geared up for this season. Since we left last Wednesday, we hit four rodeos and I placed at three of them. I’m hoping to keep on going from there.”
Friday morning, Taylor, Brandon and his sister (another IPRA competitor) hit the road for Indiana. July brings the busiest stretch of the year for rodeo cowboys and cowgirls.
“We have three drivers this trip, which is nice,” Taylor said. “During the spring and fall and winter, we usually do two to three a weekend. In the summer months, we haul almost every day, every other day. We have a few off here and there but I think we’ll hit 20 races in 25 days in the next couple weeks.”
(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)