Chris LeDoux’s “Cadillac Ranch” blasted from the speakers as Alex Garza slipped onto the snorting bull, tightly pulled the rope around his hands and signaled that he was ready.
The rodeo clowns opened the chute and the bull tore into the dusty arena, bucking and jerking until the 20-year-old Marana newcomer couldn’t hold on any longer.
Within seconds, Garza was tossed onto his backside and the group of teens clinging to the fence behind the chutes barely blinked.
The bulls might be the main attraction for serious rodeo guys like Garza and the sheep and goats are reason enough for the little kids to turn out. But for most of the dozens of teens at the Marana Western Heritage Arena, this is their Friday night hangout.
“It’s a place where you can come out and have fun,” said Izzy Jensen, a 14-year-old Marana High School freshman.
The arena, sprawled out on a dirt plot on the frontage road near Marana Middle School, has become a Friday night tradition for teens from Marana High, and the arena’s manager couldn’t be more pleased.
“It’s a social event with bull riding,” said Dan Post, who, at 74, is easily the oldest person in the arena on this and almost every Friday night.
On Saturdays, the arena is serious business for rodeo fans and competitors. But on Friday nights, when there’s no jackpot to be won or record to be broken or set, it’s all frolicking and fun.
Families with young kids dressed in cowboy hats and boots find a spot on the metal bleachers alongside a handful of die-hard rodeo fans, who take note of the bull’s every jolt and jerk.
A good chunk of the 150 people who pay their $5 and pass through the gate are teens looking for an alternative to house parties and school dances.
“A lot of kids go out there to hang out. When we have nothing better to do, that’s what everyone does,” said Marana High sophomore Alli McKibbin, 15, who is halfway through her year-long reign as Arizona’s high school rodeo queen.
“It’s a nondisruptive place,” said Izzy’s friend Angie Villa, who grew up in Picture Rocks and knows all too well the town’s limited Friday night options for kids her age.
Angie and Izzy discovered the arena through their friend Katelynn Wilt, who has volunteered at the Friday night bull rides for about three years. The 14-year-old Marana High freshman hangs out in the pens and rustles up the sheep and the goats after they’ve given a young kid a thrilling ride around the arena. Every once in a while, the teens stood up on the wooden plank that separates the pens and watched the action in the arena. But mostly they giggled, texted on their cell phones and teased their friend A. Z. Martinez, who is a year older.
“I don’t know why I came,” A.Z. said as Angie poked him in the ribs.
“Because you love us,” she said, and the girls broke out in giggles.
The Marana Western Heritage Arena has been around 10 years. A group of cowboys opened it in on a plot of land owned by the Marana Unified School District. The town gave the group money for the fences and lights and tried to run it. But it proved too much and the town turned the operation over to a volunteer committee, Post said.
He has been the point man the last several years and has an executive board filled with some prominent Marana residents: Kathy Clark, Post’s son John Post, farmer Arnold Burruel and Clay Parsons, who owns the Marana Stockyards.
Earlier this month town officials announced plans to build a $5 million rodeo arena and splash park at Marana River Heritage Park a couple miles away near Gladden Farms. Dan Post said the new arena could very well put his out of business, which he said is fine if the town is welcoming to the town’s rodeo fans and participants.
“If they do it right and treat the horse people and the kids who want to ride these bulls right, I’ll help them,” he said that Friday night, as Tucson resident Edmund Francisco laced the boots of his 6-year-old son Keith and gave him some last-minute encouragement before the boy took a ride on a sheep.
Post, who retired from his family’s feed store business in 2005, said the Marana Heritage Arena caters to cowboys. Aside from a few common-sense rules of etiquette, there are no restrictions. People can come as they are and be as they are, a fact not lost on the Friday night teen crowd.
“They don’t give you trouble out here. You are who you are,” said Izzy, who sported dyed blue hair tucked loosely in a beanie. “I’m out here with blue hair and a beanie and nobody says anything. Nobody judges.”