Last weekend one of the most prestigious sets of BBQ competitions took place – the American Royal Invitational and Open contests. Going to this contest has been on my BBQ bucket list ever since getting into the world of BBQ. Until I get to do so, I’ll just have to live vicariously through others. Big Al of Canadian Bakin’ BBQ Team wrote about his experiences competing at the contest last week. Today I’m absolutely thrilled to present a new perspective about the American Royal experience. Let’s check out “My American Royal” by Jesse Black of Thermoworks.
A plume of sweet blue smoke greeted us as we exited onto the 670 and headed towards the Kemper Arena and the 33rd Annual American Royal World Series of BBQ. With over 500 teams, two contests, four categories and 60,000 visitors, we (ThermoWorks and ETI, Ltd.) knew this weekend was one not to be forgotten.
Although the contest wouldn’t officially kick-off until Friday, by Thursday afternoon, the 20+ acre spread that was the American Royal parking lot was transformed into a sea of pickup trucks, RV’s, golf carts and BBQ pits, all jockeying to stake their claim and get down to the business of BBQ.
We (Kevin Owen, Jason Webb and myself) walked the grounds early Thursday afternoon to get our bearings and visit with a few familiar faces. We knew that if we were going to survive the weekend we’d have to pace ourselves. With map in-hand (actually a photo of the information booth on our iPhone) we were quick to note the most important stops (i.e. porta potties, food stands, etc.).
We quickly made the rounds stopping to say hello to Team DivaQ, Bam Bam BBQ and to catch up the Mike and Chris Peters on the KCBS Great American BBQ Tour. Between stops we marveled at the way teams were outfitting their spaces with state-of-the-art sounds systems, stages, lighted canopies and perimeter fences fashioned out of hay bales.
It was quickly becoming apparent that the Royal, on this day at least, was less about cooking BBQ and more about a celebration of life. Pork butts, ribs, brisket and chicken took a back seat to firing up old friendships and kick starting old rivalries.
Early Friday, we were able to accompany Bob Peterson (President & CEO of the American Royal) and Jeremy Povenmire (Director of Sales & Marketing) to welcome teams who’d attended the Royal for 20+ years. The Legends.
Straight out of the “old days,” these teams occupied the Golden Ox parking lot all those years ago and had seen the Royal grow from a handful of up-and-comers to over 150 invitational champions and 400+ open hopefuls. Since their humble beginnings, these Legends have seen the Golden Ox lot long shutdown, reopened as expansion and growing numbers have begged for more space.
We shook hands, shared war stories and (as part of our sponsorship) were happy to hand over a custom American Royal Thermapen to say thanks for supporting the Royal and more importantly, BBQ. Win or lose, a free Thermapen is always worth the trip.
By Friday afternoon most teams had settled in to their digs and were getting down to business. Invitational teams were sorting out their schedules for the impending turn-in only a half day away, while on the other side of the lot, Open teams were sorting out their guest lists.
As the sun fell over downtown KC, scores of private parties, complete with bands, DJs, light shows and bass thumping speakers followed visitors down the rows and rows of competitor booth spaces. Anyone looking to get a good nights sleep was better off huffing it back to their hotel, or locking up the RV and slipping in a few ear plugs.
On the other side of the arena however, Invitational teams were a few hours into their cook and were prepping their pits for a long night of steady heat and smoke.
While one side slept off their Friday night, the other was preparing for the biggest invitational event of the year. The turn-in window opened up with chicken at high noon and continued until the final seconds ticked off the clock for brisket.
We were fortunate enough to be invited to work along side the BBQ Brethren during their turn-in, and saw first hand how competition boxes are assembled in each of the four categories. While the other members of our crew took every opportunity to snap photos and take video, I was elbow to elbow with Scott Owitz and Phil Rizzardi of the BBQ Brethren team.
With surgical precision, Scott and Phil knocked out chicken, then ribs, followed by pork and brisket. The atmosphere was akin to an operating room where Phil cut and sauced and Scott built picturesque boxes.
The beauty with which they worked together spoke volumes about their experience and skill. I was occasionally brought down out of the clouds with a quick jab from Phil, “Don’t burn the sauce!”
After turn ins we could tell that the Brethren were exhausted – and to be quite honest, so were we. We spent the afternoon meandering through the stalls visiting, sampling more BBQ and simply enjoying the atmosphere.
Awards followed later in the afternoon and we were happy to see that the Brethren took fourth in the chicken category. Sure they did all the work, but one has to believe that that sauce wasn’t going to stir itself!
With that, we called it a trip. I know what you’re thinking, you didn’t stay for the Open? And you’re right. Duty called back home and we had to board a 5 a.m. flight home the next morning. We kept tabs on the Open results through the usual Social Media channels, text messages and phone calls and were sorry we missed it.
A big congrats to the 545 teams who competed, those who got a call and all the rest. As we drove out of Kansas City in the wee hours of Sunday morning, we swore we could smell the BBQ in the air. I don’t know if BBQ can change the world, but one thing is for sure, for three days in October, it certainly changed me.