Colorado BBQ Challenge offers up a carnival with a side of camaraderie (photo gallery, video) |

Colorado BBQ Challenge offers up a carnival with a side of camaraderie (photo gallery, video)

Jack Queen

During the annual Colorado BBQ Challenge in Frisco, the town’s Main Street is transformed into a teeming bazaar of barbecue and beer, where throngs of visitors mill about the smoky haze and the sound of live music blares from a stage on the corner of Madison Avenue.

Tucked away on Third Avenue, however, you’ll find a more tranquil scene — one that feels like a laid-back tailgate party rather than a carnival. On Thursday afternoon, it’s where you’d find families tossing games of cornhole or lounging in lawn chairs under the shade of tents.

These are the non-vendor competition teams, who travel across the country all summer long as part of a roving fraternity of barbecue pitmasters.

“We’re the reason this event even happens,” said David Qualls of Tecumseh, Oklahoma. “Without us it’d basically just be a food truck convention.”

Sitting with Qualls next to a camper rig is Don Will. He isn’t competing this year, but his fellow pitmasters along Third Avenue speak reverently of him as a barbecue wizard in a class of his own.

“My first time competing here was 1996, and it was nothing like it is now,” he said. “It’s amazing how much bigger it’s gotten. It used to just be two blocks and that was it.”

Qualls participates in as many as 30 barbecue competitions a year across the country. At that level, it’s practically a lifestyle.

“It’s a hobby,” he said. “An out-of-control hobby.”

Next to Qualls’ rig is a pair of slightly more casual competitors.

Rick Wagner and Brad Waldbauer, of Smoking Timbers and Smoking Boxers, respectively, only go to three or four competitions a year. But the word “competition” is somewhat of a misnomer, they explained.

“We call it a competition but we’re not really competitors,” Wagner said. “It’s not one-on-one or like a ballgame with two teams. You’re probably not even on the same judging table as the guy next you. You’re just cooking as well as you can to impress the judges, and good food usually wins.”

The fickleness of those judges is part of why the weekend warrior set on Third isn’t cowed by the flashier commercial competitors hawking their grub on Main. Food boxes are presented to judges double-blind, and big names don’t count for much when turn-in rolls around on Saturday afternoon.

“Even they’re underdogs,” said Jay Johnson, referring to teams in big trailers with flashy graphics and logos. The Denver resident and his partner, Mike Stauter, only compete in Frisco with their team People Eating Tasty Animals. “They do it however many times a year, but they still never know who the judges are or which ones they’ll get — just like us.”

None of which is to say there’s any bad blood between the big and little guys. Competitive barbecue is as much about camaraderie as it is about bone-sucking good meat.

Pitmasters don’t hesitate to share an ingredient or two if a fellow competitor left something behind. As Johnson spoke, another cook ambled over to his tent and asked to borrow some Worcestershire sauce. He happily obliged.

“You give and you get,” he said. “You just don’t steal recipes.”

Jonathan Knopf of Crazy Coyote summed it up neatly:

“It’s all about camaraderie: drinking cold beers around the fire pit and telling stupid stories. That’s why we get here early on Thursday, to set up and then just get together and hang out.”

For the third year in a row, Knopf’s tent sat next to Jim Grassers, of 303 Barbecue. All of the competitors have different times they light their fires, typically based on what fuel they use: wood, charcoal or pellets.

Mid-afternoon on Thursday, Grassers hadn’t quite decided yet.

“I’m thinking about blasting my brisket,” he told Knopf. “That’s how much of a science this — we’re about 12 hours out and I still haven’t picked a time.”

As the two spoke, a man from a nearby tent walked by asking to borrow a corkscrew. He was part of a tent hosting the annual wine and cheese social, set to begin in just a few minutes.

Knopf and Grasser headed over to the social, where charcuterie plates laid in wait. On the way, they rattled off the names of various barbecue big wigs in attendance: Travis Clark, of the number-one ranked Clark Crew; Johnny Trig of Smoking Triggers, a “legend” in his own right.

At the social, of course, was Don Will, another luminary of the barbecue world.

“Frisco really draws a lot of good cooks,” he remarked. “It’s not typical for a competition to draw a list of heavy-hitters like this.”

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