“We never realized it was going to blossom to this size. It’s unbelievable,” Ascuaga said Monday after the closing award ceremony. “You can’t put your finger on one thing in particular because it took the whole community, the city of Sparks, all the sponsors and the staff of The Nugget coming together to make this event.”
The success of the event has been noted by event programmers, cooks and patrons throughout the week as being one of the largest crowds in history. Ascuaga said this year was “the best success so far” and that it proves The Nugget’s staff possesses a unique teamwork ability.
“I don’t even have to say anything, just look at the event and how successful it is and you know it is because of our teamwork,” he said. “I am looking forward to a 25th because it puts everyone in a good mood, especially me because I eat so many ribs.”
Local pit master Jay Rathmann, 38, of BJ’s Barbecue in Sparks, said the crowds this year have been unlike any he has seen before. Rathmann, who has been working the Best in the West since age 17, said he was amazed by the amount of people who came out during the weekend.
“Saturday night we could not get food cooked fast enough,” he said. “We were just slammed as far back as I could see. I have never seen that many people down here at one time. When the sun went down we went non-stop until they closed everything down.”
The Nugget Rib Cook-off came to a close Monday as the winner of the Best Ribs, Best Sauce and People’s Choice were announced from the West stage on Victorian Avenue.
An illegible final ticket number was all that stood between Tom Ferguson and the elusive 1st place crown. Waiting to hear a correction from “505” to “504” may have been the longest three seconds of his life.
“Feed your face!” was all that could be read on Ferguson’s T-shirt Monday as he leaned in to hug Stephen Ascuaga and accept his $7,500 prize for Best Ribs. Ferguson and the Chicago BBQ Company team have collected three 2nd place and two 3rd place prizes in the past 13 years, to go along with a 4th and 5th place prize.
“We finished second place last year and all the places around that but never first, and this is just a real joy for us,” Ferguson said. “When they said 504 I didn’t think they had my number.”
Chicago BBQ Company was what Stephen Ascuaga called an “original cooker,” a pit master who set up shop on the original B Street location in 1988 during the inaugural Best in the West.
“This feels like my baby. We came here in 1988 for the first time and there was only seven of us,” Ferguson said. “Now, there’s 24 of the best (cookers) in the country and this is the largest rib cook-off in the country.”
The $3,000 2nd place prize went to Dave “sweet baby” Raymond of Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ, a newcomer to the event competing in his first Best in the West. Robert Stately of Famous Dave’s BBQ took home 3rd place in the rib competition, winning his first award as rib team manager.
“I am very proud of my team. People don’t understand how much work my team puts in,” Stately said. “I have a great amount of respect for the people that work with me and come out here every morning at six or seven in the morning and get after it.”
Stately was the only crew chief to take home multiple pieces of hardware, winning the Best Sauce category as well, and collecting a $2,500 purse for the competition. Stately noted that his position on Victorian Avenue was “pretty far removed from the casino area,” but it did not prove to be a disadvantage for him.
Fourth and 5th place went to Porky-N-Beans BBQ of Port St. Lucie, Fla. and Checkered Pig BBQ of Westmont, Va., respectively. The People’s Choice award, which comes with a year’s worth of bragging rights, went to Back Forty Texas BBQ, which won Best Ribs in the 2011 competition.