by Dana ‘Big Papa’ Hillis

For years, Janet and I took a yearly trip to Las Vegas to unwind, hang out and watch the PBR cowboys take on the big, bad bulls. Janet doesn’t let her hair down too often, and since we started competition BBQ in 2007, we have not been back to Vegas.

Well, she finally put her foot down and said we were going back to her stomping grounds this year, so I found a way to keep the peace. It just so happened that the “USA BBQ CHAMPIONSHIP” was being held at the Orleans casino!

Now we had to figure out how to pull this trip off. With our “booming” economy – and us being in the construction business – we needed some creative financial help. Then we had to deal with how do to get a cooker and everything else we need to the competition?

Janet used Mapquest to find out the trip was 2,700 miles, which meant driving was out of the question. It would have meant $3,000 in diesel fuel, half a dozen flat tires and some kind of truck problems I’m sure.

Janet started chasing some sponsors, and we found out we have some great friends and supporters. We got a lot of our costs paid for, including entry fees, airline tickets, motel rooms and some various other things.

Rooster and Lisa from Florida Skin and Bones were heading west and had room to take a cooler full of items and a pop-up. We ordered brisket to be delivered to us in Vegas and decided we could buy chicken and pork butts at a local Sam’s Club and grocery store.

(story continued below)




• 6 (21/25 count) shrimp

• 2 sticks of Whirl butter

• Big Papa’s All-Purpose Rub

• Big Papa’s Garlic and Onion Hot BBQ sauce

Cooking Instructions:

Place six (21/25 count) shrimp per skewer.

Lay in pan with 2 sticks of butter (Whirl works well).

Season one side of shrimp heavily with Big Papa’s All-Purpose Rub.

Cook at 300 degrees for 12-15 minutes. Do not overcook – look for color change! Pull out and lay on grill for 2-3 minutes.

Serve with Big Papa’s Garlic and Onion Hot BBQ sauce.

(story continued from above)

But, what were we going to do about ribs? Oink to Tail BBQ called and said he would help. Mark went to Food Supply in South Daytona and picked us up a case of our favorite ribs and met me in Ocala to deliver them. We packed our ribs frozen in a suitcase, along with a rib rack, sauces, rubs, injections and every other thing we thought we might need. We were packed so tight we could not fit another pair of socks in our luggage.

At the last minute, the deal we had made to provide a cooker fell through and we were in full panic mode. How were we going to cook? Then we got a call from “Fast Eddy” – the famous BBQ guy who invented the Fast Eddy cookers we use – who said, “Don’t worry. I am shipping you a cooker to a friend in Vegas who will deliver it to you.” What a relief!

We arrived in Vegas – along with all of our luggage – and were off to a good start. As we checked into the Orleans, and heard the bells and jingles of the slot machines, the good-time feeling of being in our favorite party town started to take over. We called our Vegas contact, Mr. Lucas Hand, who had our cooker and everything else we could possibly need. Lucas is a third-generation desert racer, and a BBQ event is very similar to what he has done almost every weekend of his life. If I ever quit BBQ’ing, I’m going racing with him.

We set up in the parking lot of the Orleans, along with over 100 other teams. The promoters did a good job putting the event together. Hooters had a stand giving away chicken wings (a big hit) and a basketball game in which I won an owl for making 7 baskets in 10 seconds. We hoped our good luck streak had begun.


TIME TO COOK – We got set up and fired up our loaner Fast Eddy, then prepped all our stuff and saw we had nice chicken, good ribs and awesome pork and brisket. The grill acted up several times during the night, putting me in panic mode that I wouldn’t get my stuff done on time, so I spent the entire night sitting in front of my cooker before finally getting settled down.

Lucas was my sidekick all night and is now an BBQ addict. We had an absolutely great time telling BBQ and race stories all night.

This was a Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS) event, so turn-ins were every half hour, and lovely parsley or lettuce are used as a garnish. Our chicken was right on schedule, and the box turned out awesome. Our ribs came off the grill, and we sliced and separated them into two rows in the pan. One row was big, thick and very tender.

I considered turning them in, but knowing this was not the FBA, I went with the row that was a hair more KCBS-style. They looked perfect. Pork came out good, but Janet thought it was a little overdone.

The brisket was identical to what we won with the week before, so we felt pretty good about our turn-ins.

TIME TO WAIT – Once we were done, all there was to do was pace and wait for the awards. We got our site cleaned up and enjoyed a few cold beverages. One of our sponsors from New York (Gary Pino from Rosario Pino’s Fine Foods) hung with us the whole day and enjoyed going through the entire box-building process (especially sampling the leftovers).

We headed down to the stage for awards and found out we ended up in 5th place out of over 60 entries in the Sauce Contest. Not too bad!

They called winners in chicken, starting with 50th place. In an event like this, you just hope you get your name called. We were getting really nervous when they got down to the top 5 and we hadn’t been called. Then we heard “5th place was Big Papa’s!” Janet ran to the table to get the check, but they said, “Oh sorry, 5th place was Big Poppa Smokers, not Big Papa’s Country Kitchen.”

The disappointment and embarrassment was short-lived when Big Papa’s Country Kitchen was called out in 2nd! It turned out we tied for 1st, but lost in a tiebreaker!

They began calling ribs. When they got to the top 10 we were so nervous. When they called out 2nd place, we were sure we had finished in the bottom 50. There was no way could we be number one, but when they called out that Big Papa’s won 1st in ribs it was a shocker!

We had our photo taken on stage, got a trophy and a huge banner from the sponsor that says, “BEST RIBS IN AMERICA!”

TIME TO CELEBRATE – We ended up 63rd in pork and 64th in brisket, taking 8th place overall, but no one was more thrilled than us. It was really cool to come to Vegas without our trailer and walk away with “Best Ribs in America,” despite feeling like we were missing something the whole time.

We were able to celebrate with our new friends and fellow teams from Florida (Whiskey Bent had several calls and finished 18th overall, and Rooster and Lisa sold more food than anyone).

Janet shook for two days. This will always be one of my biggest BBQ thrills. To Ronnie Cates and family: Thanks for your hard work. To all my friends in the FBA, we have something special with our BBQ organization. Any of our experienced teams can cook with the top teams in the country, and we blow the rest of them away with our friendly outlook and support of each other. Thanks to all my friends and everyone that helped make this trip possible!

Bless our troops, and I will miss you, Pop.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published