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John Quintana: Plane crash takes cowboy, cattleman

Rodeo lost a man who made a memorable mark in multiple cowboy careers when that Cessna 210 crashed in an open field just after take-off from Roma Airport in Western Queensland, Australia on March 25. John Quintana, the 1972 world champion bull rider who piloted the plane, was 65. His friend and noted livestock agent Charlie Maher, 48, also died instantly in the tragedy, which sent shockwaves through generations of rodeo and ranching people. The exact cause of the crash was still under investigation at press time. What’s not in question is Quintana’s ability to ride the rank ones, and his love of his chosen games — bull riding and the cattle business. 

Quintana, a six-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo bull rider who left home at 16 to chase down his dreams, twice raised the world bull riding record bar. His 94-point ride aboard Minick Rodeo Company’s V-61 in Gladewater, Texas, was the highest marked bull ride ever in 1971. That Gladewater bucking chute is on display today at Billy Bob’s Texas nightclub in Fort Worth. He then stuck it on Beutler Brothers and Cervi Rodeo’s No. 17 for 96 points in Las Vegas in 1974, a ride that remained the record for three years until eight-time Champ of the World Donnie Gay rode Rodeo Stock Contractors Inc.’s Oscar for 97 at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1977.

“In every generation there are about six guys who show up to an event, and of that six guys at least two of them are going to get some of the money that day, just because they’re better than everyone else,” said Hall of Famer Gay, who rode bulls at 13 NFRs. “In that era, Quintana was in that six. John was a guy who used some of that Gary Leffew positive thinking and took it to another level. When he rode V-61 at Gladewater in 1971 and was 94 points, he believed there wasn’t anything that could buck him off — Cervi’s J-16, Big Bend’s White Lightning — he rode all the good ones of the day. 

“John might fall off of a bull he should ride with his eyes closed, mainly because he wasn’t focused. One of his famous quotes that he told Bill Kornell was, ‘The only reason that bull hasn’t been ridden is because I haven’t drawn him yet.’ He had that attitude. Quintana was quiet and never really said much. He let actions speak louder than words.”

Quintana and Gay are two of the cowboy sport’s most renowned cowboy pilots. “John was already rodeoing when I got out of high school in 1972, the year he won the world,” Gay said. “I’d been in a couple of airplanes with Jim Shoulders when I was little, and flew to five or six rodeos with Larry Mahan when I was in high school, because I couldn’t miss any school. That’s when I got the flying bug. One of the first plane rides I went on to a rodeo when I got out of high school when I was really on the trail was with Quintana and Leffew. Quintana had a Cessna 182, and we went to a rodeo in Oregon. The only thing I liked doing besides riding bulls was flying airplanes.

“The 1968 world champion (George Paul) died in a plane crash. My hero Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. Now Quintana. Flying is every bit as dangerous as bull riding. There aren’t that many fatalities, but one’s too many, just like in bull riding.”

This bunch of bull riders tended toward nicknames. ProRodeo Hall of Famer and Wrangler NFR General Manager Shawn Davis stuck “Dinaldo and Pedro” on Donnie and his brother Pete. They called Quintana “Frankenstein,” because of all the hard-earned scars on his face. Then there was “Stinky,” which Leffew was dubbed for sharing traits with French cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. Leffew was the 1970 world champion bull rider, and the seven-time NFR bull rider traveled extensively with Quintana throughout their rodeo careers.

“We were best friends from hello,” Leffew said. “I met John at the State Fair Rodeo in Sacramento, and we just hit it off. We thought alike. We both had big dreams. We shared ideas. We studied bulls. We knew what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. We were kindred spirits.

“John developed into one of the greatest rank bull riders of all time. There are bull riders and then there are those who can get those unrideable bulls ridden. Not only did he ride V-61, but he rode everybody’s rank bulls. If he didn’t have a bull to win first on, he didn’t care about second or third. He was one of the greatest ever, because he had the ability to ride those double rank bulls.”

Leffew is famous for his positive outlook on life, and watched while Quintana transitioned from one career to the next with grand gusto. Quintana moved to Australia in the 1980s to build a cattle empire. At one time he owned both the Killarney and Waterloo Stations totaling 2.5 million acres in the Northern Territory, and ran 80,000 head of cattle. 

“John thought big,” Leffew said. “He loved the game. He loved the challenge. That’s why he didn’t go to rodeos sometimes unless he had the bull to win it on. What he did down there in Australia was just amazing. At one time he was shipping 70,000 head of cattle a month from Australia to Malaysia and Indonesia. I went down and spent some time with him last summer. We laughed and told stories and had so much fun. I was looking so forward to going back and seeing him again this year. John Quintana lived the magic of thinking big. And he never wore his gold buckle, because his motto was, ‘Don’t look back on what you’ve done, look forward to what you’re gonna do.’ ”

Leffew says today’s bull riders owe Quintana a debt of gratitude. “He is the single reason we have the watch today,” Leffew said. “At Cheyenne one year in the late ’70s, they shot a gun off at eight seconds. John drew Big Bend’s Little Custer, rode him 10 seconds and jumped off. The guy with the gun got so into the hype of this great champion riding the unrideable bull that the gun didn’t go off until about 15 seconds. John didn’t get a score. Bryan McDonald was the bull riding director, and he started the rule where the judge’s watch is the final word over the whistle. Bull riders have John Quintana to thank for that. He changed the history of the game for the better.”

Back in the day, Doug Brown answered to “Droopy,” also courtesy of Davis. The 1969 world champion bull rider, who made 12 NFR appearances — five in bull riding and seven in the saddle bronc riding — rodeoed with Quintana for close to 20 years. 

“Johnny was one of those guys who wouldn’t be denied,” Brown said. “He set his goals, decided what he wanted and nothing was going to get in his way. He was very persistent, and probably rode as many rank bulls as any bull rider I’ve known. His ride on V-61 is one of the best rides I’ve ever seen, and I remember him saying he wasn’t all that rank. He didn’t brag about it, it was just one of the little hills before the mountain he had to climb. Johnny didn’t let anything get in his way. He’d go over it, under it or around it. John was a good guy with a great sense of humor, and he didn’t sit on his gold buckle. He was working on the next thing all the time.”

Besides his bull riding buddies and fellow cattlemen, John Quintana is survived by his grown children, whom he had with first wife and Western Wishes Founder Donnalyn Quintana. Son J.J., who was born five weeks before John won his gold buckle in 1972, and his wife, Amy, have two kids, Kelly, 11, and Will, 9; daughter Lee and her husband, Robert Leach, have one son, Grant, 3. Quintana had two daughters with his wife Mary. Ali is 15, and Anna is 12.

“John loved flying airplanes and being a cowboy,” Gay said. “He’s not here now, but the memories will always be here, until we take that ride. I respected him very much. When I showed up on the scene, he was doing what I wanted to do, and subsequently got to do — he got the airplane, the pilot’s license and the gold buckle.” 
 
 
 
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