This is the time of year competitors get antsy. The holidays have come and gone and you’ve begun thinking about the competition schedule for next year. Where do you begin? How do you choose where to go? How many should you do? Nobody can answer most of the questions you ask yourself except yourself. But some tidbits of advice are in order.

1) A COST BUDGET.
Yes make yourself a budget. Alright, this isn’t an absolutely necessary requirement, but it does help to understand how much you and/or your family are willing to afford on this pastime. It’s essential when determining how to split costs with partners. Some folks choose not to because they have the financial wherewithal to do anything, or they take serious issue with having to budget for a hobby or pastime. I know for me, starting out with a budget helps to thwart disappointment in not being able to do this every week.

Competitions are expensive, from entry fees, to meat, to fuel costs, to lodging, to all the spices, rubs, sauces, etc. And that’s just some of the recurring costs of each contest. If you were very diligent about budgeting, you’d include the start up costs of smokers, and canopies, and coolers, and tables, and…I think you get the picture. Honestly, after the first contest, I didn’t bother to track those one-time costs anymore.

Get used to operating in the red. Competition cooking isn’t a money making venture. There’s some cash to be won, and if you’ve done your homework, and practiced, you might even be able to take some home. But it’s best not to get into this game assuming you can be self supportive with your earnings.

2) A TIME BUDGET
Get out a calendar and look at what constraints you have on your time. Every competitor has the good fortune of being able to dedicate as much time to this hobby as is available to them. Some get to dedicate more than others. Most of us have too many balls in the air just juggling the work/family responsibilities. Add into that already tight schedule several weekends dedicated to cooking, and all of a sudden time becomes a bigger constraint than money. But that’s ok. Taking the time early on to set your own and your team’s expectations of how much you’re going dedicate to competition BBQ will result in a much more fulfilling experience each time you venture out. For instance, there are about 12 – 14 contests that I would love to participate in (not including the Royal and Jack). But after factoring in family vacations, get togethers, dance recitals, birthday parties, work travel schedules, school events, house maintenance, etc; it becomes pretty obvious that I’m not making it to that many. Does that make me a less dedicated person to BBQ? Maybe in the minds of some, but in the end, it’s my mind that has to rest easy. And at the 6 or so contests that I do get to attend, I get to dedicate all my energy towards prepping, cooking and serving the best BBQ I can.

3) DISTANCE
Really this is related to time more than anything else. The further away a competition, the more time consuming it becomes. Determine what your limits to driving distance might be. Is 3 hours you maximum tolerance, or are you willing to drive 6 hours for a competition? When first starting out, most newbies probably keep that driving distance on the small side. As your scores improve and as you meet some success, it’s easier to justify longer drives.

Something else to consider when mapping out a schedule is the journey itself. Some contests are held in remote hovels of Americana. One of the biggest rewards I get out of competition cooking is making the trek to some of these locations. For me it’s an escape from the urban rituals. In some cases, it involves a significant departure from the main highways, enabling me to take a snapshot of rural America that isn’t afforded me on a daily basis. Some competitors already have that I’m sure, but for me; I always look forward to the journey.

4) PAYOUT
Maybe eventually this becomes more important, but especially for newbies; don’t get caught up in seeking high pay out contests. Sometimes it works out that the nearest and best sized contest is the best payout, sometimes it doesn’t. Honestly, so far, I haven’t considered payout in any of the contests I’ve attended. Guess that still reaffirms my distinction as a Newbie.

5) PRESTIGE
Aright, bragging rights. Yes, lets all admit it, one of the main drivers for all of us competing in the first place to have the elusive bragging rights that you did this or that at a competition. And some contests have more prestige thus carrying more bragging rights than others. I will also suggest that this should be as far from a newbie cook’s mind as possible. Remember, if the contest has a reputation as a “great” contest, there’s a good chance that many of the best teams and cooks will be there, after all that’s what makes it great. And great equals tough. Its tough not only for the newbie cooks, but also for everyone participating in that contest. I’m not suggesting that just because a contest has a phenomenal reputation to pass it up. Ask yourself what are expectations from attending this contest and if your satisfied that it will be a good experience, do it by all means.

6) RESEARCH
Finally, do a little background digging about a contest you might be interested in. Post a message on the Forum inquiring about a contest, there’s tons of advice to be had. Ask fellow competitors at a contest which ones are their favorites. Another good way to assess a contest is to become a judge, and judge at those contests. I did this for some of the contests that were a little further away than my initial comfort zone. Having judged there and assessed the venue, and the atmosphere, I can better determine whether I want to go through the trouble of transporting all the equipment the longer distance to compete. One contest is getting added to my schedule this year because I did just that.

So get your maps out, your spreadsheets ready, clean up those smokers and start getting motivated. Hope to see you out there soon.