By the time the sun rises on Saturday, Timm Martin will have already been up cooking, the savory smell of pork wafting out of his family’s trailer in the early morning haze.
But it’s not a breakfast of bacon he’ll be preparing — it's two nine-pound pork butts and six racks of spare ribs, in addition to two 15-pound briskets and 14 chicken thighs.
Martin's culinary ambitions are bigger than breakfast; he, along with his wife, Crystal, and son Scott, are competing as the Trailhound Smokers in the Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour Championship in Bentonville, Ark., where they’ll go up against 50 others teams from across 30 states for serious bragging rights and a portion of a $500,000 prize purse. Competitors cook on a timed schedule, submitting chicken, ribs, pork and brisket to a panel of 48 Kansas City Barbeque Society certified judges, who will assess the offerings based on taste, tenderness and appearance.
“We’re just proud to have made it this far,” Martin, who works as director of customer service and warranty manager at Martin Harris Construction, says of being on one of two Las Vegas teams at the competition. Both groups — the other being the Sin City Smokers — competed against 150 other teams in April’s regional competition to advance to Saturday’s finals. “It means that a lot of hard work and a lot of money is finally starting to pay off.”
The Sam’s Club competition marks the team’s first national event and the highest stakes they’ve been up against since they began competitive barbecuing two years ago. Their underdog status — particularly next to veterans Sin City Smokers — only underscores a swift rise to success in the competitive barbecuing world, with 10 contests under their belt in 2012 alone and a national ranking of 360 out of about 6,000 teams by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
During a call on the road to Arkansas, Martin’s voice is pitched with nerves and excitement as he speaks with cautious optimism about Saturday’s competition. While nine of the teams they're competing against this weekend rank in the KCBS’ top 20, he notes that they've beaten four of them in previous competitions.
“My wife wants to take home a grand champion title, but I’d be happy just to have our name called once,” he says, adding that it took the Sin City Smokers seven years to earn a grand champion title. “But overall our goal is to finish in the top 25. This is our first time on this level, so that would be a huge success for me.”
After a long day of setup on Friday, the cooking gets under way at 1 a.m. Saturday, when the Trailhounds will the start the rub process for the ribs and pork butt; the next 11 hours involve a painstaking schedule of seasoning and cook times for the different meats so they’re hot and cooked to perfection for the strict noon deadline. Martin estimates they’ll get about three hours of sleep in the 24-hour period.
It may seem grueling — they don’t call it slow-cooking for nothing — but it’s a process that the team has practiced relentlessly during the past two years. Martin notes that they will test cook for up to eight weeks in a row before a competition to nail cook times and flavor profiles.
“The brisket and ribs are the real payoff, the ones that bring in the money,” he says.
And there will be leftovers: From over 50 pounds of meat, only a small fraction — like six ribs out of six racks — make it to the judges plates. Save for taste tests, the Martins themselves will pass on the barbecue, giving the rest to friends and food banks.
“We’ve cooked it and practiced so much that we don’t care much for barbecue anymore,” Martin says. “Our family tradition is that Saturday night after contests we eat Mexican. Along with a couple margaritas — they really help you sleep that night.”