Tailgaters by the thousands party before Tampa's Country Throwdown Tour

Alyssa Dreger, 18, and Nick Milillo, 19, check burgers while John Homzak, 21, plays a game at the Country Throwdown on Friday in Tampa.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

Alyssa Dreger, 18, and Nick Milillo, 19, check burgers while John Homzak, 21, plays a game at the Country Throwdown on Friday in Tampa.

TAMPA — A dozen people stood on opposite sides at the back of a pickup with an inflatable beer pong table laid between them. One by one, they took turns tossing pingpong balls into cups, forcing their opponents to drink.

"The beer is a tool," explained Curtis Ritchie IV, 33, one of the players. "It's more of a relaxer. Everybody wants a release."

Ritchie was one of thousands of country music lovers and daytime partiers who braved the 90 degree temperatures Friday afternoon outside the Ford Amphitheatre for a tailgate party before the night's Country Throwdown concert.

Most came for the music. But many turned out for the various country-themed festivities that preceded the concert in the amphitheater's grassy parking lot.

Even before the event's official 1 p.m. start time, the lot filled with people who drank beer in the backs of trucks while sound systems blared the songs of Montgomery Gentry and the concert's other headlining artists.

Ritchie, a corporate sales rep with Pepsi, drove 45 miles Friday morning from his home in Orlando to attend the event with his girlfriend, Tanya Estes, who got two tickets for her birthday in April.

"I probably would not have bought the tickets myself, since I wasn't big on some of the featured bands," said Estes, who works as a bartender and waitress in Orlando. "But I work hard to party hard. So as soon as I got the tickets I said, 'Hey, I'm going to a concert, I'm taking the day off, see ya.' "

On the other side of the lot, a group of shirtless partiers sipped from cans of cold Bud Light between rounds of a game dubbed redneck golf. Also known as ladder toss, the game had players tossing two golf balls connected by a string toward a three-step ladder, with the goal of making the string wrap around one of the three steps.

On the sideline, Josh Gayle, 24, and his friend Mark Caulfield, 24, of Melbourne sipped their beers while watching the game go down.

"We're here for Jamey Johnson. He's the man," Gayle said. "And we're here for all the pretty girls."

Gayle and Caulfield were among a group of about 20 friends who drove nearly 150 miles from Melbourne to see the show after hearing about it on the radio.

The two booked a room at a hotel across from the amphitheater with plans to party all of Friday and today.

"You can tell from the love bugs on people's cars how far some of them came," Caulfield said.

For Dan Snyder, a steelworker who also traveled with the Melbourne group, there were a few simple reasons for attending the event:

"A good time, pretty women, short shorts and cowboy boots."

Dan Sullivan can be reached at dsullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3321.

fast facts

Coming Sunday

Times pop music critic Sean Daly reviews the Country Throwdown Tour. Look for it on Page 2B.

Tailgaters by the thousands party before Tampa's Country Throwdown Tour 05/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 10:38am]

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