FANS begin to trickle through the gates as the announcer tests his mike and the fiddler and guitarist in the musicians' box pick stray notes. Behind the whitewashed chutes in a sea of Stetsons, the cowboys are warming up, tight smiles and continuous pacing betraying any attempts at calmness. They rub hot rosin on their rawhide gloves, warm and stretch their saddles, rope the air with their lariats.

Moments later, when the broncs are in place, a cowboy with a look of grim determination eases himself onto a horse and nods. The chute is opened and at that point only the next eight seconds matter.

The scene could be in Texas, Wyoming or ona studio lot at Paramount, but it isn't. This is the capital of industrial America -- New Jersey. Cowtown, N.J., to be exact, where a 40-foot replica of a cowboy, complete with white hat and star, stands beside Rt. 40 about eight miles from the Delaware Memorial Bridge to announce a bit of the Wild West just 2 1/2 hours from downtown Washington.

This is no nostalgic theme park, however, but the home of the only continuous rodeo operating east of Mesquite, Texas. Located in the lushest agricultural county of the Garden State -- a state where, for the most part, the aroma of industrial waste is more prevalent than the aroma of livestock pens and where most bronc busting is done behind the wheel of a Mustang on the seemingly endless network of freeways -- the Cowtown Rodeo ropes in some 4,000 fans every Saturday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

It has been the place to go for authentic rodeo on the East Coast since it was established in 1955 by Howard Harris III, a stock contractor by profession (you've seen his animals on television's "McCloud" and in the Barbara Streisand movie "For Pete's Sake") whose heart belongs to the rodeo. Harris supplies much of the stock to the northeastern rodeo circuit which moves from town to town all summer long. He used to bring Washingtonians a rodeo each spring at the Capital Centre, but it just didn't draw the crowds.

But come as crowds to Cowtown they do, a loyal group of rodeo fans from up and down the Eastern Seaboard who return again and again. "Sure, we get bus trips and tourists, but for the most part the people who come to the rodeo really love it, and they come week after week. Those people driving by on their way to Atlantic City don't stop here, they're not looking for a rodeo," Harris says, chuckling beneath an 8-foot rack of longhorns on the wall of the Cowtown Steakhouse.

What sets rodeo apart from other sports and keeps the fans coming back is its unpredictability. While the cowboy faces disqualification if he breaks the rules of his event, the bulls, broncs, steers and calves are not subject to rules. Bucking, whirling, snorting and charging, they make up the rules as they go along, ensuring that the only predictable thing about the rodeo is that the cowboys lay life and limb on the line every time the chute opens.

Bull-rider, bronc-buster and steer-wrestler Andy Harris, son of owner Howard, says, "I plan to keep riding as long as my body permits. But I'm going to quit before it falls apart. Your body can only take just so many bumps and bruises."

Those who take the bumps and bruises (and sometimes more serious injuries) and the hands who assist them around the arena are a hodgepodge of para-professional cowboys. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] few cowboys actually work on ranches today (particularly in New Jersey), many have other careers and live dangerously only on weekends. Cowtown announcer Micky Ostrum is an obstetrician/gynecologist, and one of the hands is the foreman at a southern New Jersey nuclear power plant. Several of the cowboys are employed by the Harris family in other capacities during the week, but few Cowtown cowboys make their living rodeoing full time. To be a full-time rodeo cowboy in the East is a discouraging life for those who don't go west for at least part of the season to compete for the big-money prizes.

The prize money in the East is pitifully small compared to Western stakes. The Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association (P.R.C.A.) sanctions most of the rodeos throughout the country and almost all competitors are either members or permit holders. The association awards points to each first-through fourth-place winner in each rodeo event at every sanctioned rodeo, with the top 15 cowboys in each event qualifying for the national finals held in Oklahoma City each December. The point system is based upon the winnings, one point for one dollar won. For the Eastern cowboy, the money, and the points which follow, just aren't there: For his $30 entry fee at Cowtown, the competitor stands to win as much as $350 on an exceptionally good night.

The situation is much the same for barrel racers, members of the Girls' Rodeo Association. Larraine Alexander, "Cowtown's Winningest Cowgirl," who missed going to the national finals last year by $100 in prize money, knows that this year she must "go out West for a while to try to win some money if I want to get to the finals," adding, "Sometimes it's hard getting on down the road."

Three who did get on down the road were the Kirby brothers, the first three brothers to compete together in the national finals (the World Series of rodeos). Raised in the area and trained at Cowtown, the Kirbys -- Butch, Sandy (now residents of Greenville, Tex.) and Kaye (now dead) -- were Cowtown's favorite sons.

But each rodeo brings new cowboys from around the country, some who come just once in hopes of setting the place on fire. Like the five sailor/cowboys from the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower docked at Norfolk, who drove a total of 10 hours for less than 10 seconds of bronc and bull-riding apiece. Natives of Texas, Kansas and Arizona who had learned to rodeo on Western stock, they couldn't bust the beasts at Cowtown.

Even the regulars have their ups and downs, so to speak. One Saturday in July, Willie Ed Walker bucked off a bareback bronc onto the fence. He had it made until the horse reared up and kicked him in the shoulders. In the stoic cowboy tradition, Walker left the arena unassisted and came back to win the next event, steer-wrestling, in a crisp 6.4 seconds.

If the Cowtown cowboys are tough, the stock is even tougher. Competitors and fans alike boast of the quality of the Harris stock.[WORD ILLEGIBLE] himself travels all over the country picking choice bucking animals to keep his 1,500 acres full of broncs and bulls with bad dispositions, breeding bad animals with even badder ones to get hellacious stock. Friend and neighbor Ed Holton, pointing out a seemingly pastoral scene of about a hundred cows grazing with their calves, says, "See those cows? They're so mean that Howard hasn't been able to get anywhere near any of the calves yet."

Larry Mahan, six-time All-Around Cowboy of the Year and rodeo star extraordinaire who has been on Cowtown stock at the Capital Centre, Madison Square Garden and at the national finals, commends Howard Harris as "one of the best producers in the rodeo business. He's concerned about all parts of the game -- the spectators and the cowboys. His stock is tough. I've ridden quite a few and bucked off quite a few."

That very tough stock is composed of mature, healthy bulls and broncs who spend their days grazing on the rolling green hills around Cowtown. Since most rides last no longer than eight seconds, and since the animals are not used week after week, the average Cowtown animal works a total of about one minute a year.

Tough stock, tough cowboys, and only a few more chances (one weekend before Labor Day and the Circuit Finals for the East Coast on Sept. 15, 16, 17) this year to relive all those fantasies engendered by a steady diet of TV westerns in the '50s, the likes of "Maverick," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza." Just put on your jeans (no French ones allowed), tuck a pouch of Beech-nut in your right rear pocket, step into your pointy-toed boots and get on down the road to Cowtown, N.J., the First Frontier.