NEW YORK - Fans and pundits can point to any number of factors driving PBR’s impressive growth since 20 bull riders broke away from the rodeo in 1992.
There are the daring, swaggering cowboys any young kid can look up to, courageously riding beautiful bucking bulls which get more powerful and athletic each year.
There are dedicated sponsors, venue and media partners, outstanding in-arena production, and creative marketing programs putting the sport in new places.
And then there’s the dirt.
PBR arenas are not filled with just any old dirt, with good reason.
The incomparable thrill of professional bull riding is to witness a night of seemingly endless 8 second bursts of mayhem. It starts with the world’s best bulls, frantically bucking with wild abandon, primal power, and awe-inspiring agility.
Without the right dirt, none of that happens.
Before every PBR event, an experienced team hauls in and creates the ultimate bull riding surface. The guru of the ground responsible for sourcing, loading, transporting, spreading, maintaining and picking up that dirt is Randy Spraggins, owner of Special T-Tracks, Inc., based in Akron, Ohio, and otherwise known as “The PBR Dirt Man.”
Spraggins has spent 32 years “putting dirt where it doesn’t belong” in arenas coast to coast for PBR as well as rodeo and motorsports events.
“In PBR, everything revolves around the performance to let the bull do his thing,” Spraggins said. “If the dirt is too soft or slick, the bulls will check-up and not buck as hard. It’s like walking an icy sidewalk. Your confidence level depends on your shoes. The bull is like that. He needs to be comfortable and confident to push, turn, jump and twist at the highest level.”
To ensure the bulls’ footing, PBR uses a sandy-clay mix. The best dirt is actually clean – free of debris, fresh and consistent.
Eight inches of the locally sourced material is spread across PBR arenas. The top two to three inches serves as a cushion, giving the bulls a feel for the surface as they push into the firmer base, and allowing the human athletes to walk away after smashing into the ground.
“You can’t have it too hard, because the cowboys get drilled into the ground,” Spraggins said. “There needs to be a little give in it.”
Spraggins has been around long enough to recognize good dirt by feel and smell. He’ll still use scientific tests to ensure the proper particle size – a distinct ratio of fine-versus-coarse grains.
“A good composite dirt mixture with different sized materials makes for better compaction and workability,” he explained. “If there’s too much clay, you blend in more sand.”
The dirt for PBR’s 2017 Built Ford Tough Series season opener on Friday night, The Monster Energy Buck Off at The Garden, will arrive on 33rd Street in midtown Manhattan late Thursday night.
Since the New York Rangers ice surface stays down for the entire hockey season, a team of carpenters first builds a subfloor comprised of 600 sheets of plywood dropped over the ice.
Bull riding’s playing field in Madison Square Garden – 750 tons of dirt – comes from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, on a massive convoy of 45 dump trucks. Once the trucks arrive at MSG, it takes about six hours to move the soil into the arena, dump it, and push it out evenly.
In a city of iconic skyscrapers, it is fitting this famous arena sits on the building’s fifth floor. At any time during the load in, three trucks are moving dirt piles up a spiraling ramp to the place where Ali fought Frazier, Willis Reed limped out to win an NBA championship, Marilyn sang happy birthday to JFK, and Pope Francis celebrated mass for 20,000 worshipers. Meanwhile, 13 more trucks are lined up downstairs on 33rd Street waiting their turn. It’s a well-choreographed dance timed to the minute.
(On Friday afternoon, the wild West meets the concrete jungle when PBR’s bovine athletes will storm up the same ramp in what’s known as the annual “running of the bulls.” The trip can take 45 seconds to a few minutes, depending on the mood of the bulls.)
With the dirt down, the crew spends the next four hours building bucking chutes, fencing and corrals. The steel that makes up the back pens and encircles the “world’s most famous arena” collectively weighs 130,000 pounds. If lined up straight, the livestock corral fencing would stretch a mile.
With the dirt in the arena, Spraggins oversees prepping, grooming, and maintaining the all-important surface.
If it’s too dry, he’ll add water. If it’s too sticky, he’ll cook out the moisture by adding hydrated lime.
“It’s like cooking in the kitchen. You deal with it when it’s in front of you,” Spraggins said. “PBR bucks the bulls for three events, and on Sunday night, we collect the dirt. We’re really renting – it all goes back for reprocessing. When we find good dirt, we want to keep it for future use. We’ve got PBR dirt stashed all over the country.”
The best material Spraggins has ever seen was in Bakersfield, California, from a carrot grower.
“When they washed the carrots, all the dirt went into a sediment pond – and then that dirt got dug and stacked up. It was super clean with the right consistency, the most awesome dirt you could ever imagine.”
While an abundance of good, clean, fresh dirt is hard to find in and around New York City, PBR’s soil savant gives New Jersey’s earth high marks.
When his team pulls up the plywood and plastic sheath below, just about every crumb will be caught, removed, and brought back across state lines.
“Good old-fashioned elbow grease: we take away what we bring,” Spraggins said.
After opening the season in New York, the Built Ford Tough Series will head to Chicago for another clockwork load in.
On the crowded island of Manhattan, five floors above a busy train station, what had been a bull riding mecca will be transformed back into a bright clean sheet of ice waiting for the New York Rangers return.
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