Lifestyle

Talking Dirt: The Lowdown on Transforming Arenas into Bull Riding Venues

What do the actors of “The Gracias Christmas Cantata” and R&B songstress Fantasia Barrino have in common with professional bull rider Ezekiel Mitchell? Very little, except each will have wowed crowds at the Fairfax EagleBank Arena in Virginia in coming weeks.

The transformation of the arena from the Cantata’s theater stage or Barrino’s concert hall into a little slice of cowboy heaven makes for no easy task, though. It involves shifting $55 million in assets — along with 700 tons of dirt.

James White, production manager for Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR), kicks off the two-day transformation at EagleBank Arena Thursday for the Unleash the Beast Invitational, when the first set of rigs move in with plywood to protect the arena floors.

“We’ll start putting down plywood around 4 p.m., then 8 o’clock the next morning we start unloading audio, video, lighting, medical cases, cases of cabling, just about anything you can name that we will need in about two hours,” White said. “And we will have the lighting, and everything related to production that goes up into the sky in about four-and-a-half hours.”

PBR production manager James White evens the playing field for men and bulls. (Courtesy of PBR)

By 10 a.m. the next day, the dirt arrives, and the real grafting begins.

“We transfer 700 tons of dirt into the arena in about five hours and then it’s time for the arena crew to come in and start unloading and setting up all of the steel — bucking shoots, back pens, arena fencing — and will finish about 11 o’clock that night,” he said.

Like the roadway of a racetrack, those tons of dirt White mentioned, require meticulous and precise examination to ensure the safety of both riders and bulls.

“If the dirt is really hard, the bull has the advantage because he gets great traction and he bucks like a madman,” explained White, who has spent 15 years managing PBR productions. “However, if the dirt is too loose the cowboy has the advantage because when the bull goes to buck he doesn’t have stable footing and is not sure of himself when he comes out of that shoot. It must complement the cowboy and the bull so that neither has an unfair advantage over the other. And it’s a science, let me tell you!”

The PBR’s dirt guy has to get the chemical and structural basis of the dirt analyzed. If it’s too sandy, he adds clay, and sometimes a biodegradable, eco-friendly mixture is incorporated to help bind the dirt together, White said. Usually, the dirt is good by the time it arrives, unless rain or moisture require the dirt to be dried out.

White told The Informer that normal venues for professional bull riding competitions are basketball or hockey arenas, but on occasion, venues are smaller (like EagleBank) or bigger, like the AT&T Stadium in Dallas, which required 300,000 tons of dirt to cover that entire football field with 12 inches of dirt.

The moving parts of any production demand precise assembly — and with men going up against opponents with names like Smooth Wreck and SweetPro’s Bruiser, the team behind the production prove invaluable.

“You’re only as good as the crew that’s underneath you and I believe we have the best in the world,” White said. “I’d put them up against anybody, because ‘no’ is not in our vocabulary. They go until they can’t go anymore, and we’ve never had a failure in 15 years.”

The PBR Unleash the Beast Invitational takes place Sept. 21-22. For more information, go to www.pbr.com.

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