A talk with the man with the hottest line in the business
Towering over the banks of the river Cumberland and opposite the downtown party setting of Nashville the Nissan Stadium is cavernous and imposing. The two sides of the 69,000 open capacity facility – home to the NFL team the Tennessee Titans – is welcoming Monster Energy Supercross for the very first time and there is a small army of staff and people roaming the track, busy in the stands and working in the bowels of the venue.
We’re sitting with Supercross Director of Operations Dave Prater in a row of the new and spacious seating sections to talk about how Supercross is built and ferried across the breadth of the United States. The two enormous LCD screens at either end of the stadium have been playing video clips and adverts and someone suddenly cranks up the PA address system to ear-splitting levels.
Prater rolls his eyes, smiles and pulls a phone out of his pocket. A few shouted words later and the entire stadium is again silent except for the distant buzz of the people preparing for the fourteenth round of nineteen. Proof, if ever it was needed, that Prater is the one that calls the shots on the second most popular motorcycle racing series in the world. Dave has worked for the powers-that-be (currently Feld Inc) in Supercross for almost two decades and in recent years has overseen advances in the show that have included expansive live TV coverage, new cities like Nashville on the slate, transmission of real-time biometric data of the athletes onto the broadcast and a modernised night show in terms of pyrotechnics.
We wanted to ask about the construction and ‘face’ of Monster Energy Supercross heading towards the third decade of the millennium, and have twenty precious minutes with the extremely busy but very amiable Floridian. Now that the entire Nissan Stadium has been handed over to our interview, time to hit ‘record’…
Operationally how has Supercross changed in the last ten years?
I think the size of it. If you look back ten years, or even nineteen when I first started, we had three tractor-trailers and now we have seventeen. We have grown quite a bit! I think we have compartmentalised the operations quite well from our department and the routing and tours [dept] which are on the road right now doing the deals for 2020 and 2021 schedule with the stadiums and different venues around the country. Operationally the team almost have an event set-up down to a ‘science’. It hasn’t really changed much in terms of bringing the dirt in, building the track and setting up the structures and it just comes down to the scope: the dimensions of the podium, the LED boards that we have on the track. There is a lot more to think about in terms of timing because we used to get into the stadium, build the track and then the structures went on top of it. Now the finish line structure has to go in before the lane is built. It is cadence of things and how they go together.
Are margins tighter in terms of getting in and out of the stadiums?
That’s one of the greatest differences compared, to say, even two years ago! I was just having this conversation yesterday actually and in the past we’d call a place like CenturyLink Field in Seattle and say ‘we want to race there in 2020’ and they’d say ‘great, tell us what weekend’ and more than likely they’d have our choice open. Now we need to get further and further ahead of the game because stadiums are almost like arenas when they’ll have something almost every weekend and will rarely be ‘dark’. It has been a challenge because our goal is to make a five-year plan where we have at least the base of the schedule – if not the entire one – fairly solidified five years in advance. Atlanta and Minneapolis both said to us last year ‘hey guys, we only have two dates in the first quarter available…’ so it means you are locked into those dates and you have to work the schedule around it and hope that other venues have other dates available. That wasn’t the case ten years ago.
Take us through a typical deal and set-up process. Somewhere like Nashville is new, so what’s the story?
We’ve been talking to Nashville for a few years now. We had a relationship with the stadium through Monster Jam. I’d say we already had half the dirt and we knew we could source more through the same company. Our supercross staff came and witnessed the Monster Jam operation and walked through it with the stadium and for the last two years the event manager at the Nissan Stadium came to Indianapolis and lived it with us so that they’d know what to expect. Any time you go to a new venue that has never brought dirt inside that they can be like ‘whoahhh! how much dirt are you going to bring into our beautiful place?!’ Once they get to know us and ‘lived’ another event through the entire process then they realise that it is our goal to leave their stadium even cleaner than how we found it. It’s usually fairly turnkey and then using different security because it might be different fan loads. So in Nashville we worked through that all week and we’ll continue doing so right up until the show. Once you have a year under your belt at a new stadium then it is pretty turnkey.
So what happens then?
We get the keys to the stadium on Monday and we started by laying plywood to protect the field at around 8am. We lay 6800 sheets of double layer plywood and then at 8am on Tuesday we start coming in with the first trucks of dirt. We’ll have most of the dirt imported by early Wednesday but as they continue to import the Dirt Wurx [Track Builders] staff begin to build from the outside in, so they’ll do the outer lanes as we are still trucking into the middle. We built the track quickly here to beat the weather, covered it and thankfully it looks clear now all the way through to Sunday so we’ll continue to work on it. On a typical week the track will be completed by Friday at noon at the latest. It is about a three and a half day build.
How much staff do you need to do that?
There is a core team of 23 people that go from city to city. So those 23 will arrive Monday morning and then it just grows throughout. On Wednesday another 15 show up. On Thursday the majority will be here so that means television and other operations staff so we’re probably up to 70 by then. Saturday means all-in, so about 175 with operations, AMA and FIM officials and television staff.
You must be a man that appreciates a good roof…
I love roofs! It’s interesting actually that there are not that many stadiums in the States that have roofs. I believe there are only 11 at the moment. As long as we are racing seventeen times – and we are not going back to the same venue multiple times, which isn’t in the plan – then we’ll have to deal with the elements at some. It is definitely not something we enjoy but sometimes it adds another wrinkle to the racing and can make it more interesting. My guys don’t like to hear me say that because cleaning it up is not fun but you have to look at it like that.
The clean up is something fans cannot see but it must be as comprehensive as the construction…
I have been doing this for nineteen years and I still tell people now that the thing that blows my mind is that you can walk in here afterwards and never know we were here. If we’re over astroturf then it will be Monday morning before we are out but if it is a concrete floor like it was in Houston then you can go in there at noon on Sunday and it will look exactly as it did before we moved in. It amazes me that these guys have it ‘down’. As soon as the chequered flag flies and we are off air – we’ll have the call from the TV guys – and we’ll be straight on the floor moving all the tuff blocs into the centre and start bringing out the cherry pickers to drop the finish line and deconstruct the podium. That will take until about 3am: the flag will fly at 10 and we’ll be off the air at 10.15 so then we start breaking everything down. The dirt trucks start after that and we begin to windrow it all to the centre and load the trucks. It is pretty impressive to witness.
The two big elements for spectators at Supercross are the track and the show. The show has advanced over the years with pyrotechnics and large screen TVs. It has become more theatrical but is there still more that can be done?
Right now we are working on a way to identify the leader a little easier. Whether that is an LED light on their number plate or whatever it might be…I think that is the number one thing we are getting requests about; especially for new fans. Someone who comes to see Supercross for the first time usually loves it but also finds it difficult to find the leader. So we are working on that. Ten years ago I never thought we’d have an LED pylon out there that can do multiple things like run sponsor videos or show the running order. I don’t think there is a limit on what we can do.
Then there’s the track. Are you ultimately the guy that signs-off what the footprint of a supercross will be?
I wouldn’t say I am the guy that ultimately signs it off but I am a big part of the process. It is a collective effort. As soon as the series is over in Las Vegas we’ll meet with the AMA and the FIM and Dirt Wurx the next day – literally on the Sunday – and talk about the tracks and what worked and what didn’t. Mike Muye, our Director of Ops, is constantly talking to riders about this subject so throughout the season we have an idea of what is working. After the meeting Dirt Wurx will take their time and come up with some initial footprints for the next year and how they will be laid out in the stadium. Those will be signed-off by myself, Mike and the AMA and FIM as well as being shopped around to some riders to see what they think. Once they are confirmed then we will go back and clarify the obstacles with the same process. In the last few years we have been using recently retired riders like Kevin Windham, Trey Canard and Nick Wey; guys that have raced at this level recently and can give us better input as to how they work. The tracks are continually evolving and there is always that debate: do you want the cool visual track or the cool raceable track? You are trying to find a happy medium. You want the most raceable but at the same time Supercross is a spectacle and you want to walk into the stadium and see something that will take your breath away.
Lastly, how do you see Supercross moving forward?
To marry technology with the experience, so some kind of augmented reality through Apps that you can use inside the stadium, as well as the Fan Fest outside. We are trying to open that up and make it more of a festival and an experience, almost to the point where you can enjoy that side of it without setting foot in the stadium and still walk away having had a good time. I think that’s the next step of evolution. That’s where we are looking in the near future. Fans seem to want more of an experience instead of just coming, sitting and taking it in. That’s the goal and I don’t see why we cannot do it. We have to keep pushing and your limitation is your imagination. I’d say we are also closer than we have been to having a round outside the United States. Keep a lookout for that.