Construction firm transforms sports stadiums

When Rich Winkler and his crew of equipment operators fashion a slope, they have to think about more than the ratios in the job plans and the aesthetics of the landscape. They have to think about how a motorcycle will launch off it. And they have to do it all under nerve-racking time constraints.

In two and a half days, Winkler’s company, Dirt Wurx U.S.A., can transform a baseball, basketball or football field in a major sports stadium into a unique competition track for professional dirt bike riders. The equipment operators work with about 10,000 tons of dirt that is trucked into the stadium after its usual flooring is protected with plastic or plywood sheeting. Using front-end loaders, bulldozers and compact track loaders, they sculpt the soil into a series of jumps, tabletops and whoops – chains of small hills that are steeper on one side than on the other.

A new track every week
Winkler and his eight full-time operators have gotten used to the grueling schedule after years of building 15 of the 16 tracks for the Amp’d Mobile AMA Supercross Series and every track for the Amp’d Mobile World Supercross GP Series. For the latter competition, Dirt Wurx builds 17 tracks in as many weeks at venues such as Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The tight schedule and the distances between cities make renting heavy equipment from local dealers the company’s only option.

Dirt Wurx employees don’t have much time to relax even after they’ve finished a course. As soon as the checkered flag is flown, they begin dismantling the track and moving out the dirt – a process that lasts throughout the night and has to be completed in 24 hours so they can move on to the next city and so the venue can be used for a different event.

Winkler says the toughest construction challenge he and his employees face is always keeping in mind they are building a motorcycle racetrack. “You have to ask yourself if it will work as that rather than just being a nicely shaped hill,” he says. “You have to take a step back and say, ‘What will happen if I do this?’

While jump slopes appear on paper as ratios such as 2:1, 3:1, etc., as they would in any construction plan, the slopes Dirt Wurx builds have a concave curvature that allows bike riders to reach certain heights – up to 40 feet over the stadium floor – and distances.

Finding equipment operators
Winkler hired local equipment operators from union halls in the first few years after he founded Dirt Wurx in 1990. That became difficult, though, because he often had to ask the operators to change things — not because they were poorly done, but because they wouldn’t work for a motorcycle track. Winkler says the operators were insulted and his time wasn’t spent efficiently because he had to inspect everything they did.

That changed, though, when the company began building enough tracks to employ operators full time. Winkler’s core group of eight employees has been with Dirt Wurx 10 years now, and many of them — along with the company’s three or four part-time workers – have built courses for other extreme sports or have a background in motorcycle racing.

Having experienced equipment operators is becoming even more important, Winkler says, as supercross features evolve. In the early days, supercross tracks mirrored the outdoor terrain of motocross tracks. The dirt was loose and the tracks looked like natural rough terrain. By contrast, today’s tracks are composed of a series of stylized, artificial-looking jumps. Having heavy equipment operators who know what the tracks should like and how to make them fun and safe is crucial, Winkler says.

Finding enough dirt at each location was a challenge at first, too. Race organizers hire large excavation contractors to move dirt into the stadiums, and in the early years of supercross tours they had to search for companies to provide the dirt as well. Now stockpiles of dirt are kept near major stadiums, either somewhere on the stadiums’ grounds or in a contractor’s yard.

Dirt Wurx history
Winkler was a professional motocross rider from 1976 to 1978, when supercross – the stadium version of the sport – was in its infancy. Before founding Dirt Wurx, Winkler worked for supercross organizing companies and watched them hire local excavating firms to build the racetracks. Damage was difficult to control and construction prices varied widely among cities. “I started to see a niche,” he says.

Winkler wondered if race organizers would find value in having one company build all their tracks at prices within 10 percent of each other. It turned out they did. The first year Dirt Wurx had only four jobs because different companies were producing the big races and Winkler had to market Dirt Wurx to each one. But now Clear Channel Entertainment produces both the AMA Supercross Tour and the World Supercross Tour and it contracts almost solely with Dirt Wurx to build the tracks for these events.

The company constructs courses for many other events as well, including the Japan Supercross Series, and has even done work for television shows and movies. Each year Dirt Wurx builds a track on the set of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and a race is held, with the winner being dubbed “The Tonight Show Champion.” Winkler’s company also built a track for the action movie “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.” He constructed a hybrid motocross/freestyle motocross track for a high-flying chase scene with the Angels and several top pro racers from the motocross circuit.

Winkler designs all the race tracks himself, usually in the slow summer months after he’s taken a break from the frenzied first-quarter race schedule to recharge his creative batteries. Each of Winkler’s track designs is unique, and he considers input from everyone from professional riders to a friend’s son who visualizes jumps by looking at patterns in door keys.

“Being an ex-racer, the track design was always interesting to me,” he says. “When I was racing, I always put my two cents worth in whether they [the designers] wanted to hear it or not.”