“What happens to the dirt when you’re done with it?” someone called out from the back of the pack.
“We return it to the people we rented it from,” responded Rich Bigge, the event’s director of competition and logistics, thinking nothing of it.
I've barely slept since.
Renting dirt is a mind-blowing concept on its own, but logistically… of course they rent dirt. What other option is there? And would it be any less weird? So I set out to find the source of the Games’ dirt.
Turns out that person is Kurt Kitchens (kinda). ESPN’s Olivia Wilson introduced him as, “not the dirt farmer himself,” which is who I’d very sincerely asked for, “but he's the vendor we work with for all of our dirt, all over the world. For example, Kurt just traveled to China to scout out and find dirt for X Games Shanghai!”
Dirt is everywhere, all the time, and most of the time we’re pissed about it. Guaranteeing the right dirt exists, where and when you need it, however, requires Kitchens’ expertise.
He’s a second generation fixer of this variety, following in the footsteps of his contractor-turned-dirt-magnate father, who began by bidding to put dirt in the L.A. Coliseum for the first time, at the Super Bowl of Motocross in the early '70s.
“Nobody understands that it isn’t ‘dirt cheap.’ That’s a poor terminology,” said Kitchens, killing a thousand future headlines in a single blow. “It’s really expensive to do dirt at a venue.”
To hear him talk about pulling off these events sounds both incredibly technical and mind-bogglingly ethereal.
“If you understand the construction industry, and how dirt moves in and out of facilities and businesses, that makes it so that you can possibly get dirt to be relocated for a time, and then re-located to where it was going,” he explained, suggesting his business runs on Milo Minderbinder-ish detours.
“If you’re just going and buying dirt at a quarry or a place where people take dirt out of the ground, the cost gets to where most promoters or productions can’t handle just a weekend show.”
When addressing the loss inherent to the dirt business – its propensity to blow about, wash away, get tracked around on our boots, etc. – I realized Kitchens had taken the hustler’s shell game, mastered it, and made it honest.
“I’m constantly looking at projects and replenishing our sources or changing out… Like, if I've got a pile I don't necessarily want and I find a nicer one over here, I'll find a way to use my pile for construction and bring that [nicer] pile over. Just constantly swapping stuff out, or trying to better what we have, trying to make it so you’re offering more for the money.”
This X Games began with about 10,500 cubic yards of dirt spread across the grounds of U.S. Bank Stadium, atop layers of plywood, visqueen, and fabric so that when Kitchens & co. are gone, they leave no trace behind. Where construction is predicated on building alone, the dirt world is transient, and a pristine disappearing act is integral to their magic. People like Kitchens surprise us because they're so good at cleaning.
Over the course of the weekend, the X Games’ epic mass of dirt will be slowly scraped away and reshaped while we sleep.
“Each night we’ll remove 3,000 cubic yards,” or about a third of what was laid on day one, “to create a new course, starting [Thursday] night… The one actually out in the parking lot, we’re breaking that down into three separate courses, and then [Friday] night we’ll start in here, and then Sunday’s show, it’s just Hooligan, flat track – there won’t be any bumps in that,” he laughs, referring to an earlier question about dirt quality and pebbles.
Almost any dirt can build a vert ramp, when push comes to shove. Kitchens’ other clients are more particular about their dirt quality than the X Games. Cirque du Soleil’s artists need assurances his particles won’t hurt them through low-protection fabrics like leotards. For horse shows and rodeo events, owners of million-dollar steeds and astronomically pricey bulls are persnickety out of concern for their animals’ safety. These require a different caliber, or “specification” of dirt than motorcycles.
Hosting such a wide variety of global dirt events -- from Monster Jam to Nitro Circus -- assures this weekend won’t be the last Minneapolis sees of Kitchens’ work, even if you never actually see the man himself. Hopefully he's getting the nap he deserves somewhere backstage, dreaming of locating that endless source of "the greatest dirt ever" his wife likes to tease him about.