ATLANTIC CITY — Paul Crowell didn’t get to spend much time around town when he was here last year.
The Cincinnati resident spent about 16 hours on a Wednesday using construction equipment to spread dirt around Boardwalk Hall’s floor for the Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo.
This year was different. Thanks to a late change in the dirt provider, Crowell was done early in the afternoon Wednesday.
“I think we’re actually going to have a day to go walk around and see some things,” he said with a smile.
Rarely does dirt inspire as much excitement as it did this week. It was a better-than-expected start to one of the biggest events of the year for both Atlantic City and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Last year’s inaugural Boardwalk Rodeo drew more than 17,000 spectators over three days. Even more are expected this year from Friday to Sunday, with rodeo chairwoman Janet Markowitz predicting a sellout of the 10,000-seat arena on Saturday.
There are 292 contestants entered in seven events for what is already the biggest rodeo on the East Coast, with 40 of the top 125 competitors on the PRCA’s money list.
The dirt was the beginning of the hall’s conversion to a Western-style atmosphere, and a late change got the week off to a promising start.
On Monday, a deal was struck to get better quality dirt than previously planned, and from a closer location. The result was a much quicker job and a better surface for the rodeo.
Randy Spraggins, owner of Ohio-based Special-T-Tracs, was hired to handle the dirt for the second year in a row. He got it in Woodbine last year and planned to get it in Marmora, Upper Township, this year, but Spraggins called Markowitz on Monday with a change of plans.
“We got really lucky,” he told her.
Spraggins had found a company, Ole Hansen & Sons, on Old Port Republic Road in Galloway Township. Not only was it closer, but Ole Hansen would mix the sand-and-clay combination ahead of time — unlike the other places where Spraggins had to mix it himself just before transporting it to the Hall.
Stock contractor John Barnes, who organizes rodeos around the country, said the premixing should result in higher-quality dirt and provide the competitors with better footing.
“This soil has been mixed a longer time, and it’s conformed to itself better,” Barnes said. “When you’re putting dirt on top of a cement surface, you’ve got to have it where it adheres together.”
It takes about 40 truckloads of dirt to cover the Boardwalk Hall floor. Last year, the work started about 6 a.m. and ended about 10 p.m.
The trucks back onto the floor and dump the dirt. Crowell and another worker spread it around with miniature bulldozers called track skid loaders.
Wednesday’s work didn’t start until after 8 a.m. and was done around 4 p.m.
Even more time was saved because the dirt is cleaner than last year’s.
“I remember last year they were walking around picking out rocks, picking up twigs, things like that,” Markowitz said. “I know nothing (about dirt), but I can see the difference this year.”
The cleanup after the rodeo also is expected to be quicker.
Last year, all the dirt was trucked out to the Atlantic County 4-H club in Egg Harbor City. This year, it will go just a few miles down the road to Bader Field and Sandcastle Stadium, where Markowitz said the city plans to use it for renovations.
The dirt was just a start. Fencing and chutes will go up today, and the livestock will arrive at the Hall on Friday morning.
But Wednesday was a good start, and Barnes expects everything else to go similarly well.
“It’s going to go smoother and faster,” Barnes said. “Last year was a learning curve for everyone.”
Second annual Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo
When:7:30 p.m. March 30 and 31; 1 p.m. April 1
Tickets:$16-$102 per day, available through Ticketmaster, the Boardwalk Hall box office and
Contact Jason Mazda: