Honoring the bull
During that muddled time between college and finding a job, Conway’s Brad Scudder worked as a substitute teacher. Bored with the three R’s, one morning he broke out a deck of cards and taught his students how to play poker, for cash to better learn the breaks of the game.
Scudder went to law school and became an attorney, but it was the poker that portended his calling. In 2010 he quit lawyering for showmanship, teaming up with his friend Rob Dickens to found Rugged Maniac, a muddy obstacle race for runners seeking “beer, music and glory.”
Now the 31-year-old Scudder has upped the ante with the Great Bull Run. “I’d always wanted to run with the bulls in Pamplona, so why not here?” he reasoned, choosing Virginia Motorsports Park in Petersburg as the venue, having already staged two Rugged Maniac races on its 600-acre landscape.
Petersburg is in Dinwiddie County, far enough south that signs for Miami start appearing along I-95. Dozens of historical markers on farm roads reveal it to be the location of the last great engagement of the Civil War, 91∕2 months and 108 battles that ended with the fall of Richmond and the South’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House.
It is redneck country. Gun shops on Route 1 proclaim “Only three months left till hunting season” and a typical bumper sticker at Wawa’s warned motorists to “Watch Out for the Idiot behind Me.”
Inside I heard one clerk snapping to the other: “Didn’t that guy pay with no shirt on?”
“Doesn’t it say, No shirts, No Shoes, No service?”
“Not at Wawa.”
“I don’t need to be looking at no guy’s nipples!”
Although nobody famous was born in Dinwiddie, it is the home of the Virginia Pork Festival and does have its own quarter-mile drag strip, and track general manager Bryan Pierce happily agreed to let Scudder use his facility, its acres of parking and 12,000-seat aluminum grandstand.
“I probably wouldn’t do this sort of event with any other promoter,” said Pierce, “but Brad does what he says he’s going to do. There’s no hidden agendas.”
The cattle supplier was Lone Star Rodeo Company in West Kentucky, 25 head hauled on a 52-foot trailer 700 miles over I-40 by ranch owner Preston C. Fowlkes Jr. “These are rodeo bulls,” said Fowlkes. “All kinds, all colors. ‘Cross-bred’ in our vernacular. It’s like people. I got some nice ones and I got some not-so-nice ones.”
And what will happen, I asked, when hundreds of adrenaline junkies get in the way of the not-so-nice ones?
“I don’t have a clue,” Fowlkes answered.
Scudder spent $60,000 to buy enough 14-gauge steel tubing to build a 400-yard long “road” 30 yards wide and 61∕2 feet high with corrals on both ends. Two bucket-loaders scooped tons of reddish clay dirt from a nearby pit onto the makeshift street that lay between the drag strip and bleachers.
The bulls were to run from one corral to the other, straight through 500 runners at a time. Goring them wasn’t their intent but getting from Point A to Point B on a road clogged deeper than a donut-lover’s arteries was bound to result in a few knockdowns.
Scudder hired Boston publicity outfit Schneider & Associates to land him the sort of exposure he got with a segment on NBC’s Today Show. “On-site,” said Scudder. “They didn’t shoot live, so it was pretty laid back.”
The event’s uniqueness also attracted the attention of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and virtually all the major dailies from New York to Washington. Sixty press credentials were issued and nearly as many VIP passes were doled out.
Then the animal-rights activists got into the act.
“Friends of Animals” spokesman Rich Lowrey of told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “We’re upset about the stress and conditions that the bulls will have to endure ... the risk of injury is substantial.”
Fowlkes rolled his eyes and muttered, “Like my father would say, you can’t win a whizzin’ match with a skunk.”
To ensure that the 30-odd protesters would never get past the gate, three state-police cruisers were parked at the entrance, a mobile tactical unit was inside the park and a strong contingent of Dinwiddie County deputies roamed the grounds, taking orders from Sheriff D.T. “Duck” Adams.
“We got 200 emails telling us to stop the race,” said Dinwiddie County Supervisor Bill Chavis, pulling on a freshly lit cigar. “We didn’t even respond.”
The portly Adams nodded approvingly. There would be no trouble here other than the grief Chavis was giving him about politics.
Smiling and waving his cigar, Chavis said, “If a Democrat don’t like cigars, you can’t have a cigar. If a Democrat don’t like sausage, you can’t have sausage. Are you a Democrat?”
“I’m a Democrat,” said Adams.
“You’re a Democrat so you can get elected,” laughed Chavis.
Adams smiled and waved him off. “Bud’s a good man. Our last guy was Walking Tall, but he really tries to help people.”
Below us, several tons of meat on the hoof was waiting to be sprung toward the young mozos dressed in the traditional Pamplona garb of white pants and shirts with red bandanas tied around their necks and waists.
It was nearing high noon when track announcer Wayne Covil, a local TV anchorman out of the Ron Burgundy mold, proclaimed to Bull Run Nation: “Give yourself a hand Virginia for hosting the first-ever bull run in the history of the United States of America!”
Live music blared from atop a flatbed truck behind the grandstand. People bought beer, fries and hamburgs at the Hot Rod Grill. A promoter dressed in a pig costume handed out Hawgfest pamphlets near the Zombie Survival recruiting tent.
As the first wave of runners geared up to be chased, Covil instructed them to start waving their red bandanas and recite after him: “Here we are the courageous few, to test ourselves and honor the bulls...”
Music from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” blared from the loudspeakers, the gates opened, the cowboys hustled the mighty bulls onto the dirt track and the crowd roared. The six beasts moved forward, broke into a gallop and then stopped and huddled, intimidated by the mass of humanity.
Dickens, watching the bulls act like Elsie the Cow, told a friend, “I just about collapsed.”
Everything stopped. The runners, the cheering, even track announcer Covil was speechless. “That was pretty scary,” said my son Mat, envisioning a mass exodus with refunds.
Then, like Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, Fowlkes sent in the reinforcements and with newfound strength the bulls plowed through the crowd and Covil was screaming, “Look at this action ladies and gentlemen! Look at this action! Snort, snot and horns! Give a hand to the great state of Virginia for making this happen today!”
Watching from the sideline was like waiting for a thunderstorm, the darkening sky, the deluge and ensuing quiet.
“The most memorable thing was the sound,” said Rob Bolton of Gerrardstown, W. Va. “It was thunderous. The lead bull cut right in front of me, the second bull came up next to me and another bull was on my left. For two or three or seconds I was in a triangle of snorting and snot and drool slinging all over the place.”
Despite the daredevil aspect of bull running, only 15 runners have been killed in Spain over the last century, and nobody was seriously injured a week ago in Petersburg. Six bulls jumped over a fallen woman and, said Mat, “Another guy got hit and was starting to get up and two bulls ran over his back. He didn’t break anything but he went to the hospital for a CAT scan. Another guy was woozie. He thought he was in California.”
Litigation was avoided after a mini-helicopter equipped with a camera crashed into the grandstand but the highly annoyed spectators were mollified by the offer of free beer and food.
Newspapers reported that the Great Bull Run attracted 12,000 paid customers, including 4,000 participants. Costs ranged from $10 to park, $10 to watch, $75 to run with the bulls and $30 for the re-ups.
The cash register’s still ringing. Scudder had played his cards right. Next stop, Atlanta.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.