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Nuclear Cowboyz mix motocross with entertainment

Friday - 2/22/2013, 6:48pm  ET

JOHN MARSHALL
AP Sports Writer

PHOENIX (AP) -- Synchronized motorcycles flip through the air, three, sometimes four wide as rock music blares across the arena and flames shoot 20 feet into the air.

Part motocross, part show, the Nuclear Cowboyz tour is a rock opera on wheels that borders on sensory overload for anyone sitting in the stands.

The riders make it all look seamless, hitting their spots and nailing their jumps, but it's not as easy as it seems.

While back flipping a 250-pound motorcycle is second nature to them, doing it within inches of another rider as flames burst around them while trying to remember where to go next takes an awful lot of concentration.

"It's definitely hard. The freestyle tricks we're doing are hard and then we're putting it into a show format," said Mike Mason, one of 12 motorcycle riders on the 13-stop tour. "You've got pyros going off and even though it's just a standard backflip that we've been doing for 10 years, to have a guy a foot off to the side of you is crazy."

The Nuclear Cowboyz were created by Feld Entertainment, which has owned Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1967 and operates Disney on Ice.

The company moved into the realm of dirt bikes in 2007 with the addition of Feld Motor Sports, which produces and promotes a wide range of motocross circuits and events.

Wanting to meld the two worlds of his company, Kenneth Feld crossed motocross with entertainment to form Nuclear Cowboyz.

The tour features some of the best freestyle motocross riders in the world, including former X Games gold medalists Adam Jones and Matt Buyten, along with 2012 medalists Mason, Ronnie Faisst and Taka Higashino.

They ride in choreographed sequence, playing out a story with the help of dancers and acrobats as pyrotechnics and lasers flash around them.

"We really didn't know much about motor sports when we got into this business and when my dad (Kenneth) saw all the amazing stunts of freestyle motocross, he wanted to make it more accessible to everyone than it is in a competitive format," said Juliette Feld, the executive vice president and producer for Feld Entertainment. "We developed the concept that combines the best of freestyle motocross with everything that we know at Feld Enterprises about putting on an incredible production."

The production part makes it harder on the riders.

Freestyle motocross riders are used to doing things on their own, honing tricks in foam pits until they feel comfortable enough to do it on dirt, then -- hopefully -- pulling it off in competition.

Being part of a show adds the new elements of hitting marks, knowing where to go and where the other riders are, having to stay in synch with the other riders -- all with the distractions of flames, lasers and booming music.

In a world where mistakes can mean broken bones and even death, adding distractions adds to the danger.

"With this, there was so much to know and if you get in the wrong spot, you could get flashed by flames or there could be someone jumping a ramp right where you're at, so you have a lot to pay attention to," said Mason, in his fourth year with the tour. "That was pretty much the most stressful part."

Getting everything right takes plenty of planning.

Feld executives meet with the director and stunt coordinator up to a year in advance to start mapping out the next year's show. Once they've sorted out all the details of who goes where and what happens when, they bring in the riders for a couple weeks of rehearsals so there'll be no mishaps when the shows start.

"There are certain times where we have everyone doing the same tricks so you can see 12 guys fly past you doing no-handed backflips, which is just incredible but requires a lot of practice to make sure everyone knows where they should be and where to turn at the end and where to go after the finish of the sequence," Feld said.

Still, getting freestyle motocross riders to sit still can be tough.

They're used to going out whenever they want and riding free on their dirt bikes, not being at certain spots at specific times, going through dry runs or waiting around.

They understand the tediousness is necessary, but it doesn't stop them from occasionally complaining.

"You should see how whiny we get during rehearsals because all we want to do is ride our bikes and they're like ride up landings and do all this stuff," Mason said. "But with the show, there's going to be people all over the floor, you've really got watch where the pyros are going to go off. The thing pretty much all of us had to learn was that it's not just about us and jumping our dirt bikes, it's actually a whole show going on."

And with all those flipping motorcycles, bright lights and loud music, it's quite a show to see.


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