"All my boys are good - they're just crazy" says Nitro Circus' Mike Porra
PUBLISHED: 09:02 16 June 2016 | UPDATED: 09:02 16 June 2016
Â© Mark Watson. Image for editorial usage only: Photo by Mark Watson. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE, FOR MARKETING OR ADV
Nitro Circus' riders may be fearless, a little crazy even. While every precaution is taken to protect his "kids", CEO Mike Porra knows the worst can happen in a heartbeat. He talks to entertainment writer Wayne Savage.
Porra knows no matter how careful they are, bones will get broken. It comes with the territory. The riders are his mates, his family and he’d rather give all the success away before letting things slip. In all his years with Nitro Circus they’ve only had one serious injury.
Bruce Cook had a hard crash in Hamilton, near Toronto, in 2014 when he was doing a double frontflip on a motorcycle; breaking a vertebrae and damaging his spinal cord.
“It was sad, really sad. The shining light is he came to me because he’d managed to get on his bike. This is a guy who’s in a wheelchair but he can ride his bike now because it’s been specially adapted. He asked me if he could go on the road and backflip his bike. I went and saw him and he did it 20 times perfectly. Then we went on the US tour but I couldn’t let him do it. When the time came, I said no. It broke my heart. I couldn’t have lived with myself if anything else had gone wrong. I couldn’t put him on.
“Bruce came to me and said ‘if you don’t let me do it I’m just a guy in the wheelchair sitting around my house and I may as well kill myself’. So I gave in. He did it and it was the most incredible thing.”
The world’s first paraplegic to backflip a motorcycle, Cook has a huge following. He does his jump at half-time and has all the kids jumping out of the stands. He gets more requests for interviews than (Nitro Circus founder) Travis Pastrana, jokes Porra.
“It’s so tear-jerking and inspirational. People see him strap himself into his bike. They know if he crashes he goes down with the bike. Because he can’t move the bottom half of his body it’s incredibly dangerous. There’s only a handful of guys who can backflip, let alone do it without the use of their legs. Bruce has to generate all of the movement using controls with his fingers, rather than his bodyweight. It’s extraordinary, but he does it.
“I cried for five minutes the first night he did it. I was so scared. I had my head down and was looking through my fingers and I couldn’t even watch. I’m a grown man but the pressure on me was unbearable. I had made that guy a paraplegic. I knew if he rolled the bike he’d be gone, he’d be a quadriplegic. I had my head in my hands and uncontrollably sobbed for five minutes.”
The team are way ahead of all the best practice when it comes to looking after the riders. They’re required to have one team of paramedics but have two plus two ambulances and a full-time trauma doctor. There’s an overall lead doctor based in Los Angeles who checks every athlete’s records, tracks all their injuries.
“Look, what we do is dangerous and the riders we have are great kids and we want to look after them. We can afford to put the best-possible care in place. If I have a kid go down I want to know he’s got paramedics and an expert trauma specialist with him within three seconds of him hitting the ground. I want to know he’ll be at a hospital within minutes. I couldn’t live with myself without that. These kids are such great kids. You know, we stick by each other. We’re family. If your mate goes down, you don’t leave him down.”
Doing dangerous things is what attracts thousands of people worldwide to Nitro Circus Live. It goes back to the days of the gladiators, thinks Porra, who gets just as excited about the next day’s show as he did the previous days six years after taking the helm. “There’s nothing any different between what we’re doing now and what they were doing then. These days there are people 30ft away from the action and there’s some guy who’s 50ft up in the air on a motorbike and if he makes one mistake he’ll land on cold metal and he’ll probably die. People know they are 30ft away from danger and that creates incredible excitement. We’re always looking at what comes next.”
He describes the riders as true daredevils. They’re the kids who would be jumping off the top of the tree during school break. They’re not stupid, bad boys or rebels. They are normal, lovely, cool, sweet kids who want to do something spectacular. The only difference between them and you, they literally have no fear.
“Sometimes I’ll talk to the guys and say ‘I have this idea, it’s gonna sound crazy, but I want to talk about it’. They’ll look at me and say ‘yeah, I’ll try that, it’s not so crazy’. Everything is planned and everyone is trained.
“There’s always some risk but I won’t let anybody do a jump until they’ve done it 50 times in a row without making a mistake during a practice. The chance, then, is that they will make it when they do it in front of a crowd. In every show we have several crashes, without a doubt. We are always going to have a crash.”
All could make it in some other sport, but Nitro Circus gives them the freedom to express themselves and do what they want to do. Freestyling allows them to take huge risks and push themselves to the limit.
“They need and must have that adrenalin. For the riders, it’s all about exhilaration. If they don’t get that, they become bored and unhappy,” says Porra.
“The guys are a great mix and they’re from all over [the world]. They do their big tricks and all the guys are down the end to give ’em a high five, a hug. That’s all real because they don’t land these tricks every night, they can’t. You saw a lot of crashes at the O2 show. That’s one of the things I love about them so much, they support each other so much. That warm, genuine emotion really spills into the crowd.”
Shows are usually sold out for months in advance but it’s still a relatively niche touring company with full-blown media and entertainment company aspirations. Each show costs around $1million USD to put on.
They’ve visited Australia, New Zealand, parts of Asia, north America, Canada and now the UK. The cost of hiring regional venues like Foxhall Stadium are lower than, say, the O2 which means Nitro Circus can keep its ticket prices low.
“The UK isn’t a giant place but even if you were to drive to London or Manchester, you’ve still got to get there, you’ve got to deal with 150,000 other cars that are there, find your way into the car park, pay, get into the venue; getting out of the car park probably takes another hour.
“So the whole exercise takes six-seven hours where if it’s in Ipswich and you’re in Ipswich it’ll take you 10 minutes.”
Spectacular to watch and full of dramatic and often funny stories about their failures as much as their successes, Porra puts the action sports show’s success down to everybody involved being themselves rather than acting cool.
That comes from Pastrana, who started this wild ride by inviting his friends round and things getting a little crazy.
The least big-headed sporting star in the world, he calls everybody sir, shakes everybody’s hand, never says no to photos and can be found still signing autographs long after the show has ended. He even brings his mum to a lot of their shows.
“He drives the culture with all of the athletes. We have a no d***head policy. Yeah, we’ve got the best riders in every discipline, we do the biggest stunts but we’re self-deprecating. There aren’t many shows where you see a bath tub plunge down a ramp. That’s how we want it. None of our kids are arrogant, they’re all good boys – they’re just crazy.”
Porra, from a big surfing background, is an adrenaline junkie himself. These days his risks are financial.
“The after-party with all my riders is awesome. The crew and the riders all work hard and we all smash into the drinks and the shots.
“We’re all up there dancing and the feeling is like we’ve won the Premier League. To have that kind of intense celebration where the euphoria is amazing is a real gift. To have that at my age and have that camaraderie and friendship with the riders is a blessing. It’s fun and I love it. I wouldn’t swap it for anything else on Earth.”
Nitro Circus Live lands at Foxhall Stadium, Ipswich, June 25. Some of the planet’s greatest action sports stars will pull off death-defying stunts, tricks and world firsts that have yet to be seen even in competition. For more info click here or visit @nitrocircus on Twitter and www.facebook.com/NitroCircus. For my chat with rider Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham click here. For my review of Nitro Circus’ O2 show earlier this year click here.