‘American Ninja Warrior’ ready to roll at Daytona speedway
By JIM ABBOTT
Even with the show’s well-known obstacle course only half-assembled amid a driving rain storm earlier this week, it wasn’t hard to envision the spectacle of NBC’s "American Ninja Warrior" unfolding beneath the glow of the famous Daytona International Speedway marquee.
"American Ninja Warrior," a popular NBC prime-time athletic competition now entering its ninth season, will tape episodes on Friday and Saturday in front of the Speedway’s main entrance.
By mid-week, the show’s imaginative obstacles — a gauntlet that typically includes rolling logs, vertical climbing walls, spider walks and zip-lines, among other challenges — were starting to take shape.
"It’s much more imposing in person," said Sean Fitzgibbons, the show’s line producer. To illustrate, he paces off the 12 steps that a competitor has to build enough momentum to scale the Warped Wall, a concave-curved 15-foot vertical climb. "That’s not much space — and it’s a little steeper than it appears on TV."
By comparison, Fitzgibbons and his 125-member production crew are pleased with the amount of room the Speedway parking lot offers for a 10-day production that arrived in more than a dozen tractor-trailer trucks loaded with tons of steel trusses and other parts.
On site, the show needs space for two semi-trucks, generators, a production trailer, catering tent, not to mention the 400-foot-long obstacle course. When the show visited the historic district of San Antonio, Texas, it snarled traffic and required city bus routes to be re-directed, Fitzgibbons said.
"It’s really hard to fit this (production) in a lot of places," Fitzgibbons said. "Here, we’re really lucky."
The Daytona Beach stop is the third road trip out of six planned to produce episodes for the show’s upcoming season to launch on June 12, according to NBC. The Daytona Beach city qualifying show will air June 26 and the city finals will air on Aug. 7, according to NBC. Competitions also will unfold in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Kansas City, Cleveland and Denver, on the way to the championship in Las Vegas.
The presence of a recognizable backdrop is one of the factors involved in selecting show locations, said Anthony Storm, one of the show’s executive producers.
"We look for some sort of iconic structure," Storm said. "Daytona has the iconic speedway and that was immediately appealing to us. Everyone knows that majestic structure and it has the size and scope to put our course in perspective."
Speedway officials, meanwhile, look at the show’s visit as another example of diverse events that can be drawn to the Speedway in the wake of the $400 million Daytona Rising renovation. Others include the 2016 Ferrari World Finals and the upcoming Country 500 on Memorial Day weekend, the second edition of a music festival that debuted in 2016.
"We’re excited to serve as a host location for the filming of ‘American Ninja Warrior’ and add another new event to an already busy schedule," Chip Wile, Daytona International Speedway president, said in a news release.
Storm said that there’s a rabid Ninja Warrior fan base in Florida and throughout the Southeast, offering a deep pool of potential contestants. The 140 competitors in Friday’s city qualifying rounds come from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas, he said.
Tanya Rivas, 23, of Port Orange is among the show’s fans.
A youth gymnastics coach, Rivas and her friends will be attending a 2 a.m. taping on Saturday morning, the last session available when they inquired about free tickets roughly two weeks ago online at on-camera-audiences.com/shows/American_Ninja_Warrior.
"It’s the embodiment of what athleticism is," Rivas said. "I was a gymnast for nine years and I competed for six of those nine years. I’m not at that level, but knowing what it took to get to a certain point, the amount of hours and hard work it takes, it’s very impressive."
Compared with other TV game shows obsessed with big-money prizes, "American Ninja Warrior" has built its longevity despite the fact that only two contestants in the show’s nearly decade-long run have conquered the show’s final obstacle course, with only one claiming the ultimate $1 million prize.
For contestants and fans, "the journey is as important as the destination," Storm said.
"We have people from all walks of life," Storm said. "Men, women, older, younger; all shapes and sizes. The goal for all of them is not the same. For many, it’s just to achieve something that wasn’t supposed to be possible. For many, just getting through a single obstacle is an achievement. It fulfills a dream."