At first, the idea made no sense. Take a sport that is normally held in a subdued environment, and move it into a wild party scene with rock music and screaming fans. Oh, yes, it would be in the middle of a city street.
As crazy as it sounded, the Dauphin Street Vault (DSV) struck a chord that few anticipated. The competition is not only still around, but is expanding its itinerary to include a 400-meter race this Saturday, July 18.
“Our motivation back in 2011 was for this to be cool,” Thomas Fowlkes, one of the founders, told Lagniappe. “Then it grew. It was an unintentional success.”
A section of Dauphin Street just past Cathedral Square is blocked off, with two wooden runways built for continuous action. While the field events at a traditional track meet are usually restrained as athletes concentrate on each attempt, here the crowds cheer every move.
“One of the main missions is to promote the sport,” Fowlkes said of starting the DSV. “Vaulting is an underappreciated sport in general. It actually is the sexiest event in all of track and field. So we put in right in the middle of the street; right in front of everyone’s eyes. It’s a great environment, especially when you throw in 1,000-plus spectators and some great competitors.”
Summer is traditionally a slow time for many businesses in downtown Mobile. Fowlkes said some merchants have told him it is the second biggest day for them, trailing only Mardi Gras. A study commissioned by DSV officials said the event was responsible for more than $250,000 of direct and indirect economic impact last year.
“It’s one of the best single days of the year for some of the businesses on that block,” according to Carol Hunter of the Downtown Mobile Alliance, an organization that supports the redevelopment of the area.
“The Dauphin Street Vault is the kind of unexpected event that works so well downtown, because of the vibrant street scene and the ease of walking to dining and shopping. Hundreds of vaulters, their families and local spectators fill the street, restaurants and hotel rooms at a time of year when business is less robust,” Hunter said.
“The event seems to have grown every year,” observed David Rasp, owner of Heroes Sports Bar and Grille, which is adjacent to the competition area. “We get lots of folks downtown; many of them are families. The format seems to work well, with the more accomplished athletes performing later in the evening. Lower Dauphin is a great setting for such a unique event.”
The first round of pole vaulting starts at 10 a.m. Drew Bentley, the track coach at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School and one of the DSV organizers, said more than 175 vaulters competed last year. The invitational elite division begins at 7 p.m., with the finals wrapping up around 10 p.m.
“The vaulters love the novelty of jumping in the street, with the skyscrapers and balconies,” Fowlkes said, adding that the event is certified by USA Track and Field, the sport’s governing body. “When the jumps get near 18 feet, they are over some balconies and near the traffic lights.”
Last year’s male winner was Devin King, who set the DSV record at 18 feet. He just completed his freshman year at Southeastern Louisiana University. The week after the 2014 DSV, King advanced to the junior world championships, where he finished in fourth place.
Sean Collins, a McGill-Toolen graduate heading to the University of South Alabama, finished third last year at the DSV. However, he just set a personal record at 17 feet, 10.5 inches in Oregon last month.
The female winner for the fourth straight year was Morgann LeLeux, who cleared 13 feet, 8 inches in 2014.
As the organizers got ready for their fifth year of competition, they decided to spice things up. That is when the idea of a 400-meter run down Dauphin Street began.
“We were just shooting from the hip,” Fowlkes said. “We came up with another idea, and said ‘let’s do it.’”
Red Bull energy drinks, which have been a sponsor since the first year, stepped up to help with the infrastructure. The organizers then approached O’Daly’s Irish Pub about being a partner. Other long-time DSV sponsors have been the Mobile Sports Authority, Infirmary Health and Mobile Lumber and Millwork.
“This year’s race is a pilot,” Fowlkes said. “The cost is $10 for those 18 and above, but free for 17 and younger. The flights will be by age and gender.”
A pre-party is scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. at O’Daly’s, located near Wintzell’s Oyster House. The races will then take place, ending at Cathedral Square. An awards ceremony will follow, just prior to the elite pole vault event. To learn more, visit www.DauphinStreetVault.com.
A special guest star at the pre-party will be Birmingham native and decathlon star Trey Hardee. A former NCAA champion, Hardee was a two-time world champion and twice a member of the U.S. Olympic team. He came home with a silver medal in 2012.
“I grew up with Trey, so it will be great having him here,” Fowlkes said. “He works with Nike, promoting how important it is to stay active.”
This all ties in to one of the original purposes of hosting the DSV five years ago.
“We wanted to push health and wellness through athletics,” Fowlkes said. “We want to convince kids to be more active, and to participate in track and field at their schools.
“Then we thought about adding a race, with the message being ‘let’s run, more fun.’ And it doesn’t hurt to have it start and end with a block party.”
And for most Mobilians, any reason to have another party is a good reason. Even at a track and field meet in the middle of Dauphin Street.