Master of the art of the track

Dave Spellman of Fredonia has traveled the country and the world precisely and artistically marking tracks and playing surfaces for athletes

Dave Spellman and his brother Bill fixed up an old striping machine last winter that Dave uses to paint lines on tracks and basketball and tennis courts. The Willie is named in honor of Bill.
Ozaukee Press staff

Dave Spellman wasn’t enjoying his educational experience in the 1960s until he started running. “Once I went out for track, I loved school,” he said.

Spellman ran the mile for Waukesha High School’s track and field team and remembers the nature of competition. Back in 1963, his coach rolled one stripe for runners to follow.

“Running on our track was kind of like wrestling,” Spellman said. “There were no lanes to stay in. You could knock people into the infield.”

For the last 45 years, Spellman has made a career out of providing equally wide lanes for runners as owner and operator of Play Surfaces, Inc., and he has a unique advantage over his competitors.

Spellman, who lives in the Town of Fredonia, has developed a system that allows for a high level of accuracy, which is a big deal in the world of track and field.

“All universities want tracks certified,” he said.

There are different levels of certification, with the Olympics being the highest. Lanes may be .02% too big but they may not be too small.

“I just have a niche because I put masking tape down,” Spellman said. “Most other stripers don’t.”

It sounds like a logical process, but tape doesn’t stick to track surfaces.

Spellman figured out how to make it work. He was doing a job many years ago that required a primer and noticed that it makes tape stick to the track surface.

“I’m always tinkering and trying to learn things,” he said.

After measuring, Spellman sprays primer on the track, then lays down tape followed by two coats of striping before he pulls up the tape.

There are a couple of catches. One, the process is “virtually on the edge” of not working.

“The tape doesn’t stick long. The whole secret to making a living is that you better learn to do it quickly,” he said.

The other caveat is it takes time. Others will paint stripes in a few days while Spellman’s process takes a week.

That has allowed Spellman to land big jobs across the country for tracks, basketball and volleyball courts — including logos and trim work — at the universities of Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Liberty, Texas Tech, Notre Dame, Purdue, Southern California and North Carolina.

Closer to home, he has done the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s track three times.

“I’ve lived long enough for it to wear out twice,” Spellman, who is 74, said.

He got his start more by accident than by a love of track and field.

Spellman had worked at an ammunition plant in Waukesha before he was sent off to war.

“When I came back from Vietnam, I just couldn’t go back to that building,” he said.

Instead, he connected with a couple of young guys in 1968 who did striping. The group did gyms and other jobs. Spellman striped the parking lots on the Northridge and Southridge malls twice. Each required 10 miles of road lines.

The key to landing jobs for local elementary, middle and high school gyms is new flooring projects.

“The guy who does floors doesn’t know games,” Spellman said.

Measuring the lines can present a variety of challenges. A job in Missouri called for a circular indoor jogging track in a building shaped like an octagon. Rooms were on one side of the building and Spellman figured out the radius of a corner room to form a proper circle. The job was done in a day and a half.

“I always loved geometry in school,” he said. “When your back’s against the wall, you’d be surprised what you can do to make things work.”

Work has taken Spellman to 49 states (including New York, where he did the striping for a Manhattan rooftop tennis court) and a number of countries. He has striped in India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Nova Scotia and a McDonald’s parking lot in Guam.

While he traveled to touristy places, Spellman’s work ethic didn’t allow for sightseeing. He and his one employee work 10 hours per day through weekends and holidays. Twelve-hour days, he said, cause burnout.

“I can work for a month straight,” he said. “We go out, get the work done and we’re home.”

Some tracks are more extravagant than others. The University of Michigan has a $6 million hydraulic track that lifts up the outer lanes to create a bank similar to those in auto racing, reducing ankle stress around curves and allowing runners to go faster.

“That’s how you break records,” Spellman said.

His most stressful job was his first while doing contract work for 3M, which decades ago made athletic flooring. One of his coworkers who ended up getting fired had angered a 6 feet, 6-inch 3M employee. Spellman, 21 and in a lead role for the first time, convinced the man he could do the job. Spellman was forced to put down tape eight times to show it was straight as the perturbed large guy watched.

“They all were (straight). He just kept making me do it,’ Spellman said with laugh. “I got baptized by fire. That took five years off my life.”

Some venues held events before Spellman’s work was complete. The Austin Peay State University groundskeeper told Spellman he couldn’t work Saturday because a football game was scheduled. Spellman attended and nearly cracked up when the crowd jumped up and cheered, “Let’s go, Peay.”




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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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