With the flash of a green light on the opposite end of the Delta Center?s clay-covered floor and the flourishing of the referee?s checkered flag, the Vette King explodes off the starting line. Its nose rockets skyward at a perfect 90-degree angle of momentary stasis. It then clears 40 feet, and four blue sedans lined side by side. Continuing its freestyle run, driver Adam Anderson maneuvers his 10,000 pounds of oversize radial mayhem through accomplished donuts, and then crashes through a minivan. It?s enough to make you plug your ears.
Few sounds are as cacophonus, dissonant and thundering as a monster truck in freestyle heat. For the roar of 1,500 to 2,000 horses catapulting an oversize vehicle 30 feet laterally, few adjectives are more apt than ?earth-shattering.? These hulking beasts accelerate from zero to 40 mph in as little as 12 feet with a growl so fierce people literally flee with their hands pressed over their ears.
People laughed when I told them about plans to attend the Monster Jam extravaganza one weekend in February. No one who dares consider himself sophisticated would brave entertainment so low-brow, unless you wear a mullet, flannel shirt or boast a ring on your jeans pocket from carrying smokeless tobacco. But even before the roar of engines and the spin of wheels splattering clay chunks everywhere, I learned about the most vital monster-truck-event accessory during conversation with a Delta Center security guard. I asked him how loud it would soon get. He handed me a complimentary pair of earplugs.
?You?ll need these,? he said.
Besides toilet and water fountain privileges, earplugs are the only complimentary item provided during monster-truck events at the Delta Center. They hand them out, per request, at the door. You won?t really need them for the monster-truck races because they?re so brief, but a freestyle run lasts a full minute. When your ears feel like they?re starting to bleed, that can last a long time.
On their face, monster-truck shows are all about volume. Make that brute volume. Sitting in section K, row 12, seat 9 of the Delta Center, it?s also obvious that monster-truck shows are about spectacle. Make that pure spectacle, matched with adrenaline and competition. If you?re a white, middle-class family looking for entertainment, wheels 66 inches tall and 43 inches wide and engines that burn through a gallon of gasoline every 485 feet traversed exist for a very good reason.
But in the world of monster-truck shows, a lot depends on where you?re sitting. If you?re not sitting somewhere close, you?re missing some real action. As I quickly found out, the true glory of monster-truck shows is that they boast perhaps the thinnest of walls between fans and the driver-heroes of these truly amazing machines. And maybe that?s why, more than any other sport, the bastard?some might say freak?child of a three-way between NASCAR, drag-racing and tractor-pulling is so damned noisy.
The cultural history of monster trucks dates back to 1974, when one Bob Chandler, a St. Louis construction contractor, beefed up his Ford F-250 4 x 4 so it could better handle his family?s weekend ?mudding? excursions. Mudding remains a popular pastime in locales where soil remains moist longer than an afternoon. That?s when you take a junked or beaten-up vehicle out into the sloppy woods and tool around ?til you get high-centered, the tires get buried, or something breaks. According to some lore, people are even prone to burn the vehicle afterward.
In 1982, after numerous modifications to his F-250?eventually christened Bigfoot?Chandler attempted a feat that came to define monster trucks. He drove over a couple of junk cars. People went nuts for it then, and still do today. Paying to watch one big object crush little objects for a couple of hours would be about as much fun as watching a baby squish ants. But oh do people love a race.
Monster-truck racing, as it?s known, soon replaced exhibition car crushing as the premier attraction at monster-truck exhibits. Before, monster trucks were mere sideshows at truck pulls and mud-races. The monster truck phenomenon we know today is actually seen as an offshoot of drag racing. In fact, the same engines in those snub-nosed ground rockets deploying decelerating parachutes can be found beneath the gaudily painted, reinforced-fiberglass frames of hundreds of monster trucks the world over. Monster trucks have evolved from petro-powered, stiff-suspensioned, lumbering car crushers into modern-day marvels of engineering, running on alcohol-injected engines putting out 1,500-2,000 horses capable of 100 mph. Monster Jam mechanic Bob Zahornacky called monster-truck racing ?drag-racing on steroids,? but these steroids are all legal.
Growing, and growling, out of the imposing shadow of its origins, today?s monster-truck rallies are a nonstop action combo of any number of events, but the bread and butter rests in racing and freestyle events.
It?s also big business, as the recent Feb. 18 and 19 ?Monster Jam? at the Delta Center was organized and operated by broadcast behemoth Clear Channel Entertainment under the banner of the United States Hot Rod Association, or USHRA. The ?Jam? was spread out over three sections: Quad Wars, Street Warriors and monster-truck racing and freestyle.
Quad Wars bugged me to no end. It was sold to the crowd as a semi-local competition pitting two regional metropolises against each other. We were treated to a match-up of Team Salt Lake vs. Team Las Vegas. While never expressly billed as a showcase of Salt Lake City?s finest vs. Las Vegas?, that much was implied, and eaten up by an eager Salt Lake City crowd repeatedly asked which of the teams they were rooting for. Watching these guys rev around the course seemed about as convincing as a pro-wrestling match. A driver from one team would gain an insurmountable lead and make a gratuitously massive arc around a pylon, then look back to wait for his competitor to catch up. Las Vegas won the first three heats to heaving boos from the crowd.
Following each victory, a team representative would meet the PA announcer in the middle of the floor and talk trash about Salt Lake City, ?working? the crowd. After Salt Lake City?s loss in the final heat, a head-to-head grudge match was organized. But for a massive miscue on the part of the Salt Lake City driver, ?we? would have won. I hated Quad Wars, and expletives continue to fill my sentiments when I think about them. Maybe the rest of the arena noticed something I didn?t.
As eager bodies began to populate the Delta Center, Street Warriors ran the gantlet of the clay-covered arena floor. I thought this might be something akin to the heart-pounding intensity of the similarly titled, apocalyptic Mel Gibson movie. I expected chains, crossbows and hairy tattooed arms waving from the cockpit of a souped-up Astrovan spewing fire from its headlights?or something like that. Instead, Street Warriors was a bunch of guys with either Baja 1000-ready vehicles, or former junkyard 4 x 4s with just enough miles left in them to bang around in the mud. Three rounds of timed individual heats pared the competition down to the final four.
These guys flew around the track pretty damned fast, sliding into and out of corners with real command over their vehicles. They were average Joes looking for the buzz of competition, and possibly some prize cash. While competitors in all other Monster Jam events are guaranteed a salary, those risking it in the Street Warrior class were in the grips of serious competition for money. One winner was crowned in each of the weekend?s three Street Warriors shows, taking home $300 for victory, $200 to place and $100 to show. Street Warriors was infinitely more intriguing than Quad Wars.
Now, on to the big boys.
Proceedings started on a high-octane note Saturday night, with monster-truck racing as event No. 1.
Two monster trucks lined up in front of a jump. The distance from the lip of the jump to the starting line varies depending on the size of the arena. At the relatively small Delta Center, the trucks started about 12 feet from the liftoff point. In that short 12 feet, monster trucks can reach roughly 40 mph as the result of their incredible drag-racing engines. At larger venues, the trucks can get going as fast as 80 mph, flying as far as 140 feet laterally and 25 feet vertically. That Saturday night they were clearing 32 feet of sedans lined up side by side. This all happens in an extremely short amount of time. Adam Anderson and his Vette King posted a time of about 2.3 seconds.
Despite its brevity, the racing is pretty exciting, especially if you have a truck to root for, and as Zahornacky pointed out, ?If you come to a monster truck rally, you?ll leave with a favorite monster truck.? As early as event No.1, Anderson and Vette King won my support.
While Quad Wars came across as lame, freestyle monster-truck heats were only slightly less so, but exciting. They were also one of the few opportunities for people to see really big things crush relatively smaller things. It?s also in freestyle monster-truck heats that the roots of monster trucks as pure entertainment emerge.
Before the engines bellow their absurdly deafening roar, the crowd and the judges are instructed of their responsibilities. The judges for Saturday night are three blond girls in their early teens, each with sheets from spiral-bound tablets printed with No. 1 through 10. The announcer tells them not to give out big numbers too early in the competition, and that they should judge on style, flow and how many objects a given truck crushes. To me, this judging seems about as accurate as 52-card pickup.
The announcer then showed the crowd how to use their checkered flags and pennants to instruct drivers during their runs. For a donut, wave your flag in a circle above your head. Wave the flag from side to side for a long jump. Want a sky wheelie? Raise the flag above your head at roughly 90 degrees. I had my doubts that any driver had time to gauge an audience request while trying to maneuver his vehicle.
As if the earsplitting sound of the trucks alone wasn?t enough, the announcer told the crowd to ?make lots of noise.? All eight trucks got to show off their stuff, but after a mere two monster truck freestyle rallies, it seemed quite obvious that Anderson?s run in Vette King deserved big numbers. He accomplished three stellar sky wheelies, plus long jumps. Locked into a series of numerous donuts that flung clumps of reddish mud at the crowd, I became greatly impressed. I wanted to wield one of those score tablets myself, raising high the two binary digits of my full approval. And to think I once called the judging inaccurate.
The freestyle events closed out the monster-truck rally, and for good reason. Were it to go on for any longer, the masses of children in attendance wouldn?t be able to hear their parents screaming directives as they barreled out onto the main concourse, where the line for autographs stretched from gates K to R. My ears rang for the next couple of hours, and the whole world seemed to have its volume turned down.
Readers assuming sophistication?or who eschew anything considered low-brow or popular entertainment?may think they know exactly who?s going to pay $10 to $20 a head to see big, high-powered trucks make noise and crush objects underwheel. I know I did.
We like to imagine that only trailer park-living, beer-swilling yokels fill the rafters the night of a monster-truck rally. I expected people with teeth missing and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag. That element was present and accounted for. But mulling around at intermission makes it obvious that monster-truck rallies are really family affairs. Drivers and mechanics assured me that the Monster Jam demographic was as variegated as a bowl of Jelly Bellies. I didn?t quite see it that way. Given Utah?s majority of young, white middle-class families it was more homogenous than diverse.
According to Clear Channel Entertainment regional sales manager Nate Kelley, Monster Jam appeals to families who can afford it. ?Everybody here is clean cut. Everybody?s super friendly,? Kelley said. ?At any one of our monster-truck shows, the drivers will sign autographs until everybody?s gone. If you look at how we treat our fans, we?re kind of like minor-league baseball. The fans are the reason we?re here, and everybody knows that.?
But for a few enclaves of teenagers and 20-somethings hoping to laugh at some hayseeds, the crowd was composed entirely of families: parents in their 30s and 40s, children in tow.
And the size of the vehicles alone was cause for children at the ?Monster Jam? to hoot and holler. For them, the opportunity to meet and maybe even get a high-five from a driver was reason enough to wait in line. Monster-truck events are, above all, extremely noisy. But above even that they are audience accessible, existing solely for the spectator?s enjoyment. There is no televised, world competition to be won. No astronomical salaries to make fans feel beneath the athletes they idolize in the NBA, NFL or major league baseball. And, yeah, I?m gonna call these drivers athletes.
There?s something pure and comforting about entertainment that seems to exist purely for us, without other cumbersome ties. While the pressures to purchase merchandise, deep-fried snacks or carbonated drinks were present, they faded into silence when up against the roar of a massive, 468 cc engine.
I?m not the most car-savvy guy. It once took me an hour and a half, plus some bloody knuckles, to change the battery on my ex?s Cutlass Sierra. In comparison, let me illustrate the amazing prowess of monster-truck mechanics.
First, you?ll need to know about ?planetaries.? These attach the wheel to the axle, and so are the single most important technology component of a monster truck. Given the power of these engines, the small distance for acceleration and the size of the wheels, without planetaries there would be no monster-truck mayhem. They sit unassumingly within the wheel well, looking like jet-black hubcaps, and act much like the gears on your 10-speed.
Saturday?s afternoon show saw Team Tuff-Country?s flagship truck, Dragon Slayer, completely destroy one of its planetaries, twisting it clean off. I arrived for the 8 p.m. show 30 minutes prior to start time to find the team hard at work replacing the Slayer?s gutted right-rear planetary. The coordination of their efforts was impressive in ways that made me feel small. Dragon Slayer made its appearance, but another mechanical failure, this time with the remote ignition, sidelined it for most of the show.
After the night?s events, USHRA mechanics Zahornacky and Paul Uran removed the tires from four trucks?Inferno, Bulldozer, Monster Mutt and Vette King?replacing them with smaller, trailer-friendly tires that made the trucks look decidedly more dorky and ?un-monster??almost like guitars transformed into ukeleles.
The mechanics of monster trucks has reached legendary proportions. According to Zahornacky, driver Jason Childress and Anderson, even NASA has taken an interest as of late. Sitting around the pit, they said: In the course of investigating just how many Gs?a unit measuring the inertial stress on a body undergoing rapid acceleration?a person could survive, NASA scientists descended on the Grave Digger monster-truck shop in Kill-Devil Hills, N.C. Specifically, they wanted to find out why 6 Gs in a helicopter crash often killed people, but monster-truck drivers could survive landings in their vehicle measuring up to 13 Gs. The engineering science of rural car enthusiasts could one day be used by American?s premiere space exploration institution to save lives, they said.
And these are complicated machines. Zahornacky can walk around one monster truck and create a list of needed parts by visually assessing its damages alone. Of course, one reason these guys perform their job so well is because they?ve been at it for so long. Before graduating to the world of drag racing, Zahornacky grew up in his father?s car-repair business. When not on the road with Monster Jam, he still packs his schedule with other car-related activities.
?If I?m not doing this, I?m racing,? he said. ?It?s all cars. What else is there? I?m living a love, man. It?s all adrenaline rush. The best thing is I get to travel and see it all. Where else do you get to have this much fun??
Drivers crazy enough to climb into these vehicles come from racing backgrounds, mostly drag racing. And almost all of them come from gear-head families. Fourteen years ago, Bulldozer driver Childress took a truck that couldn?t best a Power Wheels in a race, put everything he had into it, and eventually started winning races. But monster trucks don?t come cheap, and Childress quickly learned how to do what he loves and keep his wallet well fed. He let someone else pay.
Should you ever want to break into this sport, you?re going to need some real moneyed investors. That, or a large trust fund. Ground floor, you?re looking at about $150,000 to get started, and yearly upkeep can run into five digits. These guys aren?t exactly rolling in the dough.
Driving a truck for USHRA is a more sound investment. When, to the excitement of a weary crowd, Bulldozer shucks its fiberglass skin during a freestyle run, Childress isn?t the one forking up the cash for repairs.
?Before I got on with this gig,? Childress said, ?I was getting hollered at for tearing s?t up. Now we?re wrecking somebody else?s s?t, and while they?re not exactly pleased when you do, it?s still not all that bad. But we?re also not doing this for the money.?
But it?s certainly better money than bagging groceries or attending school full time.
Luckily for Salt Lake City?s monster-truck aficionados the weekend of Feb. 18, Monster Jam brought with it the LeBron James or Freddy Adu of monster trucks, Adam Anderson. At 19 years old, he?s had his driver license for all of three years, but he?s hardwired to drive. Son of monster truck legend Dennis Anderson, the creator of the Grave Digger, there?s something about the air around Adam that enhances the glow of his potential. Despite being green as a Lime Rickey, and having only a few events under his belt, Adam swept all three racing events that weekend, the rough equivalent of Adu scoring a hat trick in his first professional match, or LeBron grabbing a triple-double.
Monster Jam drivers have watched Adam grow from a tyke in the Grave Digger shop to the scary-talented natural steering Vette King through accomplished donuts. The kid displays no excess braggadocio or ego, but seems to know there?s something about his relationship with trucks that could some day have him sitting atop the monster truck heap.
Adam and the other drivers boast about wins, and about how there will soon be trophies or plaques given to the winners. But with Adam winning the racing event the previous two shows, other drivers are gunning for him. It will be hard to catch up. Saturday night, in a photo finish, Vette King inched out Monster Mutt.
Driving down I-80 in my ?85 Bronco II, I passed a Ford F-250 with 34-inch tires, 3 inches of lift, plus a rack of lights atop the cab. I got the immediate urge to flat-foot my clunker and show this guy up. Then, recalling ?Monster Jam,? I realized something. My competition could pimp his ride out all he wants, but he will never match the earth-shattering intensity or grandiosity of a 10,000-pound truck crushing an Astrovan.
Recalling the weekend of Feb. 18, I also realized something else?should I have a family, that is. That weekend saw a surprising amount of cultural events across the Salt Lake valley: several authors read in South Jordan, a tattoo convention set up shop at the Salt Palace, Abravanel Hall hosted a music performance and Danny Glover starred in a play. As sophisticated as I sometimes consider myself, however, there?s no way I?d take a 7-year-old tyke to see Danny Glover?s stage-drama skills. If I had a kid, we?d be monster-truckin?.