After a quick dry hop and a couple grunts of its 1,500-horsepower engine, Grave Digger drops the hammer and rocket-launches onto the obstacle course at top speed. Its near six-foot tall tires chew up the earth as the five-ton truck bombs over the first jump, shooting it 20 feet in the air. The crowd lets out a full-throated scream as Digger thunders to the ground, pogos up and down and then mashes the throttle toward a row of twisted Toyotas and minced Mazdas. It crashes through the cars, gags it and bounces its wheels off a jump onto its two back tires, which slam down into a slap wheelie. Fans can barely contain themselves as Digger, now in bonus time, punches it over another jump. The Black and Green Wrecking Machine rips through the air into a bone crunching landing, causing the right half of the truck to jack up and teeter dangerously on its side, forcing it to power out to keep the truck from tipping. All four wheels pound the ground and the freestyle run continues to uproarious applause.
If you're confused by some of the monster truck jargon in the above paragraph, you should know that it would have been impossible for me to write a mere three hours before watching the action unfold. I'm pretty sure I had heard the phrase "drop the hammer" in Days of Thunder, but other than that, terms like "slap wheelie", "gag it" and "power out" were completely foreign to me until I heard fans talking. Also, I'd never seen 11-foot tall trucks with wheels the size of Mini Coopers demolish cars and delight crowds like this. Likewise, I hadn't been subjected to the ear-splitting sound of a four-figure hp engine snorting and chortling and blasting its guttural roar throughout the acoustics of a 76,000-seat stadium.
It is, to put it mildly, a sensory-overloading experience.
My personal history involving monster trucks consists mostly of setting up a Hot Wheels ramp at the top of the porch staircase outside my childhood home and firing my Big Foot truck over it to watch it crash land on a step, or, if I was lucky, all the way down to the driveway. The more spectacular the crash, the better. If a wheel popped off, I was beyond pleased. If the hood was dented or the tiny little window was cracked, I was ecstatic.
As happens to most boys, I got too old to play with toy cars and my entire collection ended up in a shoe box, never to be enjoyed by me again. But the people behind Monster Jam know a dirty little secret about you that you probably don't even know about yourself, and that is, you will get older and you will grow up, but you will never, ever outgrow the basic, All-American boy desire to watch big, powerful trucks race fast, rip up dirt and destroy stuff.
In fact, this instinct is exactly what draws many of the drivers to the sport. JP Ruggiero is the rookie behind the wheel of the El Diablo truck and he speaks directly to this point when asked how he got involved with Monster Jam.
"First and foremost, who wouldn't want to drive a monster truck?" he says. "I mean, it's every kid's dream. I see it when we have our pit parties and the fans get to see the vehicles up close. Until you've stood next to one of them, you really can't grasp the magnitude of the size of the trucks."
On the day of our interview, I am given the opportunity to not only stand next to one of the vehicles, but to also sit in the driver's seat and take a ride along in the most famous truck of all: Grave Digger.
Forget any perspective you may have about riding high in your Chevy Tahoe or even a Ford F-150 on a lift. The view out of the dashboard is closer to that of being on top of a double-decker bus, only, that's not where the sightseers are, that's where the steering wheel is. When the engine revs, you feel as though you're sitting in a fighter jet.
Having lived in Los Angeles for a decade and suffered through a daily, excruciatingly slow commute that involved inching along the 405 just to make it to the parking lot on the 101, with the wheel in my hands, I have a quick, delusional fantasy: I'm transporting Grave Digger to my old home in Hermosa Beach, revving the engine just south of LAX and cruising around the freeway system, wreaking havoc and causing carnage as I break free of the traffic stranglehold not by finding a better route, but by simply crushing the congestion of cars beneath me. Ideally, the cars will be empty so nobody gets hurt.
In short, sitting behind the wheel of one of these rigs is an empowering feeling, and even during the ride along, which is pretty tame for safety purposes, you get a sampling of what the forces inside the truck must be like at ten times the speed, or even more incredibly, three times the height off of a jump.
"There is a bit of a fear factor out there," Ruggiero says. "The fear that I have now, as a rookie, is hard landings. We have 60 six-inch tires running on 10 or 12 pounds of air, as well as 30 inches of suspension travel on our shocks, but when you're 30 feet in the air and you come down crashing, the suspension sometimes isn't enough and when you bottom out, you have a situation where all that energy goes into your body. You can take a beating."
It's not as though the drivers are doing all this strapped into the same seat belt you have in your Dodge Durango. Each truck has a five-point harness system, a cage and cutting-edge safety features that in some cases surpass what NASCAR drivers have. With Monster Jam, it's safety first, entertainment a close second.
Ruggiero's road to the Monster Jam circuit began on motorcycles and progressed to four-wheel vehicles. He says that nearly every vehicle he has ever owned he put bigger tires on and took out to the desert or the mountains.
"Thankfully, my truck, El Diablo, is just a bit bigger than what my own personal vehicle is that I built for
off-roading, which is a Jeep CJ-7," he says.
As for the other drivers, you don't need to have an extensive racing background to reach the level of monster trucks and it's not exclusive to men. One of the most popular drivers on the tour is ex-female wrestling champion Madusa, the wheel woman behind the eponymously-named truck. The name itself is a play on Made in the USA, as Madusa's hot pink frame is adorned with the stars and stripes and she does her freestyle runs to the song American Woman.
"I've been in entertainment for 30 years and I was a pro wrestler for 18 years," Madusa says. "They called me up and wanted to do a truck and wrestling cross promotion. I said I hadn't seen the trucks, but I'd check it out. They flew me out and I test drove a truck and they said I was hired. I never really practiced. I'd say I practice every weekend in front of sixty, seventy, eighty thousand people."
Madusa likes to say that with wrestling, she used to beat people up for a living, but now the truck beats her up.
"We have so many safety features, but sometimes you land after a jump in a nose dive or even on all fours and you just feel the impact," she says. "I'm only as good as my truck and the crew. The race is important and I'm very competitive and I want to win, but in the end we're entertainment and the freestyle is all for the fans."
For those unfamiliar, each Monster Jam event is divided into two segments, racing and freestyle.
Act I is the racing part of the evening, where the 16 trucks at each event go head-to-head in a mini-tournament on a course designed specifically for the stadium they're in. At Sun Life Stadium, in Miami, they race on an oval track with two medium sized jumps at about where the fifty yard line would normally be. The trucks line up on opposite ends of the track and have to do two laps, with the winner moving on to the next round until there are only two trucks left to compete in the finals. The winner of that last race wins the night.
At the event I attended, Madusa was on fire or, in Monster Jam parlance, she had a hot shoe, blazing her way through the tournament. She dusted the Razin Kane truck in round one, edged Grinder in a photo finish in round two and beat the Ironman truck in the semifinals. In the finals, it appeared she would cruise to victory over Bounty Hunter, but through a technicality, the race had to be restarted and she lost. The crowd was furious, and the Bounty Hunter driver even took the microphone to apologize to the fans and give Madusa her due.
Act II of the night is what many consider the main event, and it's the part of the show that most people are familiar with when it comes to monster trucks, namely the crushing of cars, vans, RVs and whatever else is laid out on the obstacle course. Each driver has 90 seconds to perform, and then their run is rated by three judges on creativity, style and degree of skill. The highest score wins the night. If the same truck wins the racing and the freestyle, it has earned the Double Down trophy.
"Before freestyle I'll walk onto the course and check out the dirt and check out the obstacles," Madusa says. "I want to create a plan in my head about what I want to do. Being a woman and a two-time champion, I have a bullseye on me and everyone wants to take me out, but it's awesome."
As a star female driver, Madusa has built up a rabid fan base among young girls who may not have been introduced to monster trucks a generation ago.
"There weren't any woman or anything involved in the sport when I first started," she says. "Now, in my line at the pit parties, you see all these young girls lined up and screaming for a picture or an autograph and it's such a great feeling. They're all dressed in pink and they color their hair pink like my truck and they get so into it. I'm also the only woman to pull off a back flip in the truck and they love it."
Imagine if, before a Boston Celtics game, fans were allowed to hang out on the floor of the Garden and take pictures with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the rest of the team. That's what it's like for Monster Jam fans at the Pit Party that Madusa referenced. Each truck is parked somewhere on the obstacle course and fans get in line to see the trucks, meet the drivers, get autographs and take photos. It's this level of intimacy that creates such a powerful connection between drivers and fans.
"Our fans can watch us on TV all day long," Ruggiero says. "But until you've seen a truck up close and you've felt the roar of the crowd and the rumble of the engine, you really can't appreciate the power of the experience."
When you're unfamiliar with a sport or an entertainer, the fairest way to judge what you're watching is by studying the reaction of the other people in the audience. The goal of entertainment is, obviously, to entertain; to give the crowd what they want. Monster Jam crowds want speed and noise and jumps and collisions and they're fed a steady diet of all of the above the entire night. In some ways, it's similar to the WWE, where each truck has its own character, replete with its own entrance music and signature moves.
Shock Therapy. Maximum Destruction. Gun Slinger. Scarlet Bandit. Monster Energy. They all have their own following. A truck called The Ice Cream Man, who performs to a metal version of the ice cream man song we all grew up with, has perhaps the most unique personality on the circuit.
Grave Digger's theme song is George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone. The moment the famous guitar riff ricochets through the stadium, signifying the start of his freestyle run, the fans know what's coming and the energy in the arena builds.
Some trucks, like Madusa, have a fast-growing following, but they're all second to Grave Digger. The Digger shirts, hats, jackets and posters brought by fans outnumber the other trucks two to one, easy.
This is why, when Digger took the track needing to beat Spider-Man's score of 24 in the freestyle event, the crowd was in a frenzy, ready to taste victory. After the two minutes of torque and terror had ended, and a score of 26 appeared on the Jumbotron, the Grave Digger faithful went berserk. In an NFL stadium that's home to a team (the Dolphins) that hasn't had much to cheer about for quite some time, it's hard to imagine the place getting any louder. Even while wearing the recommended ear plugs, it's still deafening.
On the way out of the stadium, I found myself walking next to a man and his two sons in the parking lot, all three in full Grave Digger gear, and all three as giddy as could be.
"That was so cool," the older kid said, taking a drink from his Grave Digger mug and smiling.
I have to agree.
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.