Thursday, August 26, 2010

Culture Lesson: Monster Trucks

I love monster trucks! Giant trucks painted and bestowed a persona and designed to drive over large mounds of dirt and junked cars. At its core, monster trucks make the games I played as a child a reality. My love is primal, and it is mocked, but it is true.

At press time, I have been to two monster truck shows. The first was in an indoor arena and satisfied my need to see large cars race each other and destroy smaller ones. The second was in an outdoor arena on a hot night and was a bit of a let down, but still provided the thrills, chills, and spills I was promised. Both shows were presented by Monster Jam, a live touring motorsport event. Monster Jam goes all over the United States (and sometimes tours Europe and other areas—to be clear, many things about Monster Jam are inherently American) with its cavalcade of trucks. The trucks compete in a variety of races, times events, and usually end with a "freestyle" event.

The tour also includes a half time event. At my first show, BMX and motocross athletes displayed their skills in the arena. (It was awesome. If a sport is "extreme" or part of the X Games, I'm going to love it.) When I was little, shows were advertised as featuring dinosaurs made out of cars. So additional entertainment may vary.

Here are a few examples of commercials:

And here's Megasaurus. Megasaurus was featured at a 2007 Ohio county fair, but the general idea is similar:

But it's serious business! There are scores and results, and a long history for each truck. It's more than a Southern guy driving a big truck. (And actually, the driver I saw last month behind the wheel of HOT TAMALE was from Mexico. AWESOME!)

The most beloved truck is GRAVE DIGGER, 29-year-old truck from North Carolina. Built from discarded parts, the truck was "supported by the corroded chassis of a 1952 Ford pickup and ran on the innards of a high-performance Chevy engine." Built by Dennis Anderson in 1981, the truck has seen several updates over its lifespan:

The most recent Grave Digger, Grave Digger XIX, is a colossal improvement on the original monster. Bearing the ghostly image created by painter Fred Bumann, it is a machine to be reckoned with. To help Grave Digger absorb the landing after a 100-foot jump, it has nitrogen shock absorbers, creating a massive 26 inches of travel. In order to take flight, Grave Digger has a 540 cubic inch blown alcohol injected Chevrolet Big Block engine, which produces approximately 1500 horsepower. This engine is the same that you would see in the top NHRA drag racing vehicles. The drive train is also composed of a custom built transmission that is literally bulletproof. The 10,000 pound monster crushes cars like ants with 66 inch Goodyear "Terra Tires".
To maintain a truck like this is no easy task, especially if you have seen Grave Digger in action. The cost of one truck is nearly $250,000 including over $100,000 in spare parts such as engines and transmissions. The engine alone costs $50,000. The sport of monster truck racing is brutal on the trucks and demands constant repairs, which keeps the Grave Digger team working around the clock.
This is what the truck looks like:

Day Forty-Eight

And here it is in action:

The truck has had a total of seven drivers. The truck above is driven by Gary Porter. Porter built his first truck for $11,000 and dreamt of being a farmer. (He lives in North Carolina with his wife on a 117-acre farm.) He signed with Anderson in 2001 and has been driving since. In addition to Grave Digger, Porter has driven Pure Adrenaline, Spiderman, Ragin Steel, and his own truck, Carolina Crusher.

In addition to stereotypical (Southern, extremely masculine) personas, many trucks are inspired by licensed characters. In addition to Spiderman, these include the following: Batman, Donkey Kong, Iron Man (I've also seen an Iron Man that wasn't related to the superhero), Hot Wheels, Superman, Taz (Tasmanian Devil), Tonka, Turtles (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and Wolverine. You can see a list of the Monster Jam trucks here.

Most of the trucks are driven by men. In fact, this is almost an entirely male-dominated sport. When I was little, the commercials were almost exclusively directed at boys, and the commercials featured little boys during the "fun for the whole family" voice over. At one event, the only female presence outside the crowd were scantily dressed women using a t-shirt cannon.

Thanks to the Internet, I've found that there are female drivers out there! Debra Miceli, former professional wrestler, drives for Anderson and co-won the championship in 2004. She beat Anderson in 2005, still drives, and is the vice president of the Major League of Monster Trucks. But there's more! Jocelyn Perrin, Pamela Vaters, Kathy Winston, Dawn Creten, Jill Canuso, Marilyn Chandler, Debbie Rhoden, and dozens more have taken the wheel!

Monster Jam is on tour now, and other tours are a regular part of local carnivals. If you go to one, make sure you bring ear plugs! It's a very loud event.

Additional Resources:
Monster Jam
Monster Jam, Wikipedia
Grave Digger
Profile: Monster truck driver Jocelyn Perrin,,
Pamela Vaters,

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