Ideas

Ideas | Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Monster trucks for everyone: Like gymnastics, but with more crashes

A Monster Jam truck performs during the first-ever monster truck event in Beijing's iconic "Bird's Nest" National Stadium on Saturday, July 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
NG HAN GUAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE
A Monster Jam truck took a leap during the first-ever monster truck event in Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium in 2017.

On March 24, 2012, Ryan Anderson broke his neck.

It was the encore of the Monster Jam World Finals in Las Vegas, and Anderson was performing a backflip in one of Team Grave Digger’s monster trucks. But this was the team’s 30th anniversary. It couldn’t just be a regular backflip — it had to be a backflip after colliding in midair with three other Grave Digger trucks on top of a tractor trailer. The stunt went wrong: Another Grave Digger landed on his truck, his truck landed on its roof, leaving Anderson upside down under the weight of many tons of truck. He suffered a spinal fracture, spent days in the hospital, and was out of competition for nine months.

Of course, could have been so much worse. By the time of Anderson’s accident, safety innovations included a steel roll cage, a head and neck support device that straps the driver’s head to the inside of the vehicle, a five-point safety harness, and, crucially, the remote ignition interrupter, a system that allows safety officials to instantly shut off the truck from anywhere in the arena. After the accident, his team added two more roll bars to the truck’s chassis.

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That’s a far cry from the first Grave Digger — a production truck modified with giant tires, stronger axles, and a bigger engine. The only safety gear then was the seatbelt the truck came with; driver Dennis Anderson, Ryan’s father, wore a helmet.

As the sport has become safer, both for the drivers and the audience, the monster truck is morphing into an entirely different kind of beast. Monster truck racing is now a spectacle drawing people from far outside original demographic — young, white American males from rural areas — and it’s no longer quite as nationalistic. The good ol’ boy image is giving way to a more family-friendly one, aided by a visible change in who’s driving them — more and more drivers are women, while in 2011, the first African-American monster truck driver won Rookie of the Year. And the sport is finding surprising success as a cultural export. With monster truck shows already popular in Europe, the sport’s major promoter, Monster Jam, mounted shows in Saudi Arabia, Beijing, and Singapore in last year. It has plans for South Africa in the near future.

While watching humans bash their heads together on the football field may be falling from fashion, the sport where vehicles take the brunt of the bruising is growing ever more popular. There are the familiar ingredients — celebrity, destruction, rivalry, and the unpredictability of a contest. If car racing is the man-machine corollary to the marathon and the 100-meter dash, monster trucks are the equivalent of gymnastics or aerial skiing — just with more crashes.

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Monster Jam trucks perform during the first-ever monster truck event in Beijing's iconic "Bird's Nest" National Stadium on Saturday, July 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Monster Jam trucks performing at the “Bird's Nest” stadium in Beijing.

The human appetite for destruction in entertainment — from gladiators to bullfights, dance marathons to steeplechasing — is nothing new. That those appetites would turn to motorized spectacle is a natural, if recent, phenomenon. In 1896, promoters staged a train crash and sold tickets to more than 30,000 people who descended on Crush, Texas — a town created just for the event — to watch the collision. Several people were killed when the train boilers exploded unexpectedly, showering the crowd with shrapnel. It was still considered a success, however, and others soon followed.

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Monster trucks were the product of a 1970s explosion in muscular car culture. It was the decade that embraced off-roading, four-wheeling, mud bogging, truck and tractor pulls, demolition derbies, sand drag racing, nitro-burning funny cars; NASCAR, which had been around since a group of veteran bootleg drivers began racing stock cars in the 1930s and ‘40s, earned its first title cup sponsor in 1971, taking it to a new level. This landscape celebrated steel-hearted America, loud and proud and gas-guzzling in the face of the rising Japanese car industry.

Bigfoot, the iconic blue Ford F250, was the first real monster truck, at first just a promotional tool for owner and creator Bob Chandler’s four-wheeling business. But in 1981, after a few years of appearing at regional car shows and fairs, Chandler rolled Bigfoot’s 48-inch, 150-pound tires over a few junked cars at an event in Jefferson City, Missouri, changing the trajectory of monster trucks forever. “From that point on, whenever I went anywhere, people wanted to see the truck drive over cars,” he told the History Channel this year. (And some of the biggest cheers came, contemporary reports said, when those monsters crushed Japanese cars.)

Monster trucks were a big enough craze that the year after, Dennis Anderson left mud bogging for rolling over junked cars in a monster truck. And not just in the truck-owning parts of America: By 1984, monster trucks had plowed through the mud at Madison Square Garden, Seattle’s Kingdome, and the LA Sports Arena, earning thousands of dollars every time they did.

Into the 1990s, the America that loved bigger, louder, faster, propelled Bigfoot, Grave Digger, and others onto ESPN and TNN and into packed arenas and raceways on so many Sunday, Sunday, Sundays. But by the end of the decade, head-to-head racing was being eclipsed by the more crowd-pleasing and demanding freestyle competitions — trucks performing skateboard-style tricks over a dirt-covered obstacle course of crushed cars and ramps. If it felt like the motorsport version of pro wrestling, well, the affinity wasn’t lost on the fans or the promoters — Hulk Hogan had his own monster truck, the “Hulkster.”

Today, racing is still part of the event. But the real draw is the spectacle of 12,000 pounds of luridly-colored fiberglass, metal, and rubber doing backflips or front-flipping end-over-end, soaring 35 feet in the air to land on a junked Ford Taurus or spinning in endless donuts, roaring backward balanced on its front two tires, and causing so much innocent damage — usually to itself.

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As the stunts got bigger, the challenge has been keeping drivers safe while they subject their bodies and their trucks to repeated, intentional crashes and upward of 15gs of force. But the safer the trucks get, the further the drivers push them. “What we do with the trucks is so much farther that we ever thought it would go,” said Ryan Anderson. “[But] as soon as I know that it’s 10 times stronger, I want to push it to its limit, I want to go 10 times further, faster, more. Every time we upgrade something, it just gives us that push to make it better.”

An electric monster truck can’t be too far behind – if only they can figure out a way to recreate that 95-decibel engine roar.

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The monster truck Bigfoot (#15) on jumping at the Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena during the Monster XL tour event. 7 February 2015
Royalbroil
The monster truck Bigfoot at the Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena during the Monster XL tour event in 2015.

Perhaps the most important innovation wasn’t the mechanical changes, but the near-monopolization of the sport itself by certain promoters, primarily Monster Jam.

For a decade, it has been owned by Feld Entertainment, the family-run company behind Disney on Ice, Marvel Universe Live, and, until its closure in May 2017, Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Feld pushed the sport in a direction closer to its other properties. Monster Jam runs nearly 400 shows worldwide each year; each of those shows is run to a script — except who wins, of course — down to the standardized dirt on the track. If you want to run monster trucks, you (almost always) have to do it by Monster Jam’s rules.

Every Monster Jam truck has the same specs — 10-and-a-half-feet tall, 12-and-a-half-feet wide, 17 feet long, 12,000 pounds. The super-charged V8 engine is limited to 540 cubic inches, but manages a massive 1,500 horsepower. It’s powered by methanol fuel, which the truck burns through at a rate of three gallons a minute. The tires are 66 inches in diameter, 43 inches wide, and with the wheels, weigh 645 pounds each.

Truck safety features take inspiration from other sports, but only to a point: “A lot of the racing industry is protecting that one great crash,” said Bill Easterly, vice president of operations for Feld and a 34-year veteran of the industry. “We crash more in one show than most people will crash in their lifetimes.”

When Anderson climbs into the cab of Son-uva Digger, he’s wearing a flame-retardant suit and a 6D crash helmet, which has a radio link to his pit crew and to officials in the arena. The gas pedal has a toe strap so that if it gets stuck down, he can manually yank it up with his foot. There are three fire extinguishers in the truck, two that Anderson can engage simultaneously, pointed directly at the engine, and one in the cockpit. Once in his made-to-measure aluminium and foam racing seat, he tethers his head and neck restraint and buckles his seven-point safety harness, an innovation borrowed from fighter jets; he tightens his belts until he can’t tighten anymore, waits a few seconds, then tightens some more. “When we’re in there, our hands and legs are about the only thing that can really move,” he said — any movement of his head at all, even a half-inch, during a run of jumps, flips, and sudden turns “makes it hard to stay focused.”

Crashes in the arena happen all the time; they’re supposed to. But unexpected monster truck accidents are most likely to be fatal to spectators: Between 1992 and 2007, five people died at shows; all were bystanders. In 2013, nine people in Mexico were killed when a driver lost control of his truck and plowed into a crowd of spectators. In 2014, three people, including a 3-year-old boy, were killed at an event in the Netherlands. In both, event promoters and drivers were found negligent, however, they underscore the point — these machines can be dangerous.

For Monster Jam, it was the deaths of two bystanders within days of each other in 2009 that prompted a rethink of already stringent safety procedures. On January 16, 2009, 6-year-old Sebastian Hizey was killed by a piece of flying debris at a Monster Jam show in Tacoma, Washington. Eight days later, long-time promoter George Eisenhart Jr. was hit and killed by a monster truck after he stepped out of a track safety well; the driver didn’t know he was there until the crowd started screaming. Though Eisenhart’s death was not at a Monster Jam show, and though Hizey’s death was highly unusual, the impact of both was significant.

“I happened to be there when Sebastian lost his life. I carry that around with me every day, to make sure that it never happens again,” said Easterly.

Monster Jam increased the number of rows of unsold seats between the track and the audience. Easterly said they added 600 pounds of weight in safety features alone over the last few years: Wheels now have steel cables that anchor them to the truck’s axles to keep them from flying off in a crash; the driveshaft is shielded by a steel cage; tie-rods and sway-bar links also require tethers.

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It’s hard to explain the appeal of monster trucks to people who didn’t grow up with a love of motorsports or big machines or loud stuff. But it’s easy to get it once you’ve been there. Journalist Jordan Teicher, writing an article for Talking Points Memo, went to the Monster Jam World Finals in Las Vegas in 2015. “From a technological perspective, the advances have been really swift and impressive. If you look at the first monster trucks and the trucks competing today, they’re almost like different species,” he said. The ability to perform bigger and better tricks — the wheelies, the backflips, the jumps — has eclipsed even the spectacle of crushing cars. The main action, he said, is in the slow-motion collapse of the trucks in pursuit of the impossible. “Monster trucks didn’t invent [destruction as entertainment], but they’re certainly getting close to perfecting it,” he added: They’ve created a safe atmosphere for crowd-pleasing, contained, family-friendly violence.

“There’s a sense that you can get the thrill of seeing something destructive happen, but everyone walks away essentially unscathed. It’s fantasy,” said Teicher. “Monster Jam does a great job of sort of lowering the stakes. They’ve made some of the cars look cute and adorable or like giant Hot Wheels. It’s much easier to cast aside any concern you might have about the safety. In a sense, they’re encouraging you to think of the trucks as not real, they’re like cartoon trucks.” Little wonder that Hot Wheels has a sponsorship deal with Monster Jam.

That means that the spectators going to the shows might not be who most people think. It wasn’t what Teicher expected. “I saw a diverse crowd, I saw a lot of families, I saw a lot of kids,” he said. “I was surprised by how family-friendly it was, I was expecting something a little grittier. I was expecting something maybe more similar in energy to say, a cage match or mixed martial arts, but what it ultimately seems to be more like was something more like an ice skating show.”

There is no doubt that the monster trucks running now are not the trucks of 40 years ago; the audiences watching aren’t the same, either. Even the 2014 three-volume reference set, “Pop Culture Places: An Encyclopedia of Places in American Popular Culture,” acknowledged in its entry on monster trucks that the association with “lowbrow” culture denied the real skill and showmanship involved in the shows. “In fact, the popularity of monster trucks has spread to audiences of diverse backgrounds in places not regarded as rural.”

And the sport continues to evolve: This June saw the debut of BroDozer — no, really, BroDozer — the first diesel-powered truck to compete in a Monster Jam. An electric monster truck can’t be too far behind – if only they can figure out a way to recreate that 95-decibel engine roar.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.