Once in a while we all find ourselves in an alien milieu.
Dust coated my throat and stung my eyes. Carbon monoxide fumes mixed with the reek of deep-fried buffalo wings and cheese-soaked sausages made me nauseous. The noise was deafening—a nonstop cacophony of roaring engines, heavy metal music and over-amplified voices distorted through a second-rate public address system. And I had voluntarily paid $25 for this. Bad dream? High school dance? No, Monster Jam, the mega-monster truck extravaganza sweeping the nation.
Monster Jam is a fascinating hybrid: an in-your-face display of raw force geared to the whole family; a dramatic enactment of rugged power elegantly packaged in bright colors and sleek design. As such, this event represents not only the iconography of the truck raised to its logical extreme—utilitarian-cum-macho, a simple animal transmuted into a monster—but also, I submit, the American character writ large.
Like a good consumer, I was drawn by the unmistakable ads, especially that signature voice blaring erratically: "Watch Grave Digger take on Krunch King! You’ve never seen any-thing like this be-fore!" More intriguing to me than the "monster trucks" themselves was the small subculture they seem to have spawned. I wanted to know what kind of person was lured to these bizarre shows. So I went and soon found out I had—hard to believe—underestimated the hyper-hyped Monster Jam. I had expected a small crowd of what we used to call "motor heads," but what I saw as I approached the arena was a staggeringly vast sea of people, nearly 25,000, clamoring to get in—three hours before show time.
Determined to blend in and talk to as many people as possible, I immediately knew I was out of my element when I noticed that everyone else was carrying sound-muffling headsets and copies of 2000 U.S. Hot Rod Association Millennium Edition Yearbook. The latter were a focal point before the competition began, when a special "pit pass" allowed spectators onto the floor (created out of 100 tons of dirt) to see the trucks up close and get autographs from the drivers. When they opened the gates and the crowds poured into the pits, I stood like a deer in the headlights watching the frenzied rush.
The entire event was a masterfully orchestrated effort by promoters and advertisers to generate controlled chaos. After an hour the crowd was corralled out of the pits with a full two hours to kill. This allowed ample time for listening to indecipherably loud music and commercials, purchasing ridiculously overpriced food and memorabilia, and admiring the variety of logos which were (and I mean this quite literally) unavoidable. It was a veritable phantasmagoria of advertising and cholesterol.
Not surprisingly, money and advertising play a major role in every aspect of Monster Jam, including the trucks’ names, which are geared to the—how shall I put it?—visceral side of our nature: Executioner, Gun Slinger, Predator, Eradicator, Avenger, Thrasher, War Wagon, The Destroyer. Though sometimes playful in a good-ol’-boy sort of way (Misbehavin’, Wild Thang), most of the names are violent, aggressive and deadly, and (here’s the key) they all make for great T-shirts ($22.50).
On the other hand, the drivers and pit crews themselves are far from being nefarious hucksters. In my conversations, I found them friendly, easygoing and unpretentious, though visibly bemused by someone asking them something other than "How many horses you got under the hood?" or "Could you please sign this?" Most have full-time jobs and do this for fun, leaving after work Friday and driving as much as 15 hours, then setting up for Saturday night’s show, sleeping a few hours before leaving for home in time for work Monday morning. Most told me they’d like to quit their job eventually, but in the meantime they are lucky to bring in enough to cover the costs of entry fees and maintaining the truck.
I especially remember a conversation with a family involved in youth motocross, one of several racing competitions that serve as "warm-ups" for the monster truck events. (Another was a jet-fuel doused daredevil who was set on fire before jumping from a height of 150 feet into four feet of water.) The boys, five and seven, were there with their parents, who told me their children started competing at the age of (I kid you not) three. As we talked, the father kept telling me I ought to get my kids involved in the motocross circuit. It was an odd moment. He struck me not as a fanatic, but as a normal dad and a nice person, yet I found it stunning that he sincerely believed that I just might join up. I’m thinking, "What a colossal waste of time and money," and he’s guilelessly opening up to me and sharing his enthusiasm.
Once in a while we all find ourselves in an alien milieu. And sometimes such an encounter can provide a different kind of clarity than we expect. As unsavory as Monster Jam was to me, its airless atmosphere was less stifling than many a cocktail party, reception or academic gathering I’ve attended. Without endorsing Monster Jam’s machismo, violence and shameless targeting of working people for their hard-earned money, it was easy to see goodness in the people I spoke with there. I guess the diamond in the rough is easier to spot when everyone isn’t pretending to be so precious.