Between the bright lights, billowing clouds of dirt, nostril-burning exhaust fumes, and engines loud enough to rattle your teeth and crack a filling, attending Monster Jam means surrendering yourself to an incredibly visceral experience. Every year, the monster truck show crosses the US to perform for arenas of adoring fans. And every year, I have wondered what actually happens at such an event.
Last weekend, I finally found out, as Monster Jam returned to Portland's Moda Center. After the “Pit Party”—where fans descend into the mud to get drivers’ autographs and pose for photos with the massive trucks—and the opening ceremony, an announcer bellowed that the show would be “unexpected, unscripted, and unforgettable,” and also noted that Monster Jam is one of the only sports that judges men and women as equals. Jazz hands for gender equity, but it’s worth pointing out that Myranda Cozad, who helms the Scooby-Doo truck, was the only female driver at the Portland show.
And although in my mind humungous trucks are the vehicular manifestation of the kind of hypermasculinity I generally try to avoid, I couldn't resist my desire to see these monsters vroom around Moda Center smashing into stuff and defying gravity. Plus, they're honestly pretty magnificent to behold: Weighing in at 12,000 pounds, they feature five-and-a-half-foot tires and customized shells designed to look like sharks, dogs, and bulls, among other fearsome beasts. (Also: Each truck reportedly costs $250,000 to build.)
Once the trucks roared to life beneath the stands, I got a tsunami-like surge of adrenaline. Without earplugs, the noise would’ve been too much; the engines create the kind of titanic loudness human ears were probably never meant to hear. Everybody began screaming as the trucks paraded around the ring. The Portland crowd was dominated by kids, and because of this, the atmosphere was surprisingly joyful—childlike wonder is contagious! During intermission, small children wearing helmets with skulls on them raced miniature monster trucks around the pit at a max speed of about five miles per hour.
The competition includes races, an obstacle course, the two-wheeled challenge, and the minute-long freestyle. Monster Jam’s website features an extensive glossary of stunt names, from sky wheelies—when the truck stands straight up with its front tires in the air—to stoppies, which the announcer also called “nose wheelies.” If not properly executed, both of these tricks can result in the truck landing belly up, meaning it’ll have to be towed away. When a truck experienced technical difficulties (which happened kind of frequently), its driver would be disqualified from the challenge at hand.
My favorite thing about Monster Jam is that there are no professional judges; scores are determined by fan votes, which must be cast within 20 seconds through the “Judges Zone” website. Granted, that poses a barrier to entry for young fans and those without smartphones. But still, Monster Jam is the sport of the people—we get to decide who does the most impressive dirt dance.
Each truck represents a team of drivers, and if you know anything about Monster Jam, it's that Grave Digger is America’s sweetheart. At the Saturday afternoon show, Grave Digger driver Tyler Menninga won both the freestyle and overall competitions. (When asked, the promoter assured me that these are not rigged.) Menninga's tricks were impressive, but I was rooting for Zombie driver Bari Musawwir, whose fans outstretched their arms like zombies whenever he entered the ring. Despite Grave Digger's wins, Musawwir's stratospheric aerial jump during the freestyle competition was undeniably the highlight of the whole show.
That said, as much as I was awed by the airborne trucks, I was also pretty freaked out. And although at the time I felt like a total weenie, upon further research, there have been quite a few monster truck accidents resulting in spectator injuries or fatalities. The most recent was in 2009, when a child attending Monster Jam in Tacoma was tragically killed after being struck by a piece of metal that flew off a truck. At the Portland show, the first several rows of seats were blocked off to ensure the safety of fans. As for the drivers' safety, they're secured inside roll cages wearing harnesses, head restraints, and lap belts tightened with racket wrenches.
Apparently, drivers learn how to safely operate the trucks and execute stunts at Monster Jam University in Paxton, Illinois. According to a recent profile in Car & Driver magazine, “Many prospective drivers earn invitations to Monster Jam University by showing talent in related motorsports—say, off-road racing. But anybody can send in an application.” (I do not possess these skills and have yet to find out the tuition for Monster Jam University, but for the record: I would like to attend.)
Another weird thing I discovered: There appear to be dynastic monster truck families. Colton Eichelberger, the driver of Maximum Destruction at the Portland show, is the stepson of Tom Meents, longtime Max-D driver and professor at Monster Jam University. Grave Digger drivers Krysten and Adam Anderson are the kids of Dennis Anderson, the truck's creator and flagship driver.
The Monster Jam World Finals take place in Orlando, Florida, this May. Unfortunately I can't make it, but will instead eagerly await next spring, when Monster Jam will once again transform Moda Center into a gigantic dirt pit. (The dirt, I was informed, is all local.)
P.S. When I visited Monster Jam's backstage—being a member of the press FINALLY pays off!—the technicians were talking to each other and this was an actual conversation: "Yeah we were gonna go to Hooters last night but SOMEBODY wasn't returning my calls." Response from a dude who looked like Hulk Hogan: "You know what I did last night? I got a glass of red wine and brought it up to my hotel room and watched the rest of The Devil Wears Prada. What's not to love about Anne Hathaway?"