After having read about monster trucks, you may become excited to see the mechanical wonders in action. The best place to enjoy monster trucks is at their native habitat: monster truck shows! This is not, however, the only place that monster trucks can be found. They may appear at other motorsport events, car shows or just on the side of the road at store openings or similar events. My father and I were driving down the road in Athens, GA one day and I spotted a monster truck parked in front of some automotive place. I forget whatever the hell they sold or did there, but I remember the truck and the driver. Even if you don't like monster trucks, consider that they are expensive to operate and cart around, so someone is trying to draw attention to their event with truck. Translation: free swag for you or the youngesters. The kuzooies we picked up are still in use today.
We're going to cover everything you, the humble noder, should know in order to find, attend and enjoy a monster truck show.
Monster Truck Stomping Grounds
Monster trucks are at home in a number of environments. They can operate in the desert, on the beach, on the snow or anywhere in between. Hell, with those big ass tires, they even float and have made river crossings while racing paddle wheel boats. Competitions frequently take place at indoor arenas, although the fastest and most high flying events take place outdoors.
The biggest monster truck shows are part of the annual Monster Jam tour in the United States. The majority of the shows take place in the first half of the year, and, what with it being a tour and all, the shows tend to geographically snake across the country. The travel pattern is consistent from year to year, so they tend to show up in the same place at the same time of the year, every year. This can be a blessing or a course, since most cold weather events will surely be indoors and warmer weather events may be outdoors. Also thanks to the pattern, if you are located midway between two or more events, you can hopefully shop around and get better tickets (or any tickets at all) to one show since these events will sell out. If you have the option, I encourage you to choose the largest venue possible. These allow more trucks to be present for the event as well as the potential for faster and longer races plus very large canvases for the Freestyle event. I think I would prefer indoor events over outdoor, strictly based on the fact that you are closer to the action. If you're lucky, you may even sit close enough to rattle a tooth out of your head.
And before you non-American noders reach for the razorblades in despair, know that there is in fact a European tour put on by the same Monster Jam folks, affectionately called Monster Jam Europe which kicks off after the end of the American tour. While I do not know of any other regular tours in the world, monster trucks do attend many events around the world so chin up and be patient.
Outdoor events allow the drivers to operate with a lot more freedom than smaller indoor arenas. The race tracks can cover a lot more distance and incorporate a lot more obstacles than the indoor affairs. The race may be conducted side by side in a typical straight line drag race fashion, with the atypical addition of junk cars and ramps for the drivers to negotiate. It is actually something of a misnomer to call it "side by side" because there is usually a minimum of one truck's width between the two vehicle. The lanes don't share a center line like lanes at a drag strip, but for 10,000+ pound vehicles traveling at 45+ mph over cars, they're pretty damn close. Some tracks may feature one of more turns, but these tend to be much longer and more gentle than the tight turns of indoor stadiums. Therefore, the drivers can maintain higher speeds through the turns which will contribute to your Enjoyment Factor.
The individual races will represent the match ups for the overall single elimination tournament. Two drivers launch on the green light and try to get to the finish line before the other guy. If you are unable to complete the lap, you lose, get on the trailer, thanks for playing. There are also lane markers that drivers must obey lest they suffer a time penalty. Competition proceeds one round at a time, halving the number of contestants each round. The tournament winner gains a number of points towards the season's standings. For the astute readers who wonder about qualifying, there isn't. All trucks that pass tech inspection are welcome to compete in the races without the need to qualify for position.
The Freestyle event is a real crowd pleaser. After the racing tournament has concluded, all trucks are free to enter the Freestyle event. The landscape of the field is normally altered at this point. Instead of only two lane's worth of obstacles, the center area between them is frequently augmented with a stack of fresh cars and some large vehicle like a full size van, bus or trailer or some sort. Some cars may even be removed from the field, but the main idea is that the race track or lanes are de-emphasized and the field is made more accommodating to haphazard traversals.
When the signal is given, each truck is given 60 seconds alone on the course to inflict as many random acts of testosterone as is humanly and mechanically possible. Such acts may include car crushes, high jumps, wheelies, doughnuts and/or flattening any sponsor signs, lane markers, bales of hay or other decorations. While it is in the drivers' best interest to drive as aggressively as possible, they do not usually want to incapacitate their vehicle before the 60 seconds are up--otherwise, they will probably be given a lower score for their run than driver who manage to get a full 60 seconds of bad-assery in. However, overly cautious drivers are not scored highly although it is understandable that inexperienced drivers or teams without corporate sponsorship do not want to risk disabling their truck just for an extra "ooh" or quite possibly an "ahh." Scoring is based on the sum of three judges' scores, each assigning 1 to 10 points.
I don't think there's much to be said about outdoor venues. You're outside, it may rain or it may shine; you may have covered seating or you may not. If the trucks are running at nighttime, you may enjoy the added bonus of watching flames shoot out of the exhaust, but it won't be nearly as spectacular as our nitro burning friends running top fuel dragsters with a constant wall of four foot flames shooting out of their pipes.
The Monster Truck Racing Association requires a 80' x 120' area the trucks to operate in, although they prefer 100' x 150' or more. Of course, the available floor space is going to vary from arena to arena to the type of racing could vary greatly between indoor events. Any way you slice it, you're in for a treat.
Like the outdoor races, driver may compete in straight line drag races with about a truck's width between the lanes. Even though the field is a minimum of 80 feet wide, you have to divide that space between two unused outside lanes, the race lanes, an inner space of at least one lane's width and wiggle room for each of those areas. If a monster truck is 12 feet wide, even with three feet of wiggle room per lane, those five lanes take up 75 feet right off the bat. For the curious, we'll discuss the "unused" lanes in a bit. The track always has the straightaways running down the longest available sides of the arena with 180 degree turns linking the two straights on the shortest sides of the arena.
The drag race will either be a single length of the field or a single lap around the course. The single race drag races are just what you imagine: two trucks line up at the same end of the arena, a green light illuminates and they haul ass across ramps and cars alike. First across the finish line wins. This is a race that counts on pure speed. Well, pure speed and a measure of control since a bad landing from an obstacle jump and cripple the truck.
For the single lap races, the trucks begin somewhere about the straightaways, spaced with half the track's length between. Lights go green, tires spin, and the trucks hustle down the straights before the negotiating a turn and repeating the process for the last half of the course. It may sound simple, but when a 10,000 truck falls from a even a small jump (6 feet), there's a lot of bounce to handle before you can turn the wheels or you wind up with your ass above your head. This requires a bit more focus and slower speed than the single length drag races. Furthermore, driver expertise really stands out based on control of the rear steering. Inexperienced drivers may elect to rely solely on front wheel steering, but doing so will hurt their times. Inexperienced and over eager drivers will probably flip their their trucks trying to make it work.
The Freestyle event will also be more restricted at indoor functions. As opposed to the wide open space of outdoor arenas, most indoor arenas will have a long and a short side, so the faster traversals will be made back and forth across the length of the course. This requires more time for the driver to turn the truck around after each pass and line up on a heading that will allow them to make a return pass that will keep them safely within the confines of the arena floor. Still, the extra time taken to set up the next pass does give the driver time to assess the best stunt he feels comfortable with so the fans may get some quality of quantity trade offs at small, indoor events.
The greatest part of indoor monster truck shows has nothing to do with the races. It has everything to do with the fact that you are sharing an enclosed space with a 1,500 horsepower, fire breathing monster. When a truck fires up and starts tooling around, the reverberation penetrates every wrinkle of brain. When two of them go from idle to redline at the start of drag race, the floors shake. It's intoxicating and beats any non-motorsport sporting event. Don't get me wrong, when the Bulldogs are taking on University of Tennessee and you're standing five rows back from the field with 92,745 other screaming spectators in attendance, it's a rush. But there's not a damn thing like feeling a concrete building quake when these ear shattering trucks take off. I have attended shows that take places in basketball arenas that seat 18,000 people. Those shows are alright. I have attended shows that take place in arenas that hold an ice hockey rink and seat about 6,000 people. Those shows are way better. They are comparatively louder and closer to the action. So close you can smell the clutches burning.
Monster Truck Show Constants
There are a number of events that take place before or after the show itself, or between the rounds of truck competition. First and foremost is the Pit Party or Open Pits. Admission into the pits via Pit Pass is quite often free with a ticket to the show, although sometimes Pit Passes only come with tickets sold by a specific retailer so thoroughly read up on all your available ticket outlets before purchasing your ticket. Having a pit pass allows you to see all the trucks before the show as well as meet the drivers. You'll gain a new respect for the vehicles when you stand in front of one and realize you come up to bumper height or less. Children are especially fond of seeing them up close, so consider taking a child or niece / nephew to the show early. This also applies to monster trucks that are on display at non-racing events; the truck is there for you to get up close and personal, so do so! Don't be afraid to approach the driver with questions or general gearhead banter. The drivers were crew members before getting behind the wheel, so they know their shit. And they're just the nicest damn people in the world, they deserve a heading of their own:
Monster Truck Drivers
Monster truck drivers are the nicest damn people in the world (it's worth mentioning twice). They are very knowledgeable about their vehicles, so don't be afraid to throw them a few technical questions if you are curious about the truck's inner workings. The MTRA actually requires the drivers and the pit crews to be "clean, neat and professionally attired when appearing before the public." And that was their emphasis, in case you were wondering. The point is, when these guys show up, they are they for you, the fans. They will happily meet and greet you, pose for pictures, shake hands and sign autographs before and after every show or public appearance. Nobody is turned away, they stick around until everyone in line gets a picture or autograph. First class gents all around.
Before the show proper starts, each truck is introduced individually. They usually enter the arena from the pits and park around the course. Friendly rivals may park face to face and bump one another as they come to a stop, or, in extreme cases, even climb up the tire of the rival's truck--that is to say, they drive one of their front tires up on top of the front tire of their rival's truck. Jostling aside, each driver exits his cab and normally stands on the hood of the truck or one of the tires for the National Anthem. The flags are presented by a color guard from a nearby military base or unit and active or retired military personnel will be asked to stand for a round of applause before the anthem. The National Anthem is patriotic and all that jazz, but oh my God, when it's over and all the trucks fire up at once to leave the arena . . . well, I don't know about you, but I bring an extra pair of underwear to the shows and I normally excuse myself to go clean up shortly the trucks all file out. Ten or twelve alcohol burning, supercharged big blocks trumps little blue pills any day.
Oh, and you best stand the fuck up for the National Anthem.
Safety is paramount at each and every monster truck show. Safety! Safety! Safety! Since the National Anthem is over, the rubber is about to hit the dirt road, but fear not! Every possible measure has been taken to ensure that nobody gets hurt while the trucks perform.
While attending your first show, you may be disappointed to see the first thundering truck roll out, get setup on the Start line and. . . die. The engine cuts off and the arena goes silent. That's standard operating procedure, don't worry. Every time a monster truck comes to floor to perform, whether in a race or freestyle capacity, the Remote Ignition Interrupter is tested. The driver will line up for his run, then hold his hands in clear view of the MTRA safety personnel. They hit the remote control switch to kill his engine and if it doesn't immediately cut off, the truck can't race. Holding the hands in view of the safety guys removes any chance of the driver shutting the engine off manually in a way to beat the safety inspection, not that I believe they ever would endanger someone so. If at any time during the run the safety personnel believes that the truck is beyond the driver's ability to control and/or endangers anyone in or around the course, they kill the engine and it does not come back on until safety personnel give the OK. This does cause some consternation between the drivers and safety guys since during the occasional Freestyle run, the engine is killed if the truck approaches a wall too fast or some other suspect behavior. Drivers begin thrashing around in their seats attempting to convey a nonverbal "What the hell?" for the safety guys' benefit. The drivers cannot complete their run and will most likely suffer a points loss from the judges.
There is also a lot of prep work that goes into audience safety that you may not be aware of. Even the junk cars have to adhere to a list of safety measures before they are crushed. To protect you, the cheering fan, the battery is removed to prevent acidic spray from mussing up your face. All the glass is removed to prevent clouds of razorblades from storming into the seats. The gas tank must be drained, but preferably removed in order to eliminate the potential for explosions. Of course, these are junk cars, so a salvage yard has most likely removed everything of resale value from the car anyway. Engines and transmissions are most valuable so they are frequently removed. If the engine has been removed, MTRA says the empty compartment should be filled with junk tires or bales of hay. If not, a truck may land hard on a car that collapses on one side, sending the truck tumbling off the side, possibly at speed. Even if the truck just slams straight down, it helps reduce the risk of needlessly damaging or incapacitating the truck. Any parts such as a hood or bumper that are broken off of a car are dragged away or placed inside the car between rounds. This is done in part to prevent said part from shooting out from underneath a spinning monster truck tire and into the stands. Think about those little rocks the trucks kick up on the highway and those nice little spiderweb cracks they put in your windshield. But bumpers tumbling through the air at 20 mph don't leave spiderweb cracks, they leave caskets.
Even the dirt is designed with you in mind. So noders may be surprised to know that dirt can be a top dollar commodity and that is definitely true at monster truck shows. Dirt with higher clay content allows drives to launch harder and, more importantly, stop faster. The type of dirt can be just as important as the size of the arena when determining what type of racing or other performances are conducted. And don't worry about debris, because the organizers already have. They know that if a rock were to be thrown by a tire spinning at full throttle, you could go home whistling through your forever. Consequently, they make sure to get dirt with no debris and the safety people keep an eye on the floor during performances. I have even seen at least one show where there was no dirt carted in and the events took place on a cement floor. This offers very little traction so the trucks were unable to hit high speeds or execute tight turns. It was a lackluster performance for sure.
If you attend an indoor show, or an outdoor show in which the course is enclosed by seating, you may immediately notice that the closet seats to the off limits. Usually they are draped in tarps or some other such covering to send you a clear message: don't sit here. Your ticket will be numbered for reserve seating anyway, but the point is don't even try to sneak into this area. The unavailable area may be 20 or more seats deep, but this only happens when the seating is level with the ground floor. For indoor arenas where the performance floor is more of a pit and sunken away from the first row of seating, you'll get to sit closer to the action. Even though the trucks can be killed remotely by the RII, if you were sitting on the ground floor and they bounced funny, you'd go home as a souvenir pancake.
Assuming all the safety equipment is operating properly, the driver can begin his run. However, the final decision of whether or not to race actually comes down the driver. If for any reason he does not wish race, the truck doesn't move. Should he fail to meet his contractual obligations to the promoters, on the grounds of safety, the MTRA will back the driver 100% in his decision.
Between rounds of the race tournament, the trucks retreat to the pits. Repairs of all shape and size commence. If the trucks are still visible from your seat, you can watch drivers tend their own trucks and then go help out the crews of the more seriously damaged contestants, displaying their unique camaraderie. However, between the rounds of competitions, the promoters have lined up alternate entertainment. Frequently this comes in the form of quad runner or dirt bike races or BMX stunt exhibitions. Those two "unused," outer most lanes that were previously mentioned are used quad runners or dirt bike guys. There is normally a race during each intermission period with two teams vying for the winning spot. When I attend Monster Jam events in South Carolina, they manage to have a "hometown" team from South Carolina and then a team from Michigan. Similarly, when I attend Monster Jam shows in Georgia, the hometown team is from Georgia and the other team is from Ohio, if memory serves. It's amazing the lengths Monster Jam goes to find these teams and they must spend a fucking fortune freighting in teams from so far way to compete against the local guys in each city. And whether or not the other team hails from Michigan or Ohio, the fuckers always race dirty, pushing the hometown leader off the course during a crucial turn or some such similar devilry! Thank God for the hometown advantage, as the local boys always seem to pull out a best two out of three at the last minute. . .
There is also a master of ceremonies or announcer than keeps things rolling when the racing dies down. He'll interview drivers or let the audience know what's coming up next and announce the scores or times for each race. He has a good eye, too, because he always points out when those Michigan fuckers are cheating. Anyways, at the occasional show he has a foil in the form of a . . . well, the best I can describe it is the equivalent of a rodeo clown. He's the guy that runs around the course or drives his silly little car about and gives the announcer a hard time or plays little jokes on other people. He is normally wired up with a mic so kids get to have a giggle as they listen to him carry on.
It's also a good time to get up and grab a hot dog, nachos or a funnel cake. Or buy a Grave Digger pendant so you can cheer extra hard when he flips himself over during the Freestyle event.
The conclusion of the show is an unceremonious affair where they immediately begin to drag off the crushed cars and broken trucks. The winning driver will get on the microphone and thank everyone for showing up, as well as tell you what location around the arena where the drivers will be signing autographs should you still need one.
But that's not the conclusion I wanted to talk about. I wanted to tell you that the shows are great fun and all, but they're all about the kids. You've never seen kids so excited to be exposed to avoidable acoustic pain. The entire show is designed for them to enjoy the experience and be wowed like no other event they have ever attended. Every kid should go to one at least once.
While the MTRA regulates the vehicles and participants competing in monster truck races, the US Hot Rod Association is the sanctioning body for monster trucks and originally oversaw many more motorsports than it does today, including tractor pulling and mud bogging. However, monster trucks are its biggest thing now and they take it seriously, but I didn't realize how seriously until my most recent show at The Colonial Center in Columbia, South Carolina.
I previously said that the Freestyle event was scored by three judges, but I left out something important. These judges are three kids, of no particular age, that are picked out of the crowd at every show and handed big score cards with the numbers 1 to 10. Of course I knew that before going to this particular show and I always thought it was cute but superficial. The first guy to perform always gets a high score. The next couple guys get low scores until someone does something TOTALLY COOL and/or AWESOMES!! Anyone that makes a half decent run then flips their truck in a flashy manner gets a great score. But none of that should come as a surprise, right? These judges are eight years old.
What did surprise at that last show was the woman that sat besides me. I glanced over during the Freestyle event and saw that she was decked out in professional attire and sporting a US Hot Rod Association badge on her arm. I had never seen anyone dressed in such a fashion at these shows, so I took a sideways look at what she had in her lap. At the end of each round, she dutifully recorded on some official charts what each truck got from each judge. Sums were tallied, values were ranked and winners were declared for posterity. I thought those little squirts with the score cards would be forgotten the next day, but those numbers were recorded by this lady and they are carried through the season to determine who is the hardest driving son of a gun out there.
There was also that time that I randomly spotted a monster truck parked in front of some automotive store while my dad and I were driving around Athens, Georgia. I'm sure we were supposed to be doing something important while he visited me at school, but I pointed it out to him and we pulled over. We were curious as to why the truck was there at all, so we struck up a conversation with the driver. We made some jokes between ourselves ("That will bolt up to the Mustang, right? We just need a 6 inch cowl...") and asked the driver some technical questions about the truck. He answered everything for us and we learned that it was a demonstration truck and he was a demonstration driver. That meant he would drive it across cars and over hills, but the truck was not built anywhere near racing spec and he was not a competition driver. I started looking through the empty fenderwells at the naturally aspirated 460 in all its glory. Having just taken my own 302 apart, I was high on the gearhead life and soaking up everything that I could. I walked out from under the truck and stood with my dad and the driver for a little while until a second group showed up to look at the truck.
There was a young father who drove up with this two little boys that wanted to see the monster truck. They were cute little bastards and young enough that they could have sat inside the rim in one of the tires. While the three of them stood in wonder in front of the truck, the three of us stood there in the parking lot watching them. The first one of us to speak was the driver, who said that's what it's all about--the little kids. It made me smile to hear him say that. Here he was, a young guy, late 20s, early 30s, standing in some random parking lot out in the heat of the Georgia day in a damn fire retardant suit, telling us he drove an obsolete monster truck across junkyard cars. He sure as hell didn't have the glamorous job, but he sure smiled when said it was for the kids. I really admired him for that.
I wonder if that's how my dad felt when he took me to my very first show who knows how many years ago.