There are huge swathes of American pop culture that I am only vaguely aware of and it usually takes some item in the news or an article that draws me in to learn more about it. One of these happened recently involves so-called ‘Monster Trucks’, something that had long been on the periphery of my consciousness. An article in the August 21, 2023 issue of the New Yorker took me into that particular world and made me take a look at some videos of what goes on at these events that draw huge crowds. The following video shows the highlights of the 2023 season. It runs for over an hour but you get the general idea after a few minutes.
Monster trucks are regular trucks that are reconfigured with huge tires that are at least 66 inches in diameter and weigh around 650 lbs so that the truck cabin itself is way high up. With modifications to the engine and chassis, it can race up a ramp and soar fifty feet into the air. Needless to say, the trucks sustain major damage at each event and have to be repaired constantly.
It turned out that people who went to fairs liked to see stunts in which there was a credible chance that someone might get killed. These were called thrill shows. Invented at the Lucas County Fairgrounds, near Toledo, in 1923, thrill shows were daredevil acts, like Evel Knievel’s.
Safety standards at monster-truck shows are much higher now, but Beckley’s theory is that people want to witness forces so vast and strange that they awe, or even terrify. The shows can be a forum for contemplating oblivion.
Meents’s long-planned jump went better. Eichelberger, in a truck named ThunderROARus, zoomed down the elevated dirt ramp and flew so far over the row of nine trucks that the vehicle rammed into a barrier at the edge of the field. Eichelberger was fine—he got out and saluted the crowd. Meents looked elated. I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. I’d seen a version of this a few times now—a big truck flying high and far. How quickly we desire more. This was Monster Jam’s trap: a never-before-seen trick can happen only once. Awe is a hard thing to maintain.
That is the problem. When I watched the video, it was amazing to see what these drivers and trucks could do but after a few minutes, I got bored. It seemed somewhat repetitive. This is not to take away from the skill and daring of the drivers but I could not see what was in it for the spectators after seeing it a few times. And yet, there seems to be a huge audience for such shows. I had thought that this was a bit of Americana but while it started here, its appeal seems to have grown and now there are shows in about 130 stadiums around the world.
One thing that really surprised me was how important the dirt used for the tracks was. Getting the right dirt for the various events turns out to be a science in itself.
Monster Jam runs events in about a hundred and thirty stadiums and arenas annually, on six continents. This requires building a hundred and thirty elaborate, temporary tracks, with massive jumps and ramps constructed out of dirt, like sandcastles for a giant. Rallies, these days, are less demolition-derby crash-fests than aerial acrobatic shows involving twelve-thousand-pound vehicles. It’s expensive to source and truck in enough dirt to fill a stadium, so the company stashes a big pile near each venue, to be used year after year.
Every dirt is different. The U.S.D.A. has identified and named about twenty thousand types of American soil. Allen knows that Atlanta’s clay is red, and Glendale, Arizona’s stains concrete. Chicago has dark topsoil. New England’s dirt has rocks; Allen puts it through giant sieves so the spinning truck tires don’t launch stone missiles into the crowd. He likes a mix of seventy per cent clay, which is moldable enough to build jumps and durable enough that the tires don’t burn through to the floor below, and thirty per cent sand, which is strong, absorbent, and good for power slides. Sometimes finding that mix is impossible. “When they first told me we were going to take Monster Jam to Miami, I told them, ‘Well, you show me water in a desert, and I’ll show you clay on a beach.’ Because that’s essentially what Miami is. It’s just pure sand.” The company spent three hundred thousand dollars trucking in loads of clay from a vein near Fort Myers.
It’s surprising how easily good dirt can turn bad. Dirt that weathers too much can become the texture of baby powder. The pH balance matters, so Allen grows plants on his pile. He likes mixing in straw. “It keeps our dirt alive,” he said. A single teaspoon of soil can house a billion bacteria, along with protozoa, nematodes, and fungi. It’s the bacteria that makes dirt smell like dirt—the scent comes from spores released to ward off predatory nematodes. The old Nassau Coliseum dirt always smelled like manure—“literally like a cow pasture,” Allen said—perhaps because it hosted the rodeo, which borrowed Monster Jam’s stockpile. Elsewhere, there are dirt bandits. “They run around behind us trying to steal our dirt,” Allen said. In January, a motocross promoter lifted Allen’s entire pile in Kansas City right before a show.
Monster truck events initially had their appeal in crushing regular cars by driving over them. It was later that they started doing tricks and acrobatics. When I see such things, I cannot really enjoy them because I do not like the fact that drivers could get seriously injured or killed just to entertain me. I also dislike the wastefulness of destroying things. I have the same reaction when I see films with car chases that result in the destruction of huge numbers of cars. I recently watched the 1980 film The Blues Brothers that I had heard a lot about (I found it underwhelming) and it featured extended car chases in which about 60 cars were destroyed, along with a huge number of shop windows and other merchandise that the cars crashed into. Even if the cars were fairly old, it still seemed like a waste. And, like with the monster truck tricks, after a few spectacular crashes, it got repetitive and boring, for me at least.