Breaking things and risking lives for entertainment

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.


  1. Matt G says

    This reminded me of a term I first encountered at either Science-Based Medicine or Respectful Insolence. It’s “audience capture,” the idea that once you start building an audience for your (contrarian) ideas, your need to please them grows. You become in thrall to your audience, constantly giving them what they want to hear, no matter how outlandish. The context for this was the formerly reputable doctors/scientists who went anti-science during the pandemic. Like many forms of addiction, you need to keep upping your dose as your need for stimulation grows.

  2. says

    Conspicuous consumption is typical imperialism. The Romans would have eaten monster trucks up, if they had them at the Circus Maximus. Of course they’d be running over christians, but so what?

  3. Holms says

    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.

    Um, no. There is definitely zero philosophical thought going on while attending a monster truck show. As for the appeal, there is more to any spectacle when attended in person. This is why bands can sell out a stadium even if they aren’t playing anything new, as one example.

    Oh and Blue Brothers was all about the music, the rest was just a string of excuses to get to the good stuff.

  4. SailorStar says

    As a child, I enjoyed playing with Hot Wheels cars; setting up the tracks in various configurations and sending the little metal cars sailing through the air, jumping other Hot Wheels cars, etc. My friends and I would set up parallel tracks and race the cars against each other or just crashing into things.

    As an adult, I’m completely disinterested in NASCAR or monster trucks. They’re loud, wasteful, and repetitively boring. No wonder they appeal to the same segment of the population that votes red.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    The shows can be a forum for contemplating oblivion

    Sure. And WWE is a meditation on competitiveness and gravity.

    Alternatively Zach Helfand is desperately trying to make out that a large proportion of the American population are not gibbering morons. Too late mate, seventy one million of them voted Trump -- that ship has sailed.

  6. seachange says

    I remember when my dad took all of us to the local airshow. I knew planes could fly, because our house was not directly in the flight path for the airport, but near-enough that commercial planes overhead were a common occurrence. The navy air base was also nearby so we saw their machines too, although mostly it was huge helicopters. Knowing that planes can fly, and then seeing just what they can do when juiced up by someone who is motivated, is -not- the same thing.

    It is the difference between physics and engineering? It is the difference between folkphysics and folkengineering compared to the real things?

    Empirical proof is a thing that scientists do. Doing chemistry and physics in-the-lab is not the same thing as listening to a lecture by a PhD. (I’m vexed that pedagogical labs have gone virtual, because that is very much not the point of how humans think IMO) Perhaps think of these as tendentiously designed experiments presented to those outside of your field, people who have spent a lot of their time studying something else and who will not be actually studying physics no matter how impressive?

    As far as why this particular repeated experiment, I think Marcus has it. Just like that airshow, it’s a demonstration of imperial power.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    Most of the cars you see wrecked in movies were sourced from the junkyard. The pre-existing damage is on the side away from camera or they have non-working engines.

  8. says

    I am curious, now, but maybe too lazy to dig: what other nations have monster truck, demolition derby, and tractor pull shows? Is it primarily wealthy countries, powerful countries, decadent countries, or “all of the above” countries?

  9. James Stuby says

    think Monster Truck shows are idiotic for the reasons discussed -- wastefulness and the fact that they are boring. I went to one with a friend in the late 90s, expecting to see a lot of redneck truck enthusiasts cheering like mad, but it seemed to be more of a family show for young kids. I don’t recall any alcohol being available like you would have at a concert or baseball game for example. The intermission show was a truck that transformed into a robot, along with this ridiculously contrived story of its origin and purpose, again meant to entertain children.

  10. Silentbob says

    @ 3 Holms

    Oh, it’s only Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and others all in the one movie. No biggie.

    (But to be fair the automotive destruction did figure heavily.)

  11. birgerjohansson says

    By contrast E. Knievel put a lot of thought and planning into his stunts.
    I can respect him for that.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    what other nations have monster truck, demolition derby, and tractor pull shows?

    The UK has all of them. Nobody I’ve ever met has ever mentioned going to one, but that’s more a comment on my social circle than anything you could use as data. They’re obviously pulling an audience or they wouldn’t still be a thing, but I could say the same about Little Mix tribute acts…

  13. Jazzlet says

    The UK does have them, but at least some of them are imports from the USA, they proudly announce that fact.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    The strangest big-money subculture has to be professional wrestling.

    In regard to making metal crumple, we should be grateful technology does not permit a real-life analog of the game in the anime series “Girls Und Panzer”
    (and old-timers may recall a very young Sylvester Stallone crushing bodies and metal in “Death Race 2000”).

  15. says

    “The strangest big-money subculture has to be professional wrestling.”

    Yes, and I say that as a professional wrestling fan. Real sports bore me to tears (I was given a free ticket to a baseball game once and had to leave early because I could only take so much). Professional wrestling, though? Matches are used to tell a story, even the squash matches (very short bouts that are about showing how dominating the winner is). The goal in the physicality of it is to make it look more painful than it is, and I am under no illusion that it’s not painful, no matter how scripted it is. The wrestlers do need to take care of each other and make sure everyone is able to wrestle their next match again.

    There is a schism in the fan base though between the people who hate the “flippy shit” and the people who love it. Personally, I enjoy it. If I wanted to watch “realistic simulated combat” I’d just watch the real thing like in MMA. Give me a luchador who runs half way along the top rope before flying at their opponents. Also, the “realistic” stuff the whiners pine for was never realistic. Putting aside all the crimes that would have been committed if what we were watching was real, no actual sport would survive the blatantly bad refereeing that professional wrestling has always had, and there have always been spots where it’s clear that the two wrestlers are working together (just watch any where one wrestler lifts the other above their head, the one being lifted always helps brace it).

    That said, I did once know a guy who thought championship matches were real but everything else leading up to them were scripted. Oh, dear sweet summer child…

  16. SailorStar says

    Agreed, Tabby Lavalamp. In the 1970s and 1980s in Hawaii, there was Wrestling Hawaii; part soap-opera, part gymnastics, all entertaining. The violence was cartoonish, but it took real athletic and acting skill to be able to fake it so convincingly. Alliances were made and broken, referrers were ridiculously and hilariously over-the-top biased. The price of admission was small, so entire families went for the fun.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    Let us not forget the luchadors on film!
    When the aliens give you trouble or a vampire has escaped van Helsing and migrated to your corner of the New World, you need a particular kind of hero: A Mexican masked wrestler.

    If you were reading Heavy Metal in the 1980s you may recall El Borbah, later collected in graphic novels.

  18. Heidi Nemeth says

    I am helping care for my grandsons, 10, 8, and 5, in Germany for a couple of weeks. I would never have come across this kind of video if it weren’t for your blog, Mano. It amuses me that I found this on your blog. Thanks for presenting me with something to endlessly entertain my grandsons.

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