Imagination abandoned by Reason produces impossible monsters.
The crowd is going lug nuts. Spinning tires pitch mud lumps high above spectators at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, each filth bomb falling to Earth like a seat-seeking missile. Beers are befouled. A little boy is besmirched. A bald man's bean is bespattered.
In the world of monster trucks, there are two immutable laws: 1) What goes up must come down, and 2) spinnin' wheels got to go round.
Round the spinnin' wheels go tires that can be 66 inches tall, with treads that are 43 inches wide. "We pulled into New York City at rush hour once," recalls Dennis Anderson, who keeps his beast called Grave Digger in training wheels in a semitrailer when transporting it from arena to arena. "I tell you what, I thought about throwin' on the big tires right there and unloadin' that sumbitch in traffic."
March 8, 1993
Alas, it is illegal to loose six tons of Chevy-powered hell fury on the heathen streets of Gotham, no matter how much Manhattan's cabbies might deserve to shudder beneath the hooves of Digger's 1,500 horses. Several states have passed monster truck laws that proscribe circulation by vehicles whose bumpers are more than 30 inches off the ground. "Thirty inches off the ground," says Fred Shafer in the long, dark shadow of his Dodge Dakota Bear Foot. "My bumper's seven feet off the ground."
Seven feet off the ground. Shafer throws his head back, and the Civic Arena's concrete corridors echo with diabolical laughter.
Orphaned by Reason, the imagination of the American gearhead has indeed produced impossible monsters: trucks 12 feet tall with as much giddyap as stock cars. The engine in a monster truck displaces up to 575 cubic inches, a space that sublets for $2,000 a month in Manhattan. Monsters consume four to five gallons of alcohol with each three-second voyage over the crush cars.
Crush cars are the monster truck's raison d'‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢tre. In layman's terms crush cars are cars that trucks crush. Just as a flower is most fragrant when crushed, a car has not realized its full potential until Bigfoot or Snake Bite or the Jersey Outlaw has rendered it the kind of flattened junk heap that Jimmy Hoffa would be caught dead in. "People seem to like the noise," says Bigfoot owner Robert Chandler, monster trucking's Abner Doubleday. "They seem to like the sound of metal being crushed."
And, of course, this is the only sport that reproduces on a grand scale the sweet sound one savors when collapsing a beer can against one's forehead. Nearly every weekend, somewhere in North America, monster trucks slake their thirst for crush cars. Let lesser bumpers ask, HAVE YOU HUGGED YOUR CHILDREN TODAY? The question painted on the back of the Chevy monster Carolina Crusher is: HAVE YOU DRIVEN OVER A FORD LATELY?
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is no joke," the P. A. announcer warns fans at a critical point in the Pittsburgh monsterama. "This will be a plenty-big explosion. If you have a pacemaker, leave now!"
At which time a woman in a bathing suit climbs into a giant plastic-foam beer cooler and blows herself up.
Old monster truck drivers never retire, they just...re-tire. The 45-year-old Shafer, the oldest driver in the business, drove Bear Foot to the world championship last season, outracing trucks throughout the year on courses strewn with gutted cars. The world championship is actually the championship of a 37-event tour called the Camel Mud & Monster Series, a name that evokes the monster truck fan's holy trinity: 1) mud, 2) monsters and 3) a carton o' butts.
Who is the monster truck fan? Well, he might be a doctor or a lawyer or a classical pianist. (If, that is, he had gone to med school or law school or Juilliard. Instead, he went to federal prison.) He is decidedly blue collar. (When he's wearing a collar. When he's wearing a shirt.) These are the jokes, folks. I'm a monster truck fan. I think monster trucks are terrific. I think they're monsterrific. And I am not alone.
SRO/PACE Promotions owns and operates the U.S. Hot Rod Association (USHRA). One of a handful of promoters of monster truck extravaganzas, SRO claims to draw some 2.5 million folks annually to its spectacles, "motorized rodeos" that include some combination of monster truck racing, truck and tractor pulling, motorcycle racing, thrill acts (like the beer-cooler blowup) and, of course, mud boggin', a sport we will discuss later, when the kids have gone to bed. Believe me, you don't want them getting ideas.
Viewers in nearly half a million homes watch a weekly monster truck show on ESPN. Untold others see monster trucks regularly on the Nashville Network. And still more folks catch monsters sporadically on PBS, a fact that I just made up.
Monster trucks are, in the lingua franca of monster truck fans, "big bidnith." They have been since 1984, when, in a seminal moment of monstermania, 72,000 people filled the Pontiac Silverdome for a Saturday-night monsterfest. "We first booked monster trucks at the Silverdome in 1982, during a tractor pull," says SRO president Charlie Mancuso. "A truck came out of the tunnel, crawled over two cars and then had to be escorted off the floor because 50,000 people came over the rails to get closer. I know you don't believe me, so I'll get you a picture. They had to literally escort the truck out of the building like a rock star."
That truck was the Bigfoot Ford, the mother of all monsters, and it had been crushing cars at county fairs and carnivals for nearly a decade before getting the gig in Motown. "It scared the hell out of me, to tell you the truth," says Chandler, who was behind the wheel at the Silverdome. "I locked the doors. People surrounded the truck. A thousand flashtubes were going off. I had just crawled up on a couple of vehicles. Today you have to clear 12 cars or people are disappointed."
In fact, one of Shafer's two supercharged Bear Foot Dodges jumped 13 cars at the Astrodome in November. Any kid lucky enough to have been there felt an adrenaline high he couldn't have gotten from a dozen boxes of Cocoa Puffs.
You see, at least half of any monster truck crowd is composed of bewildered children watching their Matchbox cars come to life. "Monster trucks appeal to kids because they're giant cartoon characters," posits Mike Bargo, an award-winning monster truck photographer, author of the book Monster Trucks, erstwhile editor of Monster Truck Spectacular magazine and creative force behind two monster truck coloring books. "They're big things that move fast, and they smash things. And kids love to smash things."
To aid kids in that mission, scientists at Mattel have developed something called Bruno the Bad Dog, a little bundle of destruction for the home. Bruno's ad copy reads: "Yank its chain and this Hot Wheels monster truck turns into a ferocious, growling 'mad dog' with chomping teeth!" And then comes the kicker: "Ages 5-up." I'm not yanking your chain. And, ad copy be damned, I'm certainly not yanking Bruno's chain.
I believe that children are our future and that our future will include a great deal of Grave Digger, to judge by the multitude of preadolescent fans waving souvenir foam-rubber tombstones recently at the sold-out Rosemont Horizon in suburban Chicago.
During a break in monster action, there was four-wheel motorcycle racing between Team Illinois and Team Wisconsin, regional rivals so bitter that they engaged in an ugly scat-clearing brawl after the race. "I thought about quitting because it's so dangerous," said John Peters, a Team Wisconsin member from...upstate New York. "But I couldn't. To six-year-old kids and 60-year-old ladies, I am a god."
While there were plenty of ladies in this crowd of 14,000—and each one of 'em as adept with a dipstick as she was with her lipstick—there were, truth be told, no 60-year-old ladies in sight. "Spectators max out in their early 40's," says Bargo. "You don't see seniors because the trucks would blow their ears out."
Monster trucking is the loudest sport in Christendom. At the Horizon children not larger than plankton wore the kind of massive ear-protection headsets favored by runway personnel at O'Hare. In addition, powerful monster fumes may constrict the throat and set the nostrils aflame, which is why one man wore a surgical mask and several others held hankies across their noses and mouths, as if awaiting rescue in a hotel fire.
Also in the stands was a boy sitting in a wheelchair. It was decorated to look like a...well, I guess you would call it a...monster chair.
I know what you've been thinking, so let's get something straight before we go any further, Bub. "This is a sport," says Grave Digger's Anderson, who broke his left knee crashing into a concrete wall at the Horizon in 1991. "It's a real serious motor sport. A lot of people think we're some kind of damn circus act."
To be sure, the man responsible for it all is no P.T. Barnum but a thoughtful and intelligent antihuckster whose soft-spokenness hardly squares with those hyper-hyperbolic monster truck commercials: Six monsters synonymous with destruction! The baddest, meanest, most outrageous trucks ever assembled under one roof!! We'll sell ya the whole seat, but you'll only need the edge!!!
"I hate those commercials," says Chandler softly. "Don't you?"
Sometime in 1974 Chandler created the monster truck. An exact date is difficult to fix, because Chandler's first Big-foot grew gradually, tire and engine dimensions and whatnot escalating portentously over 18 months or so. And even when that first primitive monster had arisen from the primordial mud, its tires were a now-laughable 44 inches tall. Chandler was opening an auto-supply store in suburban St. Louis, and what better way to advertise the merchandise than to tool around town in the latest automotive accessories? At no point did he pull a Frankenstein and declare to the heavens that he had created a monster. "But," says Chandler, who is now 51 and leaves the driving to others, "I have thought exactly that several times since."
He owns 14 Bigfoots around the world, including one in New Zealand and one in England, where all monster trucks are known as Bigfoots. The sun never sets on the Bigfoot empire. The name is licensed to Mattel, Ertl and Power Wheels.
On this day Chandler is in his office at Bigfoot 4 x 4 in Hazelwood, Mo., where 40 employees tend to all things Bigfoot. He has just returned from Los Angeles, where he allowed Jay Leno to drive Bigfoot over some crush cars for a taped Tonight Show segment. "I was impressed," says Chandler. "Jay is quite a gearhead."
"I loved that," Leno said on the air. "It's great smashing stuff."
Bigfoot has also popped up in a litany of astonishingly bad films: Take This Job and Shove It, two of the Police Academy movies, Roadhouse and Tango & Cash, in which Bigfoot's acting, critics agree, was less wooden than Sylvester Stallone's. After robbing a bank in the film Quick Change, Bill Murray demanded a getaway monster truck and was given Bigfoot.
Anyway, shortly after Chandler first monkeyed with a pickup, everyone along the Midwest Riviera was doing it. Drag racer Shafer built a monster in nearby Pontoon Beach, Ill. Appropriate, isn't it, that the first two monsters arose from towns flanking the Mississippi?
The Big Muddy.
"Look!" says a member of the USHRA technical crew, pointing to a petrified piece of filth on the tunnel ceiling while entering the Civic Arena on the first night of the two-night monster truck festivities. "A piece of mud from last year's shows!"
"Mud guys, over here!" shouts USHRA event director Bob DeWire, who then begins balefully calling the roll of the mud racers who have gathered here two hours before showtime. "Insanity? Psychotic Beast? Let's Boogie? Expect No Mercy? Mud Patrol? Devastation? S Kicker? S Kicker?!"
Mud racers, or mud boggers, as they're also known, race their fuel-injected dragsterlike vehicles against the clock through an 80-foot-long mud pit, the winner being the first to ruin my new jacket. At the finish line hell-bent mud racers doing 60-per have only 80 more feet to stop, lest they be accordioned into the hockey boards.
The Pittsburgh Penguins played a hockey game here last night, immediately after which a crew began its 12-hour task of constructing tonight's mud-and-monster track. Clip and save the recipe:
MUD-BOGGING TRACK MIX
Ingredients: 122 truckloads of dirt.
Directions: Spread the dirt evenly, 30 inches deep, in a pan the size of a hockey rink. Add 6,000 gallons of water. Stir.
By the second night of this two-night stand in the Iron City, mud is clinging to the facing of the second deck. Mud obscures EXIT signs, and mud showers delight those fans fortunate enough to be seated behind the starting line, which is where I sit, contemplating a souvenir cup o' sludge.
At a recent Chicago monster mash, a radio station blindfolded three lucky contestants and had them wallow in the mud on their stomachs, groping for buried rubber balls that they could then exchange for cash and prizes.
Alas, there will be none of that in Pittsburgh. As showtime approaches, DeWire is explaining to mud racers and monster drivers that the lights will be out during the dramatic introductions, after which "the house lights will come up, we'll play the national anthem—and there will be some pyro during that...."
Some pyro? When the recorded anthem reaches the part about the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, the joint is filled with enough smoke from flares and explosives to choke a camel. When the pyro smoke later mixes with the monster fumes, the result is a rather effective emetic.
"They have a lot of weird things to go with the trucks at these shows," says the bemused Chandler, who did indeed create a monster. "The weirder the thing is, the better people seem to like it."
Some of the curiosities, both human and mechanical, that appear at monster truck shows:
•"Robosaurus," says Jim Kersten, a genial publicist for SRO and the USHRA. "Robosaurus cats cars."
Robosaurus is indeed a car-nivore. Two stories tall, Robosaurus is a mechanical steel monster. Not a monster truck but an actual monster. Robosaurus will seize an old rust bucket in its massive steel pincer mitts—hands that look like the Marquis de Sade's fireplace implements—pop the jalopy into its steel-trap yap, chew it up and spit it out and finally belch a deep fireball of satisfaction.
"That dinosaur," Bargo says of Robosaurus. "I've seen it pick up an old Buick, take a bite out of it, tear sheet metal off it—a door, the roof—blow fire into it and throw the thing, on fire, to the ground. I've been maybe 80 feet away and felt the heat like I was standing too close to a barbecue. I'm told the dinosaur has 7,000 pounds of crush power in its hands and 5,000 pounds of crush power in its jaws."
•"We have Vorian," continues Kersten, like a car salesman moving around the showroom. "Vorian is a dragster that transforms itself into a two-story-tall, fire-breathing robot."
Who among us does not know the familiar story of Vorian by now: built by a man with a congenital heart defect living in a $6-a-day motel in Dallas; has a Westinghouse J-34 jet engine that was once part of a Navy Banshee fighter plane. Vorian's arms look like rack-and-pinion ritual disembowelment devices but are in fact a flamethrower and a rocket launcher, respectively. Plus, of course, Vorian does 200 as a dragster.
•"We have guys who drive head-on into a van filled with explosives," Kersten says. "We have a lady who gets into a box full of dynamite and blows herself up."
Let's ignore the guys who drive head-on into a van filled with explosives—seen one, seen 'em all—and get right to the lady who blows herself up, a classically trained stuntwoman who calls herself Lady MacDeath and....
"The Dynamite Lady," says Kersten. Sorry. She calls herself the Dynamite Lady, and she climbs into a beer cooler wired with a pair of blasting caps. Still, she takes a mean-enough blow that the P.A. announcer feels duty-bound to warn those with bad tickers to skedaddle. Heart patients are then allotted six seconds to sprint half a mile to the parking lot before the whole building goes kaplooie! After which the Dynamite Lady staggers from the rubble to the accompaniment of her theme song, a soft ballad that goes:
She blows herself up every night
I have seen a videotape of a monster-circuit performer named Benny Boom-Boom, a human cinder who flickers quickly across the screen, free-falling while on fire. I'm not sure exactly what Mr. Boom-Boom does, but he seems to catch fire in a spectacular explosion.
"One of those guys who blows himself up blew himself up," says Bargo, who sounds vaguely convincing. "He died."
•"Free-falls," says SRO's Mancuso, moving right along. "You know—a guy jumps from the rafters of the Rosemont Horizon onto an air bag."
Borrr-ing. So at the Horizon last November they replaced the guy with a girl and engulfed the little lady in flames before she teetered into a 50-foot plunge. The woman was identified (not by dental records, thank goodness) as Vicki Sims, the Falling Fire Angel. USHRA literature states that Sims survives the fiery fall by wearing "secret gels and salves."
The fallen Angel was asked afterward what she was thinking as she hurtled earthward, her entire body ablaze. Quoth Sims: "I was feelin' my butt burn."
•"We produce a truck- and tractor-pull series," says Mancuso. "The tractors are not really tractors, they're 7,200-pound, multiengine dragster-tractors."
•"We have Brian Carson," says Mancuso. "He drives a car 400 feet at 65 miles an hour up a ramp and sails through the air 100 feet and crashes into a five-story stack of cars that explodes upon impact."
Wherever do you get all those Pintos?
"That act comes self-contained," says Mancuso. "He brings his own cars."
I have lived in the monster and I know its insides.
I am in the belly of the beast, sitting in the lone seat of Grave Digger's spartan cab. "No AM-FM," says Digger's owner, Anderson, a speck on the ground 15 feet below. "No rearview mirror." No pine-tree air freshener. No beaded seat cover. No bubble-domed dashboard compass. This is the way the drivers like it. Nothing to come between a man and his monster.
What powerful force is it that compels someone to drive monsters? It's a truck thing—you wouldn't understand. "We're flying 10,000-pound trucks through the air," says Gary Porter, who owns and drives the Carolina Crusher. "I really can't explain that feeling."
Only a couple of dozen men make a living at it, traveling 40 weeks a year, often just to meet the expense of maintaining a world-class monster, which costs anywhere from $80,000 to $150,000 to build. Which is why almost everyone who builds one is the owner of a custom-truck shop or auto-supply store.
The life isn't for everyone. "I used to bring my wife to these," says the technician operating the equipment that times the races in Pittsburgh. "She doesn't come anymore. She told me, 'Don't tell anyone you actually do this, O.K.?' "
But for a select few, there have been monster returns. Bigfoot-related items—toys, T-shirts, caps—grossed $37 million in 1991, of which Chandler realized a handsome 1%. Anderson, who in 1981 built his first Grave Digger in a chicken shed in Chesapeake, Va., now owns eight Diggers and has also tapped into the lucrative toy market. His two children play with Grave Digger trucks in the backyard of their home in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., which, according to Rand McNally, does exist.
There are some 325 monsters roaming the world now. The Japanese have bought a few and will soon be producing monster trucks as surely as they do monster movies. But for now America is still on top in one grease-slicked area of the automotive industry. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and the Grave Digger Chevrolet.
"Americans have always had a love affair with cars and trucks," says Mancuso, whose predecessor at SRO, the late promoter Bob George, is often credited with coining the term monster truck. "By 1989, light trucks accounted for nearly one third of U.S. automotive sales. Look outside here." Interstate 88 flows sluggishly past the window of Mancuso's office in Lombard, Ill. Afternoon commuters are crawling out of Chicago.
"You see traffic stopped on I-88 at five o'clock," he says. "Then you see a Ford Explorer with tires six feet tall on it. The average guy thinks, Oh, what a feeling it would be to have a monster truck and ride across the top of all these cars in front of me. Assuming there weren't any people in the cars, of course."
Of course. All of monster truckdom was sobered last year when an 82-year-old man was struck and killed by a truck at a show in Niagara Falls. The man was standing on the floor as a guest of a member of the towing crew. On the Camel tour the first few rows of seats are not sold. The 80-member Monster Truck Racing Association exists primarily to promote safety awareness among drivers.
"In all of motor sports," says Bargo, "more people die in the stands choking on hot dogs than die in competition."
Bargo offers up some more delightful demifacts. "The monster truck tires are like Nerf balls," he says. "I've seen them run over guys, and the guys were O.K. There was a guy who was lying in the mud and got run over by a monster truck, and he was fine—maybe had a couple of cracked ribs. There's only eight or 10 pounds of air pressure in the tires, plus they have those really wide footprints."
Be that as it may, I decide against testing this theory at the Horizon when the top six monsters on the Camel tour gather to determine the 1992 world champion. I pass on the hot dogs as well.
It is the Oscar Night of the monster world. There are no limousines pulling up outside the Rosemont Horizon, but there is a flatbed tractor-trailer piled high with Christmas trees octuple-parked diagonally, so I am fairly certain I have come to the right place.
The arena is atingle with the buzz of nicotine. Elizabeth Twohy, the fabulous Miss Camel, is on the floor, distributing cartons of cigarettes from a duffel bag to drivers and crew alike. Spectators filing into the arena are registering to win a Camel jacket, to be awarded to one lucky "adult smoker."
"Remember, folks," stresses the P.A. announcer, "that's an adult smoker."
Soon the racing begins. For 10 bucks the folks in the cheap seats get the same mud facial that a socialite would spend hundreds for at an exclusive spa. "Let's see a wreck!" a disgruntled customer shouts during a lackluster run. "Take that thang back to Dee-troit!"
"If there's anybody in the arena who left a tractor-trailer full of Christmas trees in the parking lot," comes the inevitable P.A. announcement, "remove it immediately or it will be towed!"
It quickly becomes clear that Shafer will become the world champion, a title he can savor during his monthlong off-season in Pontoon Beach, where he is a licensed game breeder and raises the black bears that gave Bear Foot its name.
And with that decided, there is but one question left to answer. The Falling Fire Angel has done her thing. Vicki Sims is an adult. And she now stands smoldering in a tunnel. So I wonder: Does she qualify for the Camel jacket?