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Monster Jam is totally rad

Thu, 15 May 2014

To our 6-year-old selves, monster trucks really were the biggest, baddest things on four wheels, mechanized, city-block-sized demon machines that ate sedans and belched fire.

The reality is that the trucks aren't that big when you get right up next to them -- certainly not the Caterpillar 797-sized car-obliterators we imagined years ago. They're probably around 12 feet high at most; given current trends, they'll be eclipsed by heavy-duty pickups in a design cycle or two.

They're still mechanical marvels, though. All-wheel drive, all-wheel steering. Mid-mounted, supercharged alcohol-burning V8s kicking out somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 hp. Fiberglass bodies hiding scaled-up, beefed-up sandrail frames. With heavy-duty axles, they're built to take an insane amount of abuse.

We'd love to take one for a drive or even just poke around one on a lift. Not that you'd even really need a lift, given the 66-inch tires and ample ground clearance.

We jumped at the chance to see the trucks, at a distance, when the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam road show visited Detroit this January. The spectacle unfolded, as it does a couple of times a year, at Ford Field, about a Grave Digger's jump away from One Autoweek Tower. The football stadium had been converted to a dirt playground for the evening. The lower bowl was packed with spectators. Vendors hawked rainbow sno-cones.

We find the technical side of the Monster Jam event -- the actual rules of the competition -- to be as incomprehensible as they are irrelevant. The first half is a race: As far as we can tell, trucks (the field stood at 16 during the event we attended) run in a series of head-to-head elimination races. At the event we attended, Iron Man eventually bested Grave Digger.

What you're really there for, though, is the freestyle segment. That's where drivers have the chance to crush cars and old RVs, fling mud and catch what seems to be an impossible amount of air as they launch off dirt ramps. Points are assigned and a winner determined, but heaven help us if we could figure out how. Two "bonus" trucks arrived for this segment, for what that's worth.

Freestyle is where the trucks' animal side is exposed; they leap and bellow and roar. When they crash to the ground, the massive amount of suspension travel (Grave Digger boasts around 30 inches, if we can trust the info card on the back of the Monster Jam "Then and Now" two-pack we have sitting on our desk) makes them look like predators drawn back on their haunches, ready to spring forward again.

The Freestyle victor was Maximum Destruction – Max D. for short -- a backflipping Humvee-esque truck sporting a retro Megatron-meets-Skeletor spike-studded design scheme.

It's a given that some drivers will push their trucks too far, too hard. A Monster Jam audience will cheer for more or less anything. When Max D. started shedding spikes and fiberglass body panels, the crowd went nuts. But they screamed even louder when drivers ended up upside-down.

And, without fail, after extracting him or herself from the wreckage of the truck, each drivers speech is a variant of, “I gave it all I had, went a little too far, but you're gonna love what the other drivers have in store for you.” Sportsmanship. It's important.

The event has other redeeming qualities, too. Want to get your video game-addicted son geeked about big-block engines? Buy him some earplugs, take him to Monster Jam. Want to get your daughter interested in motorsports? Female drivers aren't uncommon, often piloting fan-favorite trucks like El Toro Loco and Monster Mutt.

From time to time, the experience is interrupted by what can only be described as a live-action television commercial. Your kid didn't know that there's a new Monster Jam Hot Wheels set on the market? He sure as hell does now, and it's no coincidence that each of the 20 concession/merchandise stands between you and the stadium exit are selling them.

Just consider that part of the price of admission -- the tickets really aren't that expensive, and there's probably a show taking place not too far from you at some point in the coming months.

Some will intimate that Monster Jam is scripted to ensure that fan favorites stay in the running -- the motorsports equivalent of professional wrestling, the foundation of a colossal merchandizing machine. They're full of it, at least as far as we can tell: When a stricken Grave Digger stumbled, winding up on its side and prematurely ending its freestyle run, those sparks were real

But it doesn't really matter either way. Your 6-year-old self doesn't have time to worry about the politics of the sport or the evils of commercialization. And Monster Jam is one of those rare occasions where you are, hands down, much better handing the keys to your 6-year-old self.

By Graham Kozak