I’ve got a headache THIS BIG, and it’s got Grave Digger written all over it

I’ve got a headache THIS BIG, and it’s got Grave Digger written all over it

“Caution,” read the neon green, perfectly painted, shiny letters on the back of the truck, “Inside lurks an alcohol drinking, fire breathing, ass kicking Monster!” A Monster Truck that is, standing 11′ and 10" high and weighing 10,000 pounds, with 5′ and 6" tall tires, the kind usually used by fertilizer spreaders, each tire weighing about 800 pounds and costing $17,000. The total package costs anywhere from $150,000 to $225,000, and with tickets to tonight’s United States Hot Rod Association (USHRA) Monster Jam set at a low, low price of $5 to $20, this two-night stand at the John Paul Jones Arena is one of the best-selling stops on the tour.

Strapped into the center of the cab, Monster Truck drivers wear helmets, fire suits, and head and neck restraints. They have steering wheels, two pedals, and not much else in the way of controls. The floorboard is clear plastic, so drivers can see where they’re going if the nose of the truck happens to be pointing straight up.

We call them Monster Trucks, but they are trucks in shape only. Above the tires there rises a complicated, four-link suspension system (giving them around 28" of wheel travel); nitrogen compression shock absorbers; a computer-designed, steel and chromium-molybdenum tube chassis; four-wheel, hydraulic steering; and a supercharged, methanol-fueled, 500-plus cubic inch engine, all encased in a fiberglass body that is shaped and painted to look like an ordinary pickup truck. The driver sits strapped into a seat in the center of the truck, helmeted, wearing a fire suit and head and neck restraints. He has a steering wheel, two pedals, and not much else in the way of controls. The floorboard is clear plastic, meaning the driver can see where he is going if the nose of the truck happens to be pointing straight up, which it quite often is.

Not at the event?

All of which is simply to say that Monster Trucks are extremely specialized and seriously weird. Before Saturday’s main event, there is a “Pit Party” allowing fans to wander down on the floor to gaze at the trucks on display in all their cartoonish glory. “Look at that paint job!” a man whispers to his buddy, a gold chain around his neck over a black t-shirt, black jeans and work boots. Both men gaze in awe at the day-glo skulls and red-veined eyes with which the trucks are adorned. Up close the trucks look like toys, albeit really big toys, and it’s hard to ignore the inherent childishness of the whole enterprise, especially when the vast majority of the Pit Party attendees are children between 3 and 12 and their parents, everyone taking innumerable pictures of the kids posed in front of the massive tires, and on the massive tires, and being told to get off the massive tires by the pit crew.

Above the pit, in the main hall, the drivers sit at tables and sign autographs, often accompanied by girlfriends and wives who chew gum and bounce their legs, occasionally getting up so that fans can stand on either side of the driver to have photographs taken with their hero. The drivers wear jeans, ball caps and race shirts; any one of them could easily be mistaken for the guy behind the counter at your local auto-parts store.

Probably the only Monster Truck your layperson can name is Bigfoot. Created by Bob Chandler in the mid-’70s to promote his 4×4 shop, Bigfoot is widely credited with being the first Monster Truck to crush cars. Throughout the 1980s Bigfoot was the ultimate symbol of The Redneck, appearing in six movies, from 1981’s Take This Job and Shove It to the 1989 hat trick of Road House, Tango and Cash and Police Academy 6: Under Siege. Bigfoot gave us the modern image of the Monster Truck, and Chandler ushered in most of the technical innovations that have made the highly customized and high-performing trucks the wrench jockey’s wet dream that they are today.

But it is another truck, Grave Digger, that has drawn families from all over the state to Charlottesville, the children clutching hand-drawn Grave Digger signs and wearing homemade Grave Digger t-shirts. At the far end of the concourse, behind a line of people that stretches well over 100′, sits Dennis Anderson, creator and lead driver of Grave Digger, and his son Adam, who will be driving the truck tonight. Grave Digger is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary and is, within the Monster Truck world, the most popular truck racing today.

Bigfoot does not race in the USHRA’s Monster Jam series, which is, numerically, the largest Monster Truck circuit. The USHRA and Monster Jam are owned by Live Nation, the $3.7 billion, Monster Truck-sized entertainment company that also owns, surprise, surprise, Grave Digger (as well as MusicToday, the Charlottesville-based company through which, undoubtedly, many of tonight’s attendees purchased their tickets online).

None of this matters to the kiddies, who shyly proffer programs and checkered flags and even dollar bills for Dennis and Adam to sign. The monster tykes are plopped down onto the table in front of 21-year-old Adam Anderson—head shaved, a large tattoo of a star on the back of his skull, another star on his right arm, and “Carolina Mafia” inked into his left—solely because he is going to be climbing behind the wheel of Grave Digger tonight and riding to car-crushing glory across the concrete floor of the arena. And for that reason he smiles, and signs autographs, and talks to the tiny fans who crowd around him, and on him, while their parents methodically snap photographs, promising their children that tonight Adam is “gonna tear it up.” Adam has lived in this world his whole life, and although he is used to the attention, “when I see myself on TV and stuff it’s kind of weird,” he says to me.  He is unable to describe what it feels like to sit 12′ in the air behind the wheel of a 10,000 pound truck and drive it over a line of cars while thousands of fans scream, except to say that “there’s nothing else like it.” It would be hard for him to know, however, because for Adam “everything I do has wheels on it.”

Down on the floor, (bpbpbpbpBPBPBP) the trucks are started as one, (Wnngrrnn grrngrrn), and holy-ever-loving-shit are they loud, (GREEEEEGRNGRNGRN), like a million chainsaws going at once, (WRHAANGGRRAANNGG) or Niagara Falls coming down on your head, (WRREEEEGUGUG RHEEEE) and the fuel stings your eyes and smells sweet like pink grapefruit, (GUN GUNGRRRRUNGUN) as all six trucks back up until they are in a row at one end of the arena (GREEEEGREEEEGUNGUN WRUNG UNGUNGRRRGEEEEEE) and shut off their engines with a sharp intake of silence and a hovering cloud of white smoke.
It’s gonna be a noisy night.

Big wheels keep on churning out plenty of moolah as young fans of the mammoths, part of the Live Nation entertainment conglomerate, bring their parents to the rallies.

A word about noise. From 10′ away human breathing measures about 10 decibels. At 100′ a jet engine measures 150dbs. Prolonged exposure to noises measuring 95dbs is considered harmful, while 120dbs can perforate an eardrum. The average rock concert measures at least 120dbs (more if indoors), and the average Monster Truck show is typically between 95 and 100dbs. A Monster Truck show feels a whole lot louder than a concert, however, perhaps because the noise at a concert is, arguably, harmonious and is sustained, whereas the noise at a Monster Truck show is sudden and, well, monstrous. It rips through the air as the trucks are turned on and surge forward, and then is instantly gone when they are turned off.

Studies have been done on the various gaseous byproducts of fuel combustion at Monster Truck shows, namely carbon dioxide, and while it’s presumably safe, the upshot of all of the studies is that there is a lot of stuff in the air, and consequently in your lungs, while you sit in your seats screaming to be heard over the massive noise of the trucks, music, announcer, and 9,999 other screaming fans.

The JPJ is not full for this event, but it’s close, a notable exception being the empty VIP suites, which seem to fill up in direct proportion to the escalating price of tickets. There is a marked absence of drunken UVA students, or urban sophisticates out enjoying a night of good clean irony. No, tonight is for the rednecks and the kids.

“Charlottesville…” the announcer “The Pistol” Pete Birnbryer says “…get ready for…” as he gets down into a fist-pumping, jet-fighter-launching stance “MONSTER JAM!” and the trucks roar into life again, and dart out with surprising agility into positions all across the floor as they are introduced, all but one, and then the arena is lit with a sick, Chernobyl-green light, as the music switches from Metallica to George Thorogood to introduce the star. Grave Digger tears out into the open floor and spins in circles with voice-of-God noise, smoke, and the stench of its melting tires.

But before the show can go any further, the lights go up. Then Lee Greenwood’s moronic “God Bless the U.S.A.” segues into the National Anthem as a Monster Flag, at least 20′ x 30′, is unfurled and made to flap and ripple by the boys who are holding it, and our mouths fill with the taste of scorched rubber.

The floor of the arena has been stripped down to bare concrete for the Monster Jam, one half left open, and one half containing two strips of already half-crushed cars, and between them an untouched minivan. There are four ostensibly different events: The Wheelie Contest, the main Monster Race (broken into a qualifying round, two heats, and a final), The Doughnut Contest and Monster Freestyle. Of these, the main race is the only one not judged by three people seemingly picked at random. But judged on what? A common criticism of Monster Truck events is that they are really not competitions at all, but are instead just big shows, like, say, pro wrestling. This is not a position that sits well with hardcore fans and drivers, who maintain that what they do is a sport like any other.

Here then is the sport of Monster Trucks: The trucks start the wheelie run about five feet behind one of the rows of five cars, hit the first car and launch up into a wheelie, bouncing up maybe seven feet into the air and then back down onto the cars. The Monster Race is basically the same thing, except that instead of being judged by a few fans, the winner is now whichever truck crosses the finish line first as they touch down on the other side of the cars.
Monster Trucks are huge mechanical beasts. They buck and snort around the ring, the rider controlling them with a few taps on the gas or the brake, and then, in the air, hanging on and hoping they will obey. “You’d be amazed,” Diehl Wilson, driver and creator of The Virginia Giant said earlier, “by how agile these 10,000 pound trucks are in there.” And he is absolutely right. The ability of the trucks and their drivers to negotiate sharp turns, maneuver in mid-air, land, and then come to a stop without crashing into the walls or the other trucks, is astounding. Whatever else can be said about this sport, never let it be said that these guys can’t drive.

Still, calling the main event a “race” is being kind. It’s basically a standing long jump for very graceful elephants. The event consists of watching around 12 jumps, each lasting maybe five seconds. There is really zero drama about who is going to win. As a competitive sport it’s pretty boring, but as Gaw-Lee, Crash-Bang, Sports-Action with Ultra-Mega, Hydro-Hellish, Tyrano-Trucks, tear-assing and bull-dozing across the floor, not really giving a good-goddamn about anything…

Well, shit. It ain’t half bad!

The Doughnut Contest and the Monster Freestyle make no pretense at being about anything but noise, smoke, and tire marks. The trucks get some major air here, clearing the cars easily, posing high above the ground like fat, neon-clad Michael Jordans against the camera-flash sky. When they land the tires flatten, distend, pancake, and then re-form, sending the truck bouncing up once again.

The Virginia Giant whips into the crushed cars, shredded glass and metal flying, attacking the heretofore untouched minivan in the center, tapping into the primal urges of minivan driving dads everywhere. The truck revs up to dental drill pitch, a big hairy dental drill, cycloning tighter and tighter, the rubber so thick on the floor you can see the textured contours of its layers, the sheer force of the spin making the audience lean away in reflexive terror, the buzz saw scream peeling your scalp off.

(Noise. You simply can’t say enough about the noise, but ultimately what can one say? At some point hyperbole and adjectival skill fails.)

Grave Digger tops Virginia Giant’s performance by virtue of sheer recklessness, as Adam spins the truck faster and faster, the roar of the engine really almost too much to take, as two tires lift off the ground, and the truck threatens to flip. Dennis Anderson, Grave Digger’s creator, is nicknamed “One Run Anderson” for his propensity to crash and burn, driving so out of control that he often wrecks his truck and is unable to finish the race. It has been alleged that Dennis even crashes on purpose. Adam Anderson’s run is wild and crazy. He completely demolishes every last bit of metal on the floor, jumps higher, drives faster, and then begins once again to spin in impossibly fast circles, this time lifting three tires off of the ground and spinning for a few seconds on one tire, before coming to a lurching, whiplash stop, (the beast angry, not even breathing hard), on the adrenaline and rubber smeared concrete floor of the arena. About five seconds later a cloud of white smoke hits the stands, engulfing the crowd.

The floor of the John Paul Jones Arena, after the audience has left and the noise has finally ceased, is littered with shards of broken glass, beer coaster-sized pieces of metal, thick, gooey swathes of rubber, and shiny pools of oil. The trucks are once again parked against the back wall, dripping sweat, battered and chipped. The crews are busy taking the trucks off of the Monster tires and putting them onto the much smaller tires that allow the trucks to be driven into the tractor-trailers that will transport them to the next show. The crushed cars are lifted up and set one by one off to the side. Tomorrow, Sunday, the whole thing will be cleaned, and the wooden basketball floor put in place for the Harlem Globe Trotters on Friday, and then the set up will begin for Justin Timberlake two days after that.

Bulky and vaguely Hulk Hogan-like, Anderson is standing amid the calm after the storm, when a voice calls out to him from up above. “Hey, Dennis,” the obviously drunk man says, “Hey!”

Anderson looks up. “Hey pardner, how are ya?”

“Hey, Dennis, I tried to get here earlier.” The skinny mustachioed man sways and leans way over the rail. “I tried. Any way I could get down there and see you?”

Anderson tries to ignore him, but the man is insistent, sure that last time, at that other Monster Jam, Anderson had seen him, talked to him, invited him here.

“Any way I could get down?”

Anderson pauses and looks up at him. The man is leaning over, arms outstretched, and a security guard is beginning to look over his way. Anderson reaches into a box and grabs a toy Grave Digger truck still in its package and autographs it.

“Here,” he says throwing it up to the man, “give this to your little boy. Don’t tell nobody.”

Not at the event? "dadsgirl606" apparently was, and she’s got video to prove it! Posted on YouTube, this clip is from the Monster Jam in Charlottesville at the John Paul Jones Arena — webedit

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