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What I Learned At Monster Jam XVII, The Super Bowl Of Monster Trucks

For two days, the world's finest monster trucks meet in Las Vegas to make tons of noise. These are their stories, or at least what it's like to watch them flip over.

by Ed Zitron
Apr 15 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Ed Zitron

Every year, monster trucks flock to Las Vegas to mate, bringing about the birth of the next generation of monster trucks, which in turn shall spawn when the time is right. This act of automotive inbreeding has been deemed illegal by both the Nevada Department of Transportation and the laws of God, and yet every year lucrative payoffs to the police department allow this nightmarish truck fuck-fest to happen again. This year marked the XVIIth edition of the Monster Jam World Finals®, and I did what I assumed any normal, red-blooded American would do (I'm British): purchase "club seats" to Monster Jam World Finals® XVII.

It turns out that, at Sam Boyd Stadium, which you maybe know as the home of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, "club" means you actually have a seat in what's otherwise a bench-only stadium. The resulting deal: $400 for two nights, as well as free non-alcoholic drinks, a buffet, big televisions, and good sightlines to watch trucks do wheelies. That and you're not with the fans up there on the benches, hooting and hollering.

I don't look down on them. I played EverQuest. I once saw Three Doors Down live. I paid what it'd cost to probably buy out the entirety of Sam Boyd Stadium for two Super Bowl tickets. Nothing anyone there watching the trucks hump does is stupider than the many, many stupid things I have done and will do in my life. As I was to find out, I was actually horribly presumptuous about the people who attend these events.

Read More: My Time In The Oligarch Zone At Super Bowl 50

The research I did into Monster Truck Aficionados didn't help. The online world of Monster Truckies consisted of someone wondering if they could bring a gun, complaints that there are too many generic monster trucks in the Monster Jam Finals these days, and homemade Monster Truck theme songs; "this is a song lissen to it it is called Eldiablo ," to quote YouTube user Avery Messer. Also I learned that there is a monster truck driver called "Chad Tingler." I eventually began to simply make up the names of other drivers, in case I had to fake it in conversation—Chunt Feltnam, Dim Gringles, Trent Flubbs, you know, all the greats.

I convinced noted idiot Phil Broughton, a radiation safety specialist, to join me; he quickly chose the monster truck "Cleatus" as his "truck wife." Yes, Cleatus is sponsored by Fox Sports, and inspired by their emotive NFL On Fox robot mascot; it is impossible to forget this, as Fox Sports' music plays whenever he's on the track. I would learn this in Las Vegas. I would learn many things.

Truck Me Sideways

The Monster Jam finals do have rules. Each year, 32 trucks are "invited" to appear, for reasons that are the subject of some controversy within the monster truck community, as FELD Motorsports owns a majority of the trucks that compete in said finals. Apparently. I don't really know, and for a sport that is literally big trucks with big wheels going fast/hitting things it's all remarkably confusing.

The finals are split over two nights, with two events, racing and freestyle. Racing is a 16 to 20 second long event in which two trucks speed awkwardly on two sides of a symmetrical course to compete for the best time. They speed out of "Thunder Lane"—that is, the parking lot—and onto the course, go in a straight line, turn a corner, then drive back out, two at a time. It is every bit as gripping as it sounds.

The second night is "freestyle," and this is the good shit, or at least one of the most chaotic, incomprehensible sporting events imaginable. It is hotly contested—the crowd boos the judges' scores, generally—and it is also incoherent, bizarre, and wonderful.

A monster truck is a 10,000 pound truck that sits, at a great height, atop giant wheels. They're designed, by all appearances, by a cabal made up of ZZ Top, an eight-year-old who found a way into his father's liquor cabinet, and Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem. Each driver's name could easily be cribbed from a Key and Peele College Bowl sketch. There are three or four trucks called Grave Digger, as well as some sort of Son of A Digger; they are all from the same family, led by Derek Anderson, who has the same name as an at-times-interesting quarterback, but looks like a gruff, truck-driving version of Scruffy From Futurama. The other Grave Diggers, which differ in color but not much else, are driven by younger Andersons. It is hard not to wonder if one Anderson secretly wanted to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a vet. As it stands, they're a grave-digging family.

The rest of the field includes two Monster Energy trucks, simply called Monster Energy Blue and Monster Energy Green, because who gives a shit, right? There are two trucks called "Max-D" that have a face, pulled from...something...by two hands...that look almost identical to the beloved internet image Goatse. There are four dog trucks, including two that were called Scooby Doo, which I can only imagine what the cost of the licensing must be. El Toro Loco is driven by a white dude, and Zombie is a truck that's also a zombie, right down to the jutting arms and clattering teeth. Zombie's signature is to wave his (?) arms up and down, much like a zombie doesn't. Soldier of Fortune is driven by the aptly named Chad Fortune, an actual veteran. There's Alien Invasion, a giant truck with scrolling green LEDs all over it, which is Chad Tingler's ride.

I'll stop here. There are so many trucks, and while 32 may not seem like much, 32 huge loud vehicles is plenty—plenty loud and plenty confusing, even sober.

Night One: Racing and John McCain

The Sam Boyd stadium is not close to the Las Vegas strip. I really want to establish this—it is a $40 cab ride, at best, and a solid half hour from your hotel even if you're staying at the edge of the strip. I'd decided to stay at the Palazzo because, as a huge asshole, I have status there; what this means is that I got a cab from the airport and some free booze. As a total provincial dunce, I'd assumed that anything in Vegas was at most 15 minutes away from anything else. This is how I wound up, bladder full of that free booze, getting into a cab under the assumption that Google Maps was lying to me about how far the stadium was from my hotel. I spent the rest of the ride certain that I would be the first—or one of the first, anyway—writers to get "I pissed myself in a cab on the way to see the monster trucks" into an article. Phil, my trusty ward, laughed at me and the driver hummed the same tune for the entire ride.

Now $45 poorer and impressively full of urine, I stepped into a parking lot that housed as many big-rigs, trucks, and buses as it did normal cars. An auxiliary lot, also full, had a bus with the words PRISON TRANSPORT on the front. There might have been a story, there—was this the special trip that good prisoners got? Did the prison bus driver take his work vehicle to see the trucks?—but I will never know it. We were already late to hang out with the drivers and their trucks.

This all went down in The Toyota Club, a long, air-conditioned tube with its own special entrance and a special elevator, access to which required a special wristband. It's similar to just about any other sports club—giant windows, big TVs, staff on hand to point you to the bathrooms, which honestly are not very hard to find. After spending $400 on monster trucks, spending another $8 on a (light) beer didn't feel great, if I'm being honest, but I have nothing but good things to say about the giant meatballs on the buffet. And then it was starting.

Everyone say hello to the trucks. — Photo by Ed Zitron

Or...sort of starting. At any rate, a woman with a microphone was walking around asking people questions, her eyes wide and her smile blinding. Why did you make this quilt of trucks? Oh, you've been to all of these finals? How was that? Do you know where the bathroom is?

With every question, the crowd dispelled the various Trump-ian things I expected from the monster trucks. Kids sat with soft monster truck hats, declaring how excited they were to see [truck] do [thing that truck does] to their smiling, attentive parents. No one was even swearing. I have seen high school hockey games where people have ground their junk against the side of the rink. I have heard grown men call their own children shitheads for not scoring a goal at a soccer game for eight year olds. Yet here, in the arena for large trucks with big wheels that honk and snort at you for hours, the atmosphere was not merely family friendly but oddly gentle. I half expected someone to walk around and tell us all to just have fun.

As the clock struck 7, American flags. All over the stadium, every single LED screen flipped from one of several brand logos to the image of a giant flag. A man loudly read a speech—that there were men and women among us that threw themselves into danger, to protect us, to serve us. They were all around us. I stifled a laugh—were these angels, or active-duty military members?—but as it turned out they were. A call went out encouraging active military or veterans to stand up, and a good quarter of the crowd did so. Then we all stood, and someone who reached the finals of American Idol warbled the national anthem. A man in front of me chided his child for keeping his hat on, saying "people died for that." Okay, buddy, simmer down, he's eight.

Truck Racing Is Terrible

At least four people have asked me if I used my whole seat at the Monster Jam, or simply the edge. Where the truck racing portion of the evening was concerned, I used my entire seat, and could in fact have used a second, comfier seat. I'm saying the racing was bad.

Even with the trucks circling the arena, somewhat eerily, the roar of the engines was deafening. It only got louder—I cannot emphasize enough, but goodness fucking gracious are these loud trucks—with the beginning of the practice races. Two trucks would race on in a straight line, hit a corner, launch over a dirt hump to a bored-sounding "ooh" from the crowd, land the jump, and then drive out. Their times then displayed on a big board, with a reminder that this was, in fact, a practice. Two at a time, these 32 trucks did this, while the announcer reminded everyone that this was just practice, of no consequence, and totally meaningless. I counted him saying it fifty times before I gave up and returned to trying to convince myself that I could consume Bud Lite.

I looked around and saw similar boredom. Kids were looking at their parents, alarmed. Why was nothing happening? Why were the trucks so boring?

Then the real racing started and it was...well, two trucks would race on in a straight line, hit a corner, launch over a dirt hump to a bored-sounding "ooh" from the crowd, land the jump, and then drive out. Their times then displayed on a big board, and the next round goofed their way through the track. This time it was not practice, but in every other way I wanted to boo—boo the sport, boo everyone else who paid to go, boo the trucks for not exploding, demand they release the traps so the trucks had something to fight. Instead, I watched what amounted to an animated GIF of monster trucks, unspooling at astonishing volume. I had never considered that the monster trucks might be boring.

We eventually found ourselves at the Venetian, where we sat to play electronic craps. Far to our left, we saw John McCain playing craps at a real table, surrounded by men in suits. He seemed happy, if not a little lost. The guy to my left, Adrien, muttered something under his breath. "What was that?" I said, before he turned to me and said "Man, fuck that T-rex looking-assed motherfucker."

The table laughed, but it reminded me that I was here as a reporter. I walked over to his table, and said, perhaps too loudly, "SENATOR MCCAIN, DO YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS ABOUT THE MONSTER JAM FINALS?" He did not answer, and a nice man told me firmly to leave. I tried to take a picture, he blocked it, and once again said to leave, this time with the authority of a man who could put me on a watchlist, at the very least, of giant assholes. A request to Senator McCain's office for comment on the Monster Jam Finals and how he did at the craps table has yet to receive a response. Time for bed.

Night Two: "Freestyle"

Because my ears were already ringing, and knowing that I was about to see whatever freestyle monster trucks are, I decided to go to a gun range, to shoot some guns and because I wanted to try out some real hearing protection. Craving another powerful slice of America I'd consumed last night, I shot handguns like a pathetic idiot while my stronger, larger cohort hammered through a .308 gun that made a powerful "boom" sound. I picked up my hearing protection and left, embarrassed at my poor gunishment.

Walking through the hotel was amazing, in the sense that you begin to understand why aliens haven't come down and cured cancer yet. I've been to Vegas at least thirty times, and this March Madness-powered crowd was without doubt the most piss-stained, beer-swilling, errantly-yelling collection of anthropomorphized cargo shorts the city could hold. They had a lot to drink about, and every sports-betting casino was slammed. "What about Monster Jam?" I asked one guy in line, to which he said, and I quote, "NUHHHHH."

Thanks, mate.

We got there early, because we now knew how long it took to get there and to sample the pre-game Monster Jam culture, which was booming. A parade of trucks rolled by, honking their horns; Zombie was sitting on top of his truck (was it driving itself?), doing the arm-waving thing. I know the Zombie driver has a real name—Bari Musawwir, and he's actually quite charming—but I had made the decision to consider the truck and driver as one and the same, in the same way the pilots link together in Pacific Rim.

The crowd outside was parents and kids. One or two large sons ran around joyously, watched over by smiling parents. There were fans of the various Grave Diggers, or Soldier of Fortune, or whatever dog truck was around at that time—the kids had large foam hats marking their allegiances—but none of this was palpable during the truck parade. Nobody booed, everyone cheered, and the overall vibe was rather shockingly nice. And then it was time to fuck stuff up.

What The Truck Is Happening

Allow me to explain the rules of the freestyle portion of the Monster Jam finals: I still do not know.

Trucks perform for judges, and receive scores based on Wow Factor—that's the whole explanation, I am not leaving anything out—tricks, stunts, and other things that never became clear. The judges give scores, of which the highest and lowest are chopped off, leaving the truck with a final score; the highest is crowned the freestyle champion.

The field is adapted to this truckery, with a few random cars and giant dice full of balloons on one side, some dirt-ramps to hit in the middle and two giant, garish ramps to the right, which are only for the strongest, most eager trucks to hit, flip, and score points on. Trucks head out for 60 seconds, performing like disgusting circus monstrosities for the crowd's pleasure, then receive 30 seconds of bonus time to score, yes, bonus points.

The first to compete was one of the Grave Digger family, who performed what I perceived as a limp series of jumps over the middle ramps, receiving a score of 30.5. "What is this?" I yelled, and a kid in front of me nodded. Next came Medusa, who sped on, did some jumps, hit a flip, smashed through the dice full of balloons and over some cars, and then...stopped. Her truck, no longer able to continue to slam or jam, simply gave up.

This is the part I did not expect—that these monster trucks would be unable to truck monstrously. Bounty Hunter rolled on, hit a few jumps, and then a wheel fell off, leaving his vehicle rumbling a little further before simply laying down on the side of the track, defeated. 14.5 points were awarded, and I imagine the truck was quickly and humanely executed out back.

Then began a very bizarre series of events. Usually trucks take their allotted 60 and 30 seconds, beginning from when they hit their first jump, but this was not to happen tonight. The trucks are meant to complete most, if not all of their allotted time; their rumbling frames were kitted out to take on the task of launching into the air, giving gravity the middle finger, and landing safely. Tonight, this was not to be. Tonight, of all nights, gravity was furious and demanded blood.

A Scooby Doo truck drove on to the theme song of Scooby Doo, because I don't know why there's a Scooby Doo truck. After trying a few limp jumps, the truck simply flipped onto its roof, where it lay pathetically. The crowd went wild, and I assumed this was something that was meant to happen, and that part of the joy of Monster Jam was watching their failures. Then the first of two Max-D Goatse Trucks launched onto the track, skidded around, hit a jump, hit another jump, tried to approach a particularly difficult, big-ass ramp, and then flipped onto its roof. The crowd cheered again, and cheered more when the drivers emerged safe and sound.

Each time a truck would fail, several Caterpillar diggers would escort the worthless beast from the arena, either hooking it to their backs or simply pushing it out. Sometimes the trucks would move, eventually, of their own accord. Sometimes they could not.

Monster Mutt, yet another dog truck, drove in and hit a jump, then immediately flipped over. I was laughing hysterically by this point, and I was not alone. However, the aficionados around me seemed both bemused and confused, as if the trucks were meant to somehow truck better. In rode the Zombie Truck, its giant teeth clattering and arms waving un-zombishly while the crowd roared. Bari Musawwir put on one of the first memorable performances of the night, with jumps, flips and eventually an insane sort of pirouette type thing with his wheels, kicking dirt around the track. He didn't win, but he should have won. He was interviewed on camera afterwards and yelled at the judges, and I sided with him, despite his piss-poor zombie impressions. He was robbed. And then Titan did a few jumps, spun around, hit another, and then threw a wheel, landing on its roof. At this point the "track had won 14 times."

After a futile MAKE SOME NOISE prompt, the entire stadium cringed as one when the Jumbotron played a music video in which each truck driver mouthed along to Pharrell Williams' "Happy." People averted their gazes, and a kid asked, if I heard correctly, "why was it so bad?" And I wanted to ask him if he ever got an answer.

A few more trucks rolled in, featureless trucks, failure trucks, all quickly flipping on their roofs, few lasting longer than 20 seconds before simply losing the fight with gravity. Wheels would fall off, plumes of smoke would billow, over and over. The woman to my right (her name was Megan) grabbed me and said, "this isn't how this usually goes." She had been to at least twenty Monster Jams, she told me, and said that this was totally out of the ordinary, and that she had never seen more than two trucks, and I quote, "eat shit like this."

At this point, the funniest of all trucks arrived. Doomsday is a truck that looks like a giant black helmet, driven by a man in a black helmet, and it arrived revving and roaring and then stopped, limply, after the first jump. Anticipation built as the driver continued to rev his engine, the crowd lightly saying "ooooooh" as he spent ten seconds trying to move, before eventually shooting off toward a jump. Doomsday hit the jump, then flipped onto its roof.

I cheered. So did the crowd. The trucks were completely and utterly failing, and we all loved it.

Some gave all. — Photo by Ed Zitron

The second Max-D-UltraGoatse™ truck swerved a bit, hit one jump, hit two jumps, then flipped onto its roof. Megan began cursing, saying that Max-D were big assholes, deliberately knocking spikes off their trucks so other drivers would burst their tires. I smiled uneasily, watching as diligent men on little carts painstakingly retrieved every spike on the field to keep that from happening.

By this point, I'd lost track of how many trucks had flipped or lost wheels. Metal Mulisha performed superbly, jumping twice before spinning in the air, landing on its roof and catching on fire. I clapped heartily, and Megan once again reminded me that this was not how normal Monster Jam Freestyles usually went, that I was not getting the real experience, that this was wrong. It felt right. As excruciating as Day One was, this made up for it. I decided that I could watch trucks flip over all day, and then I did just that.

Overkill Evolution hit one or two jumps before flying up, spinning, and then hitting a perfect god damn vertical drop onto its own roof. The stadium quieted before roaring with glee when the driver stepped out.

By this point we'd seen four grave diggers compete, and two of those grave diggers led the pack by a huge margin. The Grave Digger elder, Dennis Anderson, had sat in the hot seat—first place, which comes with a giant red chair—before being evicted by Adam Anderson, who no doubt received some sort of firm parental discipline from Dennis. This all raised questions, which I confess are unanswered, about the Anderson Monster Truck Family Tree. Are they friendly? Who hosts Thanksgiving? Is Thanksgiving held in a truck?

Finally, the last son—the bastard digger son, Son-uva Digger, let's assume he fucked up the roast one year or didn't bring the candied yams—proudly wheeled onto the field. He drove around in circles. He did some jumps. He got greedy and went for the big-ass ramp. His truck flipped onto its roof, bursting into flames. The crowd screamed with joy at the fire, then louder at the successful escape of the driver. Fireworks exploded.

I thought it was over. It wasn't. Out rode several more trucks, each one resplendent with a designation of the armed forces. The jumbotron filled with emotional pictures of soldiers returning home, American flags, "proud to be an American" blaring. The trucks lined up, swelling with military pride, facing one of the ramped walls.

They hit the ramps, and as more fireworks exploded above us, the Coast Guard's truck flipped on its roof. I turned to Phil. "Namaste," I said. He flipped me off.