Culture | Appetite for destruction

Ian Beattie on the indisputable appeal of monster truck rallies

In their efforts to make Gregory House M.D. seem more human, the producers of FOX’s House came up with a golden idea: make House like monster trucks. More than House’s love of jazz or his first season crush on Cameron, nothing in the show brings House down to earth like these roaring, car-crushing agents of destruction. “These tickets are so good you have to sign a health waiver to get them,” House proudly tells Wilson. Awesome.

Monster trucks have that kind of leveling effect on people. In the week since I attended my first monster truck rally, I have yet to hear anyone say “Monster trucks? That’s so lame!” even though I’ve been babbling about it non-stop. Perhaps they have such universal appeal because their appeal is so obvious – they’re big, they’re loud, they break stuff. Although some may turn up their noses at such blatant machismo, I like to look at it as a kind of honesty. I think everybody’s born with a natural appreciation for stuff that goes boom, and monster trucks cater to that desire and absolutely nothing else. They’re fireworks on wheels. They’re the Moose Mason of the vehicular universe – big, dumb, how can you not love them?

Though everybody thinks they’re cool (for the remainder of this article, I will treat this as fact), monster truck rallies remain on the fringes of popular culture – probably due to the misconception that everybody who actually likes monster trucks also lives in a trailer, listens to Waylon Jennings, and sports a mullet. Although there might be a few enlightened folk in the wide readership of The Daily, it seems pretty likely that most McGill students know very little about these powerful creatures. Allow me to edify you a little. Most of the things one can say about a monster truck involve how big, powerful, and destruction-spreading it is, so strap in.

Every aspect of a monster truck is taken to the extreme – most trucks utilize 5’6” tires taken from industrial fertilizer spreaders, and are built on frames over ten feet tall. The engines used by the trucks can generate 2,000 horsepower – as a point of comparison, the first generation of Hummers generate 300 horsepower. Two monster trucks would be more than enough to pull a freight train, though granted, they wouldn’t be able to pull it very far before a refill. Because they’re so big, monster trucks can drive over pretty much everything, so they have to be mounted with three remote kill switches in case the driver blacks out. With almost six-foot tires and gigantic suspension mounts, a monster truck going AWOL could easily escape the arena and wreak havoc in the stands.

There is very little “truck” left in a monster truck. If you popped off the plastic pick-up-shaped shell sitting on top, what lies beneath the skin of a monster truck is basically a giant, cracked-out dune buggy. They use centrally-mounted engines so as not to tip in mid-air, and most drivers sit in the middle for a wider range of vision. If a monster truck had a door, it would fly off after the first jump, so drivers have to squeeze up from underneath or, more commonly, clamber up onto the giant tires and slide in through the window.

All this I found out through highly enjoyable Internet research two weeks ago, which also turned up some pretty killer monster truck names – Grave Digger, Maximum Destruction, Samson, and my favourite, Iron Outlaw. I was left asking myself, however, once you’ve built these beasts, what exactly do you do with them?

That question was answered for me at the Monster Spectacular, Montreal’s monster truck-fest, due for another stop in this city next April. The Spectacular is hosted by the Olympic Stadium, which has always been too big for anyone to really know what to do with it. During the darkest days of the Montreal Expos, 8,000 loyal fans would show up for games – leaving 48,040 seats empty. The Spectacular was doing a little better than that – at various points in the night there were maybe 25,000 people there, but to all us adrenalin-pumped monster fans, the stadium was half full rather than half empty.

The monster trucks do compete, and certain portions of the night resembled a conventional motorsport event. The first half of the Spectacular was the races – two trucks facing off, tearing around a dirt track for two laps, with the loser eliminated. Even this rather sober part of the night, however, was laced with that destruction-obsessed monster truck philosophy. The trucks had to drive over two jumps, one on each side of the loop. For no apparent reason, the jumps were made out of cars instead of dirt. Trucks that did the wise thing and skimmed over these obstacles so as to get the best time were met with cold indifference; trucks that gunned it and hit big air even at the expense of the race and the occasional axle were met with adoring screams. Even in this sporty part of the night, entertainment was the true goal.

The freestyle event was where the real fun began. The trucks sat around the edges of the arena, and one by one were called forth to do the most spectacular stuff they could cram into a two-minute bit – though if they really had the crowd going, few trucks could resist the temptation to jump an extra bus, or spin a few more doughnuts before retiring. The noise of a monster truck gunning its engine is absolutely unreal; even when you’re sitting in the nosebleed section, it makes your eyeballs ache. It’s exactly the sound the R/C monster truck you played with as a kid made, except dropped a register and about a million times louder. And what these trucks were capable of was even more unreal. It’s hard to explain the spectacle of something with tires nearly six feet tall flying through the air like a pole vaulter – it completely distorts your sense of scale. During the freestyle event, all semblance of fair competition was forgone, and the trucks just jammed on anything and everything they found in their way. The lesser monster trucks had to settle for crushing what was left on the track from the race portion of the night, but for the real heroes, all sorts of junkyard detritus was piled on the track for them to destroy. It’s not just the stuff that gets destroyed that wins the hearts of the crowd; it’s how it gets destroyed – one might even call it an art form. For example, take the story of the night’s closer, Black Stallion.

Black Stallion rolled out following the spectacular failures of two earlier trucks, Goliath and Bounty Hunter. Goliath had dreamed a little bigger than he could follow through with, and had found himself humiliatingly perched on the edge of the very school bus he was trying to crush, and all the Spectacular’s tow trucks and all the king’s men couldn’t bring him down again. So there he lay. Bounty Hunter had put in a good run, but was unable to defeat a Québon milk truck, which impressively stayed intact throughout the whole night. Bounty Hunter missed his great opportunity though – a motor home that had been left in the middle of the track especially for him. It was onto this stage of unrealized hopes that Black Stallion rode, and, taking advantage of every rusting opportunity that lay in front of him, he put the other trucks to shame. First he crushed a beautifully restored Cadillac while it was still sitting on top of its transport truck, then flew off a jump in the middle of the track and somehow landed with his rear wheel exactly on top of a motor boat that had eluded everyone else. Coming round the bend of the track, Black Stallion set Bounty Hunter’s motor home in his sights and burst through it like Eddy coming out of the deep freeze in Rocky Horror. Wood, aluminum, and linoleum flew everywhere. We were on our feet. Finally, spurning the respect for the dead shown by all the other trucks, he flew over the very school bus where Goliath lay, and in a cruel but just gesture, crushed that worthy’s hood under his wheels. It was monster truck perfection.

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that everything runs smoothly at a rally. On the contrary, something went wrong with nearly every other monster truck that took the track. Axles broke, trucks rolled, engines burst into flame. Such disasters took time to clean up, particularly because the Montreal fire department showed up armed only with a golf cart and a few fire extinguishers. The crowd that shows up to a monster truck rally is not the sort that is willing to wait for a golf cart with five fire fighters in full gear hanging off of it to trundle across the arena and spray out a burning truck. Every time there was a delay, bizarre sideshows erupted from every side of the arena to distract us from the wait. There were ATV stunts, motorcycle stunts, and cars being devoured by Megasaurus (identical to Truckasaurus of Simpsons fame, but much less scary in person). There were even jet cars. Jet cars are exactly what you think they are, but probably with less car. They’re almost entirely jet, with a fun-loving little man perched on top, and they make a sound like a 747 taking off over your head. When they lit their afterburners, I felt the shockwave hit my sweater. Everything was loud, big, spectacular. Monster truck rallies are the conceptual realm of the auto industry; they’re where all the mechanics go who are sick of hearing that there’s no point in riding an airplane engine like a motorcycle.

At the end of the night, I paused to reflect. Can we learn anything from monster truck rallies? Are they representative of anything? Is the idea that, as a culture, we love to crush, burn, and break things for spectacle – evidence of a deeper, darker tendency to violence that we need to address?

Well, not really. It would be valuable to keep in mind that they’re just trucks. Although monster trucks invite frequent comparison to that other bastion of sports entertainment, professional wrestling, the appetite for destruction at a monster truck rally is totally free of the sadism and bloodlust of the WWE. When a truck rolls and catches on fire, the driver, after freeing himself from his flaming cockpit, usually climbs up on top of the wreckage and pumps his fist in the air in triumph before grabbing a fire extinguisher and helping to put out the blaze. It’s good clean fun. And though it might be problematic that what is being glorified is American car culture, something that is such a large chunk of the global warming problem, the actual rallies themselves are relatively low-carbon-imprint affairs. The trucks burn alcohol-based racing fuel, and if there’s one guiding philosophy it’s reuse – all the cars are old, junked models rescued from the scrap heap for one more moment of glory, and even the monster trucks themselves are patchwork concoctions of parts other people don’t want anymore. Bus axles, farm equipment tires, even the shells are usually taken from old cars – one legendary monster truck, Grave Digger, is crowned with the body of a 1950s Chevy.

Everybody should go to a monster truck rally once in their lives. It’s a healthy experience for a bourgeois McGill student to face the fact that everybody likes big, monster machines and the noise they make, and accepting that won’t make you dirty. Although there were a fair amount of mullet haircuts and Jennings devotees present on Saturday night, the largest demographic by far was made up of children under 15, an age at which one hasn’t yet accepted that a mullet has to be anything more than a way to rock an awesome long ‘do without it getting all in your face. Spectacle is present in our culture at all levels: the magnificence of a Puccini opera, the violence of a Pollock painting, the size of a great work of architecture. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little thought thrown in with your spectacle, but sometimes it’s better just to take the spectacle straight-up, handed to you from the great, iron claws of Megasaurus.