Unrequited monster love

A fan of Monster Trucks on TV goes to see the real beasts in the Tacoma Dome. The love remains, but the show needs work.
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A Monster Jam in the Dome, complete with blue-dyed mini-mountain

A fan of Monster Trucks on TV goes to see the real beasts in the Tacoma Dome. The love remains, but the show needs work.

They are big — 10,000 pounds or so, and they are loud, with 1,500 horsepower to make them roar. They offer many what they pine for — to see automobiles crushed under the weight of their gargantuan wheels, and, hope of hopes, toppling over on their sides to the crowd'ꀙs glee. Were this ancient Rome, the names of great gladiators would be screamed from 10,000 throats. As it was, the best that could be shouted from the stands were 'ꀜDonkey Kong, El Toro Loco, and Gravedigger!'ꀝ

I speak of course, of that most American of pastimes, Monster Trucks. I love to watch this stuff on television, so when my colleague Julie Furlong emailed to tell me that they would be in Tacoma, I jumped at the chance to go and see my first Monster Jam at the Tacoma Dome this past Sunday (Jan. 17). They are a nomadic tribe, these big boys, going from city to city putting on displays of raw power and motorized mayhem.

On display were eight mechanized monsters, first racing each other once around the dirt-covered floor of the Dome with the fastest the victor, then closing the show with virtuoso displays of freestyling — driving up and over a blue-dyed mini-mountain composed of earthen rampart filled with car carcasses, flying over two smaller ramps, and doing donut spins that spewed dirt many yards away. Awesome!!

There were added attractions to fill out the bill including races around barrels by pairs of souped-up Jeeps, who seemed like buzzing gnats compared to the leviathans, and an exhibition of spectacular aerial acrobatics by daredevils on motorcycles as a promo for an upcoming Motocross event in Seattle. The Dome was filled with families; many, many kids 12 and under, majority boys with their dads, fewer girls and moms, the rest mostly young couples and young men. And why not? The tickets were relatively cheap, testosterone was flowing — along with the beer — and thrills, chills, and some spills were promised. The only thing wrong with this picture were some babes in arms whose presence might be considered perilously close to child abuse given the mighty roar of the nearby engines.

Monster trucks evolved in the 1970s and 80s, first from exhibitions by modified pick-up trucks with big wheels and added suspension. They had names like Big Foot and King Kong, and they loved to crush cars. There is even a Washington state connection, as a truck called High Roller is considered by some to have been the first to pulvervize vehicles. Over time, the 'ꀜsport'ꀝ has become more codified, organized, and publicized, and we now have refined monster trucks that bear little resemblance to the modified pick-ups of 30 years ago.

What was surely new and thrilling two decades ago now seemed to this first-time observer to be too predictable, thin in content, and rather flat. The very first moment of the monster trucks was their best. All eight were parked along the side of the arena'ꀙs floor, the lights went out, and the mighty engines came to life. It was something to hear, a harbinger of what was to come. But nothing to come measured up. Not even a good crash or roll-over, with the only flip a minor one by a puny Jeep.

On TV, where we can see all highlights, the big trucks bounce from wheel to wheel, if not falling over as close to it as possible. They rise up on their back wheels as if giant elk about to do battle. But not in the show I saw. They just went round and round, and even in the free-style segment there seemed limited variation to the routines each offered.

My companion at the show later observed that perhaps there were so fewer thrills and chills than anticipated because not too long ago a young spectator had been killed by an object thrown off by one of the trucks. Indeed, the first several rows of the dome were cordoned off to spectators.

The Monster Jam shows have been compared to professional wrestling as a spectacle, and thus open to accusations of being fixed. This is denied by drivers and organizers alike. However, the best freestyle performance of the day, in the opinion of at least two observers, was put on by Batman, the best-looking monster out there with its wings and fire spitting out its rear. Surely the Black Batmobile put on the best performance, but the winner was declared to be Gravedigger, the box office super star of the sport, with its hearse-like cab and skull and crossbones decoration.

A sore loser, I left the Tacoma Dome crestfallen that the best truck had not won. There was obviously only one thing that could possibly cheer me up. When is the next Demolition Derby coming to town??


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