Monster Madness: Monster Jam comes to Verizon

You could almost feel it coming as you rode the Metro through downtown D.C. last weekend. At first it was subtle – a Harley Davidson leather jacket sandwiched between two business suits here, a country-fried accent lilting above the drone of conversation there. Then, though, came the children: throngs of them, clinging to their parents’ limbs, grinning maniacally and traipsing around in comically oversized headphones and hot-green T-shirts splashed with an advertisement for something called “Grave Digger.” They all got off at the same stop.

District of Columbia, meet the country folk. Last weekend, 12,000 of them descended upon D.C.’s Verizon Center for the wheelie-poppin’, fume-spittin’, ear-splittin’, car-crushin’ extravaganza known as Monster Jam.

What, you ask, is Monster Jam? Essentially, it’s an event where really big trucks – measuring 11-by-12 feet and weighing in at 10,000 pounds- crush various smaller automobiles while making really loud noises, with some motocross tricks and quad races thrown in for good measure. As veteran Monster Jam announcer Michael Williams clarifies at the start of the show, “This ain’t no sissy show. This is Monster Jam!” But ask the kids running around the pit party at the Verizon Center before the event, clamoring for steroid-pumped truck photo-ops and truck driver signatures, and you’ll get a lot of one-word answers. “Loud,” answered 12-year-old Springfield resident Katherine Weigle, who was attending her first Monster Jam. “Fun,” friend and birthday boy Seth Lee exclaimed with an “isn’t-it-obvious” look.

Four-year-old Jacob Dunnal of Stafford, Va., though, needed two words: “Grave Digger.” Neither a truck driver nor a particular truck, “Grave Digger” is something that can best be described as a Monster Truck personality, one that’s been around for 25 years, has spawned 21 versions of the truck and is talked about by fans like it’s a living, breathing human being. When people talk about Grave Digger, they refer to him as a “he.”

That “he” is arguably – and I assure you, there are people who argue about these things – the most popular Monster Truck in the world today. Five other trucks showed up to smash stuff at Monster Jam, including one called Screamin’ Demon and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle truck painted to look like Raphael. But Grave Digger was both D.C.’s clear crowd favorite and, suspiciously, the winner of pretty much everything. Maybe that’s because winners of the competition – the wheelies, the races and the smash-’em-any-which-way-you-please freestyle – are judged by three audience members holding scorecards up in the air. In one case an arena-wide “cheer-off” was used to decide a race that was “too close to call.”

But despite the questionable nature of how the contests were really decided, fans insist that Monster Trucks are a sport, one whose popularity, according to announcer Williams, “grows exponentially every year.” But Monster Jam is not just a sport, of course – it’s an affirmation of the American way. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s gas guzzling and it features a tribute to the troops set to the tune of “God Bless the USA.” In true American fashion, there’s a lot of stuff involved, from a $15 Grave Digger toy trucks for the kids to $25 pink baby-doll tees “for the ladies.”

Unlike many other athletes, these truck drivers exude a squeaky-clean, white-bread, all-American charm. According to the ridiculously bland “Fun Facts” provided on him by a Monster Jam press release, Grave Digger driver Randy Brown’s hobbies include “softball” and “relaxing,” his favorite type of music is “rock/everything,” and his favorite color is “dark blue.” But with the simple American hero must come the simple villain, who, if not from out of the country, was at least from out of town. Last weekend, it was Philly quad driver Carsten Butler, who screamed to the announcer, “are you as retarded as the people in the stands?” after he lost his clearly fixed race. He also asked if I wanted his phone number at the pit party.

All of which, to a college-aged urbanite, is initially hilarious, if ultimately a bit of a bore, and a big strain on the ears. To the other 12,000 folks in the arena, however, it’s thumbs-up, high-five, these-colors-don’t-run awesome. It’s also a few hours where everyone can escape to the simpler time of childhood, where almost everything is new and exciting, especially big, loud things. More than that, though, it’s an escape to a simpler America, one where elections are settled by cheer-offs instead of Supreme Court cases, where red states are still very much in charge, and where Grave Digger always wins – no matter what.

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