(EDITOR’S NOTE: Though Monster Jam remains on hiatus because of the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, the San Antonio round will be shown at 2 a.m. ET July 25 on NBCSN. This story was written in March, prior to the series’ break.)
Monster Jam may very well be the ultimate hybrid motorsport.
Start with a circus-like atmosphere in indoor arenas and outdoor stadiums, add in elements of drag racing and Supercross-like jumps, gymnastic-like flips, mix in 1,500-horsepower motors, tons of breakaway fiberglass and ridiculously huge tires and you have one of the most unique racing experiences around.
Monster Jam is a high-octane racing series where both the drivers and vehicles are equal stars. Ask fans who they’re rooting for at a particular event, and their answers are usually interchangeable: They mention a truck name for a driver, or a driver’s name is given when talking about a particular truck.
Among the biggest stars on four wheels are 12,000-pound hulks such as Grave Digger, Max-D, Megalodon, Blue Thunder, Bounty Hunter, El Toro Loco, Scooby Doo and Zombie.
Piloting those behemoths are folks such as siblings Adam, Ryan and Krysten Anderson; Armando Castro; Randy Brown; Jimmy Creten; Colton Eichelberger; Blake Granger; Elvis Lainez; Camden Murphy and Justin Sipes.
But don’t call them mere drivers.
On the contrary, they call themselves “athletes” for their ability to smash the gas pedal and also be able to do jumps and flips. They balance their vehicles straight up on two wheels on either the front or rear bumper and perform freestyle moves that seem to defy gravity at times.
While the vehicles might look exotic, the key to Monster Jam’s success is the same as in any other form of motorsport: to cross the finish line first.
Before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wreaked havoc on the U.S. sports scene, the Monster Jam tour returned in late February for the first of two annual multishow visits to the Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago, the most popular indoor arena on the circuit.
That’s saying something as the series plays in front of as many as 110 arenas and 35 stadiums across North America each year, as well as up to 25 annual shows globally in Europe, Australia, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
The annual late winter Chicago stop featured six events across five days, almost all sold out to the total tune of nearly 60,000 spectators. As for stadiums, Angels Stadium in Anaheim, California, is No. 1 for outdoor events, hosting five events per season with 50,000 or more spectators attending each event.
Monster Jam turns 28 years old this year (although monster trucks have been around for over 40 years). It has continued to evolve from simply a monster truck race to multiple events such as the “Triple Threat” Chicago show which started and ended with monster truck racing, as well as ATVs and speedsters, with the same drivers piloting all three types of vehicles.
With the exception of a 15-minute intermission, the action is nonstop for over two hours.
“The ‘Triple Threat’ Is more appealing, more close encountering to fans,” driver Colton Eichelberger said.
“With the ATVs and speedsters, we’re hopping from the truck to the speedster to the ATV, and we have to change our gear between each, so it’s non-stop. It’s crazy back there.”
The secret to success in Monster Jam is just like in other forms of motorsports.
“Getting a good start is the key,” Eichelberger said.
Dennis Anderson created the first – and what became most popular monster truck in history – nearly 40 years ago when he introduced Grave Digger.
Even though he retired in 2017, Anderson’s legacy has been carried on by sons Adam and Ryan, and daughter Krysten, all of whom drive versions of Grave Digger.
Now in her fourth year of competition, Krysten Anderson, 22, is one of the first and most popular female drivers on the circuit.
“Monster Jam is unlike any other motorsport that you get to watch,” Anderson told NBC Sports. “Monster trucks are really unique, they’re huge vehicles and really fun to watch. And Monster Jam continually raises the bar of competition. Every year it’s something new.”
Some drivers, such as Illinois native Camden Murphy, have extensive experience in other racing series like NASCAR. But Anderson is quite content to be – and stay – right where she is.
“Monster Jam and monster trucks are all I know,” she said. “This is my style. I like off-road style of racing, racing big trucks on dirt, high horsepower, I was never into the two-wheel aspect in terms of like dirt bikes. I like being in a cage with my steering wheel, with a lot of horsepower and my truck on the dirt. That’s where my passion is and where my family’s passion has been for over 40 years now.”
All drivers in the series go through a full-time training academy that lasts several weeks at “Monster Jam University” – most just call it “MJU” – in Paxton, Illinois, about 110 miles south of Chicago.
The 24-year-old Eichelberger, driver of the popular “Max-D”, is the son of former Monster Jam champion Tom Meents, nicknamed “the Professor” because he is lead instructor at MJU.
Eichelberger learned his lessons well from his father, setting a Guinness World Record at last year’s Monster Jam World Finals by jumping seven trucks (144 feet in the air), breaking the previous Monster Jam record of six trucks set by his father in 2016.
Like Anderson, Eichelberger not only grew up around Monster Jam, he enrolled in MJU as soon as he turned 18 (the minimum age to attend). He’s now in his sixth year of competition.
“Growing up, I was a huge fan, sitting in the stands, watching my dad out there,” Eichelberger said. “That’s what told me right there was my adrenaline needs fuel, I need to fly through the air, to do adrenaline-crazy stuff. For me, as soon as I turned 18, I wanted in that truck.”
It takes a lot of training and practice to learn how to do some of the most popular stunts in either a truck, ATV or sportster, particularly being able to make a truck stand straight up on either its front or rear bumper.
And of course, there are the awe-inspiring jumps. While the trucks typically stay apart from each other when they’re on the course racing, the NASCAR-style “rubbin’ is racin’” competition in the ATVs and sportsters really gets fans up on their feet and cheering.
“We go to MJU, learn how to operate these trucks, the ATVs and sportsters in such a small, confined area and operate them safely,” Eichelberger said. “We do so many hours of practice before we actually compete in a live event. We also go through like 10-day mock competitions.”
Driver safety, particularly in monster trucks, is optimal, with HANS devices and five-point harnesses required to prevent movement of head, neck and body, which is important with many of the stunts they perform.
Because monster trucks are so large, drivers can’t see more than 20 feet in front of them through the windshield, forcing them to look through the floor to see where they’re at on the course or where they are going.
The Monster Jam season runs from January through the World Finals in Orlando in early May, although there are other events during the summer months, as well as international events.
Like Anderson, Eichelberger – an agricultural researcher/consultant who tends to a 2,200-acre farm in his off-time – plans to compete in Monster Jam for a number of years to come.
“I want to do Monster Jam as long as I can, as long as my body lets me,” he said. “I have to have that adrenaline; that’s what fuels me. Once I feel that adrenaline, I feel like I could drive these trucks forever. Monster Jams are the safest in the whole world right now, so if my body lets me, I’ll do it as long as I can.”
While major injuries are rare, the wear and tear on drivers’ bodies is grueling, with the neck and back taking the most jarring impact from the jumps, flyovers and landings and the occasional crashes.
That’s why the series has massage therapists on hand at each event to help drivers through the physical punishment they endure, as well as for the 10-to-15 hour days (the latter on days where there are two events within hours of each other) they routinely put in.
Monster Jam has a loyal fan base across the country that includes several celebrities (including NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, actors Chris Pratt, Josh Duhamel, Channing Tatum, Jessica Biel, former NFL star Rob Gronkowski and retired wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin). President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, has attended Monster Jam events in the Washington, D.C. area for the last five years, according to series officials.
The series holds “pit parties” before each race for fans to get autographs and photos with their favorite drivers, as well as tour the course floor and check out the various vehicles up-close and personal.
Another way Monster Jam stands out from other forms of motorsports: drivers earn points towards the season championship based upon how fans judge their performance by voting electronically on their cell phone while seated in the stands at the event.
One thing that is particularly popular with the young crowd: free haircuts and getting their hair dyed neon green, purple, orange and other colors to match the colors of their favorite monster trucks.
During the event at Allstate Arena, NBC Sports asked a number of fans what brought them out to the show.
Among them was Chicagoan Julie Cohen and 11-year-old son Benjamin, attending their second straight Monster Jam.
“We came here for the first time last year and I thought it was going to be awful but it was really fun,” Cohen said. “When they get up on their front or back tires or do their flips, I don’t think the average person realizes the amount of skill it takes to do them.”
Cohen is one of many female fans who turn out to support the number of female drivers on the circuit.
“You think about football or baseball, there’s no women in the professional leagues,” Cohen said. “It’s nice to see that a woman has the same interest and can do it.”
Corey Esser of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and daughter Cora attended their fifth straight Monster Jam.
“Cora absolutely loves it,” Corey Esser said. “It’s a kind of father-daughter bonding thing every year. I personally love her reaction. That’s what it’s all about. We follow the drivers on Instagram and we’re familiar with who is on what trucks. It’s absolutely a good bonding experience.”
Added Cora Esser, “I just love hanging out with my dad and seeing all the drivers do all the cool tricks and seeing the new drivers every year.”
Kevin Dixon of Plano, Illinois, was also attending his fifth Monster Jam, and third with five-year-old son Tyson.
“I was doing it when I was younger, my parents used to take me,” Kevin Dixon said. “We talk about the experience itself, the atmosphere, the energy. It’s a family experience that’s great and a good bonding experience for my son.”
Tyson Dixon cheers loudest for Krysten Anderson and Grave Digger: “I just like the girl who drives it and I like the crashes.”
George Gantner of Chicago and 5-year-old son John, a big Megalodon fan, were attending Monster Jam for the first time.
“(John) just likes the action, the noise, the excitement,” George Gantner said. “He wants to see some big jumps and fast trucks. Me, too. I’m definitely into it. It’s my first foray into it and excited to see all the action.”
Feld Entertainment produces hundreds of live experiences annually across North America and globally including Monster Jam and Monster Energy Supercross (which both air on NBCSN), as well as Disney on Ice, Disney Live!, Marvel Universe Live!, Sesame Street Live! and Jurassic World Live.
“Everybody understands when it comes to their hometown, there’s going to be 30 to 40 to 50,000 people in their stadium or arena,” said Jayme Dalsing, senior director of global Monster Jam operations. “Obviously now with our relationship with NBCSN, we’ve been trying to tell a little more about that global story we do have.”
Feld has invested heavily in growing Monster Jam – which is run under sanction with the United States Hot Rod Association. On most weekends, there are as many as seven different variations of Monster Jam events – with several iterations of its most popular trucks like Grave Digger – being held across North America.
“Any city you can think of here in the states, we’re probably in it,” Dalsing said. “We also have our big stadium markets. You don’t have to live in New York City to be able to see Monster Jam, you can see it in Peoria, Illinois, which is awesome for us and our fans appreciate that.”
Based in Palmetto, Florida, about 45 miles south of Tampa, Feld Entertainment’s footprint is massive. The series’ “fleet operations” own and operate 38 of the 56 trucks that tour on the Monster Jam circuit, including a 100,000 square foot shop where mechanics and staff prepare and repair the race vehicles almost constantly.
“We like to think that’s probably the largest motorsports shop in the world,” Dalsing said.
The overall Feld Entertainment complex measures nearly 600,000 square feet, making it the third-largest single occupancy building in the Sunshine State, behind only the NASA Vehicle Assembly building at Kennedy Space Center and an Amazon distribution center in Ruskin, Fla.
Monster Jam, Supercross and Feld’s other entertainment divisions mean big business: the company drew over 4.5 million patrons between all of its live events in North America last year.
Like circuses or concert tours, Monster Jam organizers have operations down to a literal science from ingress, the event and then egress.
Much like haulers in NASCAR and other forms of motorsports, Monster Jam uses up to 13 haulers to transport all vehicles and equipment from one venue to another.
On doubleheader days like the February shows in Chicago, as soon as the first show is over, workers immediately begin rebuilding and re-striping the course in preparation for the second show, which starts about 3 ½ hours later.
For indoor and outdoor events, it’s typically 1-2 days of unloading and building a course, one day of practice for drivers, up to five days of events, and then 1-2 final days to load up, clean out and move on to the next stop.
For indoor facilities such as Allstate Arena, up to 1,600 yards of dirt are trucked in to make the course. For outdoor facilities such as Anaheim Stadium, as much as 5,000 yards of dirt are brought in.
The reason why arena versions of Monster Jam events are so popular is simple: weather.
“That’s our biggest hurdle,” Dalsing said. “When we play outdoor venues, especially on the west coast like Anaheim, San Diego, Oakland and Las Vegas, it can affect us. Like in Anaheim, where it has rained on us in all five events (in a single year). We’re rain or shine and trucks can have fun in mud, too, so we deal with that.”
Series officials constantly look at trying new things to further grow Monster Jam. Some recent developments: a diesel-powered monster truck debuted two years ago and an electric truck – think Tesla meets Monster Jam – is reportedly in development.
“It’s absolutely ever-evolving,” Dalsing said. “That’s kind of our focus. We’re always trying to find out what would be a fun, creative new format or event for the fans.
“We’ve always had the Monster Jams World Finals, which is the Super Bowl of our sport and last year we began the All-Star Challenge and put that on out at Las Vegas. We want to try and figure out what the fans want and really try to give it to them.”