The evolution of Monster Jam could be the envy of any motorsports athlete, race team or event producer. Nowhere is that more evident than the Monster Jam World Finals, which is held annually in late March at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas (though beginning in 2019, that will change, starting with a rotating venue and new date).
Monster Jam emerged from the 1970s trend of modified monster trucks, and Bigfoot was the star. In 1981, a video of Bigfoot crushing cars caught the attention of a promoter, leading to the first official monster truck shows at tractor-pulling events in arenas. These events inspired other trucks to join in, which helped grow the sport. In 1995, the United States Hot Rod Association created Monster Jam, and its operator, Feld Entertainment, helped Monster Jam develop into a thriving, international, family-friendly event [source: Moran].
Unlike other motorsports, including traditional racing series and motocross, Monster Jam is unique in that it gives fans an unprecedented level of access to the organization's star athletes, and, more importantly, the trucks, which are arguably the stars of the show. This fan-driven culture is key to the league's significant growth, which now includes 350 events a year in 30 countries. Multiple tours are occurring across the world at any given time [source: Feld].
In 2012, Feld Entertainment, the company that manages Monster Jam, took a big initiative toward international expansion. It had a record-breaking year in 2017, with Monster Jam events held for the first time in Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Singapore and China.
But back to Las Vegas, where HowStuffWorks got a behind-the-scenes look at the World Finals event and everything that makes Monster Jam run. The World Finals is an annual two-day event that was described repeatedly over the course of the weekend by several Monster Jam representatives, as "controlled chaos." Day 1 typically features the racing series finals, while Day 2 includes Monster Jam drivers busting out their best tricks to impress the crowds during the freestyle competition. (More on both of these competitions later.)
While the fans are enraptured, hundreds of Monster Jam employees monitor the drivers' safety, choreograph the entry to the hot pits (where 47 trucks are staged between rounds with two trucks going in and out at all times), attend to broken trucks on- and off-track, and make sure everyone in attendance is having a blast.
Keep reading to learn more about the tracks, the pits, the drivers, the trucks and the rabid fan culture that keeps Monster Jam going.
Meet Some Monster Jam Drivers
So, you want to be Monster Jam's next star? It's not as easy as you think. We got a chance to talk to a few drivers — a relative newcomer and a veteran — who were happy to talk about life behind the wheel.
Brianna Mahon was named Monster Jam's 2015 Rookie of the Year. She came to Monster Jam after her professional motocross career was cut short due to an injury. Mahon drives Whiplash, a new truck in the Monster Jam lineup, and is a great example of how drivers' personalities are played up — but not artificially. As an only child, she says she played the role of both "princess and the tomboy" growing up, and both of those aspects of her personality are evident in her bright aqua, Western-themed, pickup-styled truck.
Nothing about Monster Jam is scripted, Mahon says. The competitions are real, and women are treated on the same level as the men. She says it's a fresh change of pace from motocross, which was less friendly to women — both on and off the course.
"They want us here. They want us to compete with each other," Mahon says. "Every year we're breaking more records with women."
There are currently 14 women drivers on the Monster Jam circuit (there are 83 drivers total), and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. "It's really exciting to see how pumped [the crowd] gets that there's a girl driver," Mahon says.
Tom Meents is another popular driver who has been with Monster Jam for 25 years. He is best known as the driver of Maximum Destruction and the winner of 11 Monster Jam World Finals. Meents recently took on the role of head of Monster Jam University, which is based in central Illinois, and serves as the place for Monster Jam to evaluate and test new talent.
According to Meents, "students" who want to go through Monster Jam University should expect, at the very least:
- A three-day audition period
- Half a day of training on how to fit into and operate a Monster Truck
- A full day of lessons on safety procedures
- Training for a minimum of nine days, eight hours a day, assuming they pass the audition
During training, drivers watch videos to show what they did right and wrong. Meents explains that a week's worth of training is equal to three years' worth of driving in events. So far, Monster Jam University has tested 130 applicants — 77 have completed the training to date. Of those, about 32 have gotten jobs with Monster Jam.
Before Feld Motor Sports acquired Monster Jam, there was no formal training program. The Monster Jam University basic course emphasizes safety and lets drivers get familiar with both stadium-style tracks and arena-style tracks. Drivers train in the exact conditions of an event, in trucks with the same specifications.
Monster Jam does not have an official license, but since the program has been implemented, new drivers cannot join Monster Jam without completing it. Even Meents' own two sons have completed the program.
"It's really exciting for me to help train the youth and help them develop into the stars they are," Meents says.
Monster Jam Trucks
Fans of Monster Truck Jam might know trucks based on their designs and personalities, but there's a lot more to these 12,000-pound (5,443 kilogram) behemoths. Take a look at these specs and facts:
- Megalodon, Grave Digger and Maximum Destruction are among the most labor-intensive truck designs
- It takes 60-man hours to build a Grave Digger, which can be destroyed in a few minutes
- Most trucks have vinyl designs, but Grave Digger trucks are hand-painted
- Monster Mutt trucks have movable tongues that are controlled by a windshield wiper relay
- Trucks hit the ground with force of 240,000 pounds (108,862 kilograms)
- Smaller tires are used during transport so the trucks can fit in tractor trailers
- It costs about $250,000 to build a truck from the ground up
- During World Finals, eight damaged truck bodies were repaired overnight from the first day to the second
- The supercharged engines run on methanol and are rated for 1500 horsepower
- Some trucks' engines are currently fuel-injected, and all might be in the future
- Most trucks have rear-mounted engines, which allows them to fly through the air better
For all the money, labor and trivia surrounding a Monster Jam truck, the inside is relatively simple. Most trucks require the drivers to climb under the body panels and up the frame to access the cockpits. It's a tight fit, so the steering wheel has a quick release feature to give the drivers a little more room [source: Dalsing].
The seats are center-mounted in the cockpits, custom fitted for each driver, and use five-point racing harnesses to keep the drivers firmly in place during stunts and crashes. From the seats, drivers can see the track looking straight ahead or down at the ground (the bottom of the cockpit is open but fitted with plexiglass for protection). The trucks' gas and brake pedals are normal, if a little oversized. The gearshifts for the two-speed automatic transmissions are floor mounted and hard to see, so drivers need to learn to shift by feel.
The instrument panels include oil pressure, temperature and voltage gauges, and power and fuel kill switches. Track safety personnel also can kill the power and fuel remotely. Three fire extinguishers are onboard each truck, one in the cab and two aimed at the engine, which can be activated by switch. And finally, trucks can be steered from the front and the back to enable different stunts.
In the Pits
Like many other types of car races, Monster Jam includes a series of pits. The hot pit is where trucks wait during events. The cold pit is where trucks are repaired and maintained, and both are sights to behold. Only drivers and crew are allowed in the hot pit for safety reasons, but HowStuffWorks got a peek at the cold pit in Las Vegas, which housed trailers, crew and supplies for 83 trucks.
The meticulously organized parts tent in the cold pit is estimated to store a million dollars' worth of custom-made parts, including wheels, tires, motors, frames and plexiglass to be custom-cut into new windshields [source: Dalsing]. It's not unusual to turn a corner and find a pile of stray body parts, like Zombie's arms, Megalodon's fins or Maximum Destruction's spikes.
Also in the cold pit, truck maintenance is always underway. During the events, drivers can tell when something breaks or is breaking, and during a freestyle event, very few trucks drive out under their own power. Even though the trucks all look different, they are based on the same parts, which helps simplify maintenance.
The parts inventory is a common pool that teams can use as needed, since it's understood that the trucks usually get trashed on a nightly basis and need extensive repair during the day. That is why everything in the fleet is uniform and interchangeable, enabling the maintenance teams to get it down to a science Dalsing]. For example, a blown motor can be swapped out in about two hours, and one person can swap out one of those giant tires in just a few minutes. Team members say that small parts are the most commonly replaced. Unusable or unrepairable parts are recycled, given to charity, given to sponsors or sold.
The basic truck design does evolve from time to time. As stunts get more daring, truck components sometimes get redesigned to help drivers better perform while staying safe. The United States National Hot Rod Association is the sanctioning body for Monster Jam safety, and when regulations change, Monster Jam can make adjustments quickly [source: Easterly].
Monster Jam Events
Monster Jam events typically take two forms, racing and freestyle. The World Finals event incorporates both. During the 2018 World Finals, the racing finals took place on Friday and the freestyle event took place on Saturday.
Racing is bracket-style and takes place on a symmetrical dirt track. The two drivers are positioned in the "Thunder Alley" staging area and take off on a light. The first truck to complete the course wins and proceeds to the next bracket. Trucks that false-start (by taking off before the light) or that break down on the course automatically lose.
Stunts are counterproductive during racing, but the tracks generally require drivers to complete at least one jump, so fans still get to see plenty of crashes and destruction. Photo finishes are common in the racing events, and the track is equipped with the same cameras used for photo finishes in the Olympics.
Freestyle events provide a different kind of excitement on a track with more obstacles. As long as drivers adhere to safety guidelines, they're encouraged to excite the crowd in any way they can. The winner of the freestyle event is actually determined by the fans. After each two-minute run, the audience has 20 seconds to log onto a website via smartphone and score the run on a scale of one to 10.
"Freestyle is two minutes of do whatever you want. There are no rules," says Tyler Menninga, one of the drivers of Grave Digger and the winner of the 2018 Freestyle of the Year Competition. "Anyone can win here."
Stunts have come a long way, especially in the last few years. Drivers say they are always watching each other and are in awe seeing their colleagues do things that they didn't think were possible. Like the nose wheelie, which involves balancing the truck's 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms) perfectly on the front end while shifting from forward to reverse. Drivers say that, during a nose wheelie, they can't see anything except the dirt, and they have to shift by feel since they can't see the shifter. "When I started in '93, I never thought we'd be doing stunts like this," Meents says.
Whiplash driver Mahon says another popular trick, the back flip, is "a whole lot of luck and hitting [the ramp] just right. I kind of shut my brain off. I just kind of do; I don't really think about it."
Drivers say that they generally plan a few stunts before their run, but usually have to improvise because they don't always go as planned. Staying calm is the key.
"You may plan a couple things, but if you get off track it's hard," Grave Digger's Menninga says. "If you think, it's already too late."
"Every show is different and you can do the same jump six times in a row and every time you land differently," says Todd Leduc, who drives Monster Energy. "It's a lot of just waiting on the truck to settle."
Constructing the Tracks
Long after the fans have gone home, Monster Jam crews are wide awake and at work. For a two-day event, the tracks are constructed, torn down and rebuilt into totally new tracks overnight. The first day's track is set up to make it easier to switch out to second day's track. Different types of dirt and track designs are tested and evolved at Monster Jam University, which helps give the track team a fresh track design in every city the tour visits.
Here are some quick track facts from senior director of track construction, Dan Allen:
- The track crew consists of more than 100 people, including day and night crews
- The World Finals race tracks require 351,000 cubic feet (13,000 cubic yards) of dirt
- An additional 54,000 to 81,000 cubic feet (2,000 to 3,000 cubic yards) of dirt are reserved to add for the second day's track
- 50 to 100 truckloads of water are added to the dirt to control the dust
- Dirt for tracks is normally 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) deep
- The crews find the crush cars (the cars the trucks jump over) locally for every event
- Monster Jam must pay for any damage to the venues' the field or floor while constructing or removing the track
Senior director of track construction Allen says he prefers to hire former motorsports racers for his crew, particularly those who have designed and built their own practice tracks. He says that people who are experienced in the industry "can literally feel" how a track should be built and can do it fairly quickly.
It takes a lot of experience to get the dirt just right. It can't be too sandy or the trucks will send dirt flying everywhere. Too hard, and the track will be too slippery. Too soft, and the trucks will dig through it too quickly. To get the track just right, the crew travels every inch of the track with the industrial-size equivalent of a stand mixer, and add a silica flake mix that helps bond the dirt together [source: Allen].
Logistics are an ongoing challenge in track construction, especially when Monster Jam adds a new city to the tour. Some cities have made it a little easier. For example, the city of Las Vegas gave Monster Jam a couple acres to retrieve dirt. In Anaheim, California, Monster Jam bought a place to store dirt on the stadium's property between events, which took up 200 parking spots. They fenced in this area, and stadium employees had to park on top of it. If you visit the stadium in Tampa, you might be parking on Monster Jam's dirt, which is stored in a giant hole and covered in sod [source: Allen].
Monster Jam Fans and Culture
Let's take a look at the Monster Jam fanbase that keeps the machine running. Monster Jam takes pride in the fact that it has fans of all ages and it continues to attract a pretty diverse crowd. A fair number of adults show up to Monster Jam events without a kid in tow, but children do make up a significant part of the audience. The family-friendly atmosphere is key to Monster Jam's growth and success, and Monster Jam is pretty shrewd about its strategy.
Monster Jam told us that the fanbase is split about 50/50 between men and women, which they say is because of how they embrace female drivers. It's pretty rare to see female drivers and athletes competing in motorsports at the same level as the men. Usually, female race car drivers or motocross riders are in a separate series, but in Monster Jam, women go head to head with men in the same trucks [source: Mahon].
Women are included on every single Monster Jam tour, too. Since Monster Jam is more of a mental sport than a physical one, there is no reason to separate the drivers by sex. Endurance and strength play a role in a driver's abilities, but unlike most sports or competitive events, men do not have a significant advantage over women. In short, it's the same contest taking place on the exact same playing field.
International expansion also gets some of the credit for Monster Jam's diversity on the track. Monster Jam says that in the past few years, it's concentrated its efforts in expanding abroad, and as it better represents the diversity of its fans, that will, in turn, reach new and more diverse audiences. There are separate Monster Jam tours that cover Latin America, Europe and Africa, and Asia Pacific [source: Feld]. An audience member may not be able to understand the language spoken by the commentator, but he or she will still feel the thrill of the starts, finishes, jumps and tricks.
The Eco-future of Monster Jam
Monster Jam is eager to continue growing by reaching new audiences and embracing changes to truck technology that will help make the sport become more sustainable.
It should be no surprise that Monster Jam is experimenting with diesel engines, even though the process is taking longer than planned. Diesel fuel has the advantage of burning more efficiently than methanol (even though it has fallen largely out of favor in consumer vehicles) and it provides an experience similar to what the drivers are already used to [source: Easterly].
Monster Jam says that it can manage diesel's telltale smokiness, which is a concern during indoor performances, and even though diesel engines tend to lag a little on takeoff, that won't really affect the fans' experience. Todd LeDuc, driver of Mutant, says he's open to the switch to diesel if it improves the sport. Other drivers are more enthusiastic.
"I'm excited for it," says Mahon, driver of Whiplash. "I drive a diesel back home so that's my thing."
Electric technology will take a little longer, but is still very much in the cards. Bill Easterly, vice president of operations at Feld Motor Sports, says that Monster Jam has already talked to electric vehicle experts about the next generation of monster trucks.
"We know we have to make the adjustments so any of that is possible," he says. "It's not hard at all. We know it can be done."
Though the timeframe for EV rollout is uncertain, this initiative is largely underway due to Monster Jam's recent international expansion. The company wants to improve its green footprint and run its substantial fleet of vehicles more efficiently, but the plan is now gaining more traction in part because Monster Jam's international markets (the fans as well as the infrastructure that supports Monster Jam) want to know about green initiatives. In other words, if and when Monster Jam goes green, it'll be in response to fan demand [source: Easterly].
Author's Note: How Monster Jam Works
I've attended a few press junkets for car previews and reviews over the course of my career, but nothing quite like this, until now. When the invitation came in, I was initially skeptical that it would take a full weekend to become immersed in Monster Jam culture, but I was game. As it turns out, every moment, from the exclusive track access to the Q&A sessions to my few precious minutes sitting in the Scooby-Doo truck, I learned something new that I couldn't wait to share with readers. As a standard disclaimer for this type of thing, my behind-the-scenes access to Monster Jam World Finals in Las Vegas, including flight and accommodations, was arranged and provided by Monster Jam's public relations team (which happens to consist of some of the funniest women I have ever met).
More Great Links
- Allen, Dan. Senior Director of Track Construction, Feld Entertainment. Interview. March 23, 2018.
- Anderson, Ryan. Driver, Monster Jam. Interview. March 24, 2018.
- Bialosky, Jeff. Vice President Licensing & Retail Development, Feld Entertainment. Interview. March 24, 2018.
- Dahl, Timothy. "An Inside Look at Grave Digger, the Ultimate Monster Jam Truck." Popular Mechanics. March 2, 2016. (March 22, 2018.) https://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/trucks/how-to/g2500/the-ultimate-monster-truck-take-an-inside-look-at-grave-digger/
- Dalsing, Jayme. Director of Operations, Monster Jam. Interview. March 24, 2018.
- Easterly, Bill. Vice President of Operations, Feld Entertainment. Interview. March 23, 2018.
- Feld, Juliette. COO and Executive Vice President, Feld Entertainment. Interview. March 23, 2018.
- King, Alanis. "What It's Like To Drive A Truck From Monster Jam." Jalopnik. Feb. 23, 2018. (March 22, 2018.) https://jalopnik.com/what-its-like-to-drive-a-truck-from-monster-jam-1823272433
- LeDuc, Todd. Driver, Monster Jam. Interview. March 24, 2018.
- Mahon, Brianna. Driver, Monster Jam. Interview. March 24, 2018.
- Meents, Tom. Driver, Monster Jam. Interview. March 23, 2018.
- Menninga, Tyler. Driver, Monster Jam. Interview. March 24, 2018.
- Monster Jam. "Monster Jam 101." (March 22, 2018.) https://www.monsterjam.com/en-US/monster-jam-101-2
- Moran, Caitlin. "The History of Monster Trucks." The NewsWheel. Jan. 24, 2016 (May 10, 2018) http://thenewswheel.com/history-of-monster-trucks/