Super-sized motorsport spectacle Monster Jam is coming to SA
This event promises to be a fantastical realisation of childhood fancy
I'm not sure about you but when I was a kid I used to wish some of my toys would miraculously come to life. Like that fighter jet on my bookshelf. Or the Tyrannosaurus rex that used to guard the fish tank next to my dresser (a terrible idea in hindsight). Other candidates for this most imaginative form of morphology included a stuffed penguin, plastic submarine as well as a fleet of Micro Machines.
Now for those of you who weren't children of the 1980s, these were small model cars with comically large wheels. Usually found rolling across my desk or through some track carved into the dirt under the school bushes, the thought of one of these things suddenly sprouting into a supersized plaything sparked serious excitement. Still does today. Which is probably why I was so amped to hear that Monster Jam is visiting SA cities later this month.
Capable of imploding the mind of every grown man's inner eight-year-old, Monster Jam is literally the steely manifestation of juvenescent whimsy: a larger-than-life motorsport spectacle that replaces predictable cars and asphalt with 5.5-ton monster trucks that snarl their way around elaborate dirt tracks for points and glory.
Weighing more than two BMW X5 models, these vehicular behemoths inspire fear and awe in equal measure thanks to their outrageous proportions. Tipping the tape measure at 4m they are taller than a single-storey building and have wheels that, at 1.7m, are almost the same height as an adult male. Most of this bulk comes from the specially made tyres that each take roughly 50 hours to carve into exacting shape. They also cost, depending on what the exchange rate is doing, about R60,000 a pop. In one season of racing each Monster Jam team will go through eight of them.
PODCAST: Cargumentative - Monster Jam Magic
Engines? You're looking at methanol-chugging supercharged V8 motors that can make in excess of 1,120kW - more than in a new Bugatti Chiron. Yep, there are a lot of fascinating facts and figures in this sport: serious numbers that hide under a thick and very glossy veneer of show business shtick.
You see, unlike other forms of motorsport (yes, Formula One, I'm pointing at you), the Monster Jam circus exists purely to entertain an almost hedonistic form of exhibitionism. In this era where ADD is more prevalent than Wi-Fi hotspots and communication loses its effectiveness past 280 characters, the organisers know full well that holding an audience's attention is a tough ask. Getting these people to come back again and again to spend their hard-earned money is even trickier.
But when you've got a pack of these roaring Godzilla-esque machines leaping 10m amid a backdrop of explosive pyrotechnics and loud music, man, your chances of messing things up are slim. It's like having a cheat code for life - especially since each truck has a unique identity. Everybody has a favourite and all are fiercely loyal.
There's the iconic purple and green Grave Digger with its sinister skull motif that appeals to people who used to sit at the back of the school bus. Monster Energy is for the flat cap-wearing Alt-Jocks and Max-D (that's D for Demolition, duh) will appease those with mild Steam Punk sensibilities.
Those of us who have watched every season of The Walking Dead will get behind Zombie: a truck that was first unveiled online and then voted into existence by the world's Monster Jam fans. With its comically creepy bonnet made to resemble the visage of a reanimated corpse and outstretched "coming-to-get-you" arms sprouting from each door (these are regularly ripped off in the heat of competition), Zombie is certainly a sight to behold. Though what is it like to go out and thrash around in anger?
"Being able to drive a Monster Jam truck is a childhood dream come true," says its wheelman, Bari Musawwir. Thirty-eight-year-old Musawwir was smitten with Monster Jam after his mom took him to see his first show back in 1986. After the fact he got into building and racing radio-controlled trucks - a path that eventually led to him scoring a Monster Jam test session in 2006. The rest, as they say, is history and Musawwir has been sitting behind the wheel of Zombie since 2015.
Interestingly enough you get to the wheel of these four-wheeled megaliths by climbing up through the floor. There are no conventional doors to make life easy. Once aboard you're suddenly surveying the world from an unusually high perch.
"You have to get comfortable with driving from a vantage point where your vision can be limited at times due to the sheer size of the Zombie truck," Musawwir explains to me. "You have to learn the boundaries of not only the truck but also the track that you are racing on."
The tracks he speaks of are a dark art of their own. Usually erected inside sports stadiums (Moses Mabhida, Cape Town and FNB Stadium have been chosen for the SA tour), they take about 20 hours to put together using a specialised group of people known as the Dirt Crew. The dirt in question - approximately 40 tons of clay/sand mix that gets compressed down onto the field - is crucial to the success of a Monster Jam event and as such there's a person whose sole responsibility in life is making sure it is up to scratch.
Back home in America this dirt is actually kept inside silos at or near the resident venues for use over multiple events. In foreign countries, especially ones never visited before like SA, this obviously isn't viable so dirt has to be sourced locally months before Zombie et al roll off their transporters. The company put in charge of sourcing the dirt for our stadiums had to send numerous samples back to the Monster Jam HQ in Ellenton, Florida, before that perfect dirt mix - 60% clay/40% sand - could finally be signed off.
Once the track is good to go and the spectators have taken their seats on the night, Monster Jam is ready to rock with two forms of competition. The first is side-by-side racing, which sees two trucks out at the same time. Lasting more or less 20 seconds this is traditional bracket racing where the first truck to cross the finish line with the least amount of penalties is declared the winner. This format happens to be Musawwir's favourite. Though I'm more sold on what comes next: Freestyle.
Each driver gets two minutes to jump, bump, doughnut and backflip their way across the field in an attempt to extract the most points from the fans - both those present and watching online. Now if you think "backflip" is a typo, well, it isn't. These drivers actually have the skill and mental mettle to flip one of these things right around.
"Wow, the first time I attempted a backflip was in 2015 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California," recounts Musawwir. "The anticipation of it was pretty nerve wracking. It didn't end successfully because I had my foot hovering over the brake pedal, which resulted in my foot pressing the brake inadvertently due to the impact of hitting the backflip ramp. In turn, this slowed the truck's momentum, so I didn't get the necessary lift and rotation that I needed to complete a full backflip."
This culminated in one shattered truck body and, no doubt, a slightly bruised driver ego. "I got redemption later that season in Detroit, Michigan, where I completed my first picture-perfect backflip."
Yet "picture-perfect" probably hovers somewhere near the bottom of the list when it comes to understanding this franchise's growing global appeal (over 100 events have been held outside America, spanning five continents).
Sure, we want to see well-executed tricks but we also want to see things go slightly awry. It's what makes us human and what made our ancestors go and watch people hack themselves to pieces inside the Colosseum. We want to see wheels come off, truck bodies being shredded and rows of old cars trampled mercilessly into the dirt.
On some level we seek that element of organised, gladiatorial carnage that has been filtered from most other forms of mainstream motorsport: series that now take themselves far too seriously. Luckily Monster Jam, this fantastical realisation of childhood fancy, seems to carry it by the lorry load.
A couple more ghoulishly good things to know about Monster Jam:
- The first Monster Jam was held at the now defunct Pontiac Silverdome stadium back in October 1992.
- Grave Digger is the most famous truck in Monster Jam history. A fan favourite, it was built in 1982.
- The specialised truck axles take an absolute hammering and need to be rebuilt after each show to ensure they stay in working order.
- The maximum engine life of a Monster Jam supercharged V8 motor is about 40 hours. Then they have to be stripped and rebuilt. They have an insane thirst for fuel – they consume 10 liters of methanol per run, which is give or take 80m.
- All trucks run on a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. They have a reverse gear and can be swapped out of the truck in 20 minutes.
- To ensure maximum safety in the event of a crash all Monster Jam trucks can be shut off via a handheld Remote Ignition Interrupter (RII). Marshalls and safety officials carry these and can at any time kill the engine of any truck without being near it.
- A lot of truck bodies are highly detailed with lots of airbrushing and customisation going into them. Fabricators will spend about 40 hours on getting them looking just right.
- Drivers sit in the middle of a truck in a custom-built racing seat moulded to fit their bodies. To ensure safety and stability all use a five-point harness.
- In the Freestyle section of the show fans can vote for their favourite trucks in real time by logging onto JudgesZone.com.
GO, GO, GO!
Monster Jam is visiting Durban on April 20, Cape Town on April 27 and Johannesburg on May 4. Tickets at Computicket.