Reporter's Notebook
3:59 pm
Wed February 22, 2012

'We Crush The Cars': Inside The Monster Truck Arena

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:01 am

It's that time of year again — the time when the sports world starts to zone in on basketball's March Madness, hockey's playoff push, baseball's spring training ... and monster trucks. That's right, it's prime time for four-wheeled contraptions that specialize in crushing each other.

While it may be hard to get past the deafening radio ads, a funny thing can happen on the way to a Monster Jam show. It turns out that young fans' giddiness over the awesome destruction they're about to witness can be pretty contagious.

Monster Jam events draw more than 4 million people to arenas like the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C. What started in the late '70s as intermission entertainment for tractor-pulling competitions is now a multimillion-dollar industry that tours the world. This year's marquee star is Grave Digger, a team of drivers and trucks that's celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Monster Stats

We sneak into the arena before showtime at a D.C. Monster Jam show in late January to find out what it's like behind the wheel of "the black and green wrecking machine."

The basketball court at the center of the arena has been replaced by a stockpile of red dirt. As part of the last-minute preparations, workers spread the dirt around the floor and paint junkyard cars in the middle of the pit.

Rod Schmidt, one of Grave Digger's drivers, gives us a tour of his truck.

"Are you ready to get in?" he asks. "I can tell; your eyes are getting bigger. You're like a crazy fan right now, I love it."

Obviously, Grave Digger is big — elephant big. It's twice the height of the average basketball player. On the outside, there's a ghoulish skeleton head painted on the black cab and bright green flames painted on the hood. It sits on a neon green frame and shock absorbers the length of hockey sticks. At 5 feet 4 inches, I'm not quite as tall as the hand-carved tires. With Schmidt's help, however, I manage to climb my way into the cab, which has been stripped bare except for a single driver's seat and some ominous looking buttons.

A mud bog hobbyist named Dennis Anderson built the original Grave Digger in 1981 out of a '50s era Chevy and the wheels of a tractor. The truck became a huge hit because of its horsepower and ability for maximum destruction.

The fiberglass-covered machine Schmidt shows me is far more complex. He shouts out some numbers: It weighs about 10,000 pounds; it's approximately 11.5 feet tall; each tire weighs about 600 pounds; it has a 1,500 horsepower engine; it gets about 10 gallons to the mile.

A truck like this will run you up to $200,000, and that's before you buy the semi to take it on tour.

'We're A Show, But ... We're Racers'

The sport — yes, sport — of monster truck driving has come a long way. According to Schmidt, it's not just about crushing cars anymore.

"We crush the cars, yes. But do we crush them like we used to in the old days? No," he says. "We bang them up a little bit; we smash in the roof and smash in the sides, but not nearly as bad as we used to."

For one thing, the truck is so shock absorbent that rolling over a full-size sedan feels a little something like hitting a pothole. "It's a bump in the road," Schmidt says.

So instead of driving over a bus and calling it a day, monster truck drivers now compete for trophies and sponsorships. They go head-to-head in racing competitions, leaping over massive dirt ramps. In the freestyle segment, they earn points for tricks like standing the trucks up on their back wheels or flying 100 feet in the air over stacks of cars and rows of school buses. It's kind of like a figure-skating routine, but much louder.

"We go by a rule book like every other race association," Schmidt says. "People think it's a show and it is a show — it's entertainment — but we also race. We race for real and we freestyle for real. We race for points, we freestyle for points. And that score gets calculated throughout the year so you get power-ranked. So we are a show, but yet we're racers."

The Monster Truck Driver's Alter Ego

When he isn't sporting a 10,000-pound ride, Schmidt drives a GMC Yukon. He says his driving styles inside and outside the arena are pretty different.

"I'm a pretty good driver. I'm pretty calm," he says. "I drive a little faster than I probably should, but I take all my frustrations out here. It's like an alter ego. I get to come out here and just absolutely have fun with this thing and I go back to my regular car and it's la-di-dah."

Schmidt has been driving Grave Digger for more than a decade. He says that even after all that time, it's just as exciting as when he started.

"Sitting back there listening to the national anthem and stuff, your heart starts beating a little faster," he says. "You can kind of hear the fans. Your blood starts pumping. And as soon as they give you the green light to hit the floor, you're on the gas."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While most of the sports world has an eye on basketball and hockey, did you know it's also monster truck season?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Monster Jam back for its 30th anniversary celebration. Four time world champion, (unintelligible).

CORNISH: I know - too loud. But a funny thing happens on the way to a Monster Jam show. A contagious level of giddiness from the fans, most of them kids, over the awesome destruction on the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: A flip. Crash cars.

CORNISH: Monster Jam events draw more than four million people a year to arenas like the Verizon Center here in downtown Washington, D.C. What started in the late '70s as intermission entertainment for tractor pull competitions is now a multimillion dollar industry that tours the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNOUNCER AND APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: This year, the marquis star of the Monster Jam tour, Grave Digger. It's celebrating its 30th anniversary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

CORNISH: To find out what it's like behind the wheel of the black and green wrecking machine, we snuck into the arena before the show. Gone was the basketball court. Tractors were still spreading red dirt around the floor and the junkyard cars in the middle of the pit were getting a coat of yellow paint. Rod Schmidt, one of Grave Digger's drivers, gave us the tour.

ROD SCHMIDT: Are you ready to get in? I can tell your eyes are getting bigger. You're like a crazy fan right now. I love it.

CORNISH: Obviously, Grave Digger is big, like elephant big, twice the height of the average basketball player.

Left foot.

SCHMIDT: Yeah, right foot.

CORNISH: Oh.

SCHMIDT: Big step. There you go.

CORNISH: OK.

SCHMIDT: Now left foot again.

CORNISH: On the outside, there's a ghoulish skeleton head painted on the black cab and bright green flames painted on the hood. It sits on a neon green frame and shock absorbers the length of hockey sticks. At 5'4", I'm not quite as tall as the hand-carved tires.

It's really high.

Inside, it's stripped bare except for a single driver's seat and some ominous looking buttons.

SCHMIDT: The little switch, the hand switch over there on your right that looks like a little bar...

CORNISH: Yeah.

SCHMIDT: That's for the rear steer.

CORNISH: Oh.

SCHMIDT: So you put your hand on that and you can...

CORNISH: The original Grave Digger was built back in 1981 by a mud bog hobbyist named Dennis Anderson out of a 1950s era Chevy and the wheels of a tractor. The truck became a huge hit because of its horsepower and ability for maximum destruction.

The machine Schmidt is standing in front of today is far more complex.

SCHMIDT: Each tire weighs about 600 pounds, approximately 11 and a half feet tall, weighs about 10,000 pounds. The motor is 1,500 horsepower. Custom built tube chassis.

CORNISH: This will run you up to $200,000 and that's before you buy the semi to take it on tour.

SCHMIDT: Our mileage is probably 10 gallons to a mile.

CORNISH: No hybrids here. And the sport - yes, the sport - has come a long way. It's not just about crushing cars anymore.

SCHMIDT: We crush the cars, yes. But do we crush them like we used to in the old day? No. You know, we bang them up a little bit. We smash in the roof, smash in the sides, but not nearly as bad as we used to.

CORNISH: And the shocks seem so good, I can't imagine you actually feel them under the tires.

SCHMIDT: You feel them, but not to the extent where you'd think you would. You know, like a pothole in a city. That's what they feel like. It's a bump in the road, so to speak.

CORNISH: Only it's a full-sized sedan.

SCHMIDT: Yeah. It's (unintelligible). Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: So, instead of maybe running over a sedan and calling it a day, monster truck drivers compete for trophies and sponsorships. They go head-to-head in racing competitions, leaping over massive dirt ramps. In the freestyle segment, they earn points for tricks. They stand the trucks up on their back wheels. They travel 100 feet in the air over stacks of cars and rows of school buses. It's kind of like a figure skating routine, but much, much louder.

So Monster Jam is a competition. You guys are ranked.

SCHMIDT: Absolutely.

CORNISH: The rule book's pretty thick. Talk a little bit about the sport.

SCHMIDT: Yes. We go by a rule book, just like every other race association. You know, people think it's a show and it is a show. It's entertainment, but we also race. We race for real and we freestyle for real. We race for points. We freestyle for points, you know, so - and that score gets calculated throughout the year, you know, so you get power ranked. So we are a show, but yet we're racers.

CORNISH: What do you do when you have to go back to your regular car? Like, do you have a regular car?

SCHMIDT: Yeah. I got a regular car. I drive a Yukon, so this is kind of a release for me. You know, so my driving styles on the highways are a lot different than they are in the arena, you know. I'm a pretty good driver. I'm pretty calm. No speeding tickets, believe it or not. I drive a little faster than I probably should, but I take all my frustrations out here. You know, it's like an alter ego. I get to come out here and just absolutely have fun with this thing and I go back to my regular car and it's - la-de-da.

CORNISH: Ron Schmidt has driven Grave Digger for more than a decade now, but he says, before each show, he still gets just as excited as the first day he got behind the wheel.

SCHMIDT: Sitting back there, listening to the "National Anthem" and stuff, your heart starts beating a little faster.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATIONAL ANTHEM")

SCHMIDT: You kind of hear the fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SCHMIDT: Your blood starts pumping and as soon as they give you the green light to hit the floor, you're on the gas, you know, you hit the floor and, all of a sudden, that crowd just goes crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

CORNISH: That's Rod Schmidt, pilot of the Grave Digger monster truck, which is on tour now with the Advanced Auto Parts Monster Jam series. To see photos of Rod Schmidt and Grave Digger up close, go to NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.