There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Kelly Bruce absolutely loves watching cars get crushed. “So does my mom,” cackles the 14-year-old Glen Burnie resident early last Saturday evening, as she strolls up and around the temporary dirt mounds that take up most of the USAir Arena floor. Rita Bruce, standing nearby, sheepishly concedes that, yes, her young daughter’s passion for vehicular annihilation is congenital.
But hardly rare: The Bruces are just two of the 36,380 people who trucked to Landover over the weekend to see the “Monster Jam.” The two-hour roadshow included motorcycle jumps and go-cart races, but promoters and fans alike treated those portions of the event as filler. This was really just about monster trucks, each equipped with 1,500-horsepower engines and tires a full foot taller than the younger Bruce. For $14-16 bucks apiece, the locals got to watch a half-dozen cartoonishly oversize vehicles repeatedly rumble over standard-size, and therefore Lilliputian, passenger autos. At the beginning of the event, the fodder cars didn’t appear to be in much poorer condition than, say, the autos that cruise the streets of Mount Pleasant. But by night’s end, the scene on the arena floor recalled the Iraqi desert five years ago this month, right after U.S. fighter pilots scorched fleeing Republican Guardsmen in what seemed like so many Granadas. The fuel-fogged coliseum even smelled like death.
American pop culture is littered with if-you-don’t-get-it-you-don’t-get-it cash cows. Yanni, for example, makes PBS viewers swoon. And male born-agains in this country are throwing alarming amounts of money at the Promise Keepers. The Brucesde gustibus non est disputandum, y’all!love monster trucks. They can’t explain why they spend every Sunday afternoon together in front of a cable-ready TV watching syndicated monster-truck shows, rooting on the motorized creatures with macabre names and the fuel economy of the space shuttle.
Once a year for the past three years, the Bruces have piled into the family truckster (“It’s a Jeep with pretty big tires on it,” says Rita Bruce) and driven to the venue now known as USAir to take in the demolition in person. Mom’s boyfriend, Scott Simpson, tagged along this year.
“We came to see Grave Digger this time, ’cause it wasn’t here last year,” declares Rita Bruce. That pledge of allegiance is bolstered by the T-shirt her daughter is wearing: an official Grave Digger garment licensed by the U.S. Hot Rod Association. The shirts were available all weekend in the arena lobby for $12. Grave Digger baseball caps, watches, shot glasses, and collectors plates ($23, includes gold-plate trimming) were also for sale.
“I’ve got the top-of-the-line ride,” smirks Ron Nelson, of Conroe, Texas. Nelson signed on to drive the Digger, a customized 1950 Chevy truck with Hallo-
weenesque graphics and neon-green trim, only three weeks ago. His truck gets paid “four or five times” what the others are making for showing up. Grave Digger stars in a promotional campaign waged on its behalf by the U.S. Hot Rod Association, so it was the only vehicle at USAir Arena that had its own fan following.
“I guess that’s why the other drivers are jealous,” Nelson adds.
Joe Bagdonas, the driver of American Guardian, has plenty of reason to envy Nelson’s new gig. Whereas Nelson claims a six-figure salary for being a part of the Grave Digger syndicate, Bagdonas, despite a schedule of 60 monster-truck shows this year, won’t bring home enough to justify quitting his day job as an industrial equipment mechanic in Greenfield, Mass.
“This isn’t any way to make a living,” groans Bagdonas, who at fiftysomething calls himself the oldest monster-truck driver on the circuit.
As if the financial discrepancy between Grave Digger and his rig weren’t enough, Bagdonas also must face negative fan reactionsimply by virtue of his not being the Grave Digger. American Guardian, despite a decor of U.S. flags and POW/MIA paraphernalia, was resoundingly booed by Digger’s fans during its crushing sessions.
Monster-truck shows have played the arena for 14 consecutive Januaries. “We generally sell them out,” says USAir Arena spokesman Mark Goldman, asserting that this year’s three-show gig would have followed that trend had the Blizzard of ’96 not cut into pre-event ticket sales.
Last year, SRO Motorsports, which promotes the Monster Jam tour, commissioned a marketing study to find out who’s buying all those monster-truck ducats. The typical devotee, according to that analysis, was a 32-year-old male with annual earnings of $34,000 who owns a truck, rents a home, and had been to monster-truck events before. The standard fan also wears boots, listens to country music, has brand loyalty to Budweiser, Dr. Pepper, Marlboro, and Skoal products, and goes to a 7-Eleven more than five times a month. (The study likewise confirmed that Joe Fan favors the Grave Digger over all other monster trucks.)
But Bret Kepner, ESPN’s resident motorsports announcer, who played carnival barker during the USAir fests, doesn’t put too much faith in those findings. Kepner says that after years of informally studying the audience at the shows he emcees, he’s given up trying to pigeonhole the average monster truck fan. However, he cautioned against assuming the events only attract dumbbell laureates. “Look in the stands,” Kepner said, “and you’ll see a fan base as diverse as any of the ‘stick-and-ball’ sports. People ask me all the time what the appeal here is, and, well, I can’t nail it down. Jeez, I guess it’s just one of those freaky sociological deals.”
Redskins coach Norv Turner, who took in Friday’s monster-truck exhibition from an arena booth, doesn’t really fit the SRO profile. Neither do the Bruces. Nor does Jason Rollins, a Gen-Xer from Waldorf who wore a gangsta-rap get-up. When asked what inspired him to attend, Rollins unwittingly provides what may be as erudite an explanation for the show’s monstrous success as is possible.
“I came because, well, it’s something to do,” says Rollins.CP