When I hoist myself up into the big-ass truck in a cordoned-off section of the parking lot outside the Oakland Coliseum for Monster Jam, I realize that by sitting in the rear corner, I’m going to experience the most centripetal force when that bad boy gets going. My photographer and erstwhile buddy in gonzo endeavors, Wes Rowe of Wes Burger ’N’ More, is next to me. We’ve paid $15 each to do doughnuts and figure-eights for three minutes in a truck called Wheels of Freedom that’s emblazoned with the Declaration of Independence, a kneeling Sept. 11 firefighter, an American flag, and flags for veterans who are MIA and KIA. Like so much else that’s promiscuously patriotic, this thing is a moneymaker (although fuel costs are undoubtedly high).
Former Oakland A’s left-fielder Rickey Henderson, who holds the Major League Baseball record for the most stolen bases and for whom the Coliseum will name its playing field, happens to be sitting at the opposite corner. I’m not sure whether he feels like an 11-year-old boy, but if he can’t hear me calling his name, then at least he can’t hear me scream.
But it’s a fun ride, especially when you think you’re going to fall backwards into a miasma of exhaust. Upon dismounting, Wes and I walk through the Pit Party, a sober tailgate of sorts in which fans meet the drivers of their favorite Monster Trucks, like Grave Digger or Bounty Hunter. The line to enter is long, and the lines for each individual truck can be 30 people deep, so these people are super-fans. The crowd is diverse, and not merely in a Bay Area way: There are people of all races and ethnicities, plus a lot of bearded, blue-collar white dads with hand tattoos. I only count two pieces of Trump apparel, neither of which refers to Hillary as the c-word. I let a dad wearing one of them step ahead of me in line for the Porta-Potty, because he’s holding a very squirmy toddler by the hand and they’ve obviously waited in enough lines already. This counts as leaving the bubble.
Becky McDonough, who drives El Toro Loco, probably has the longest line of anyone. With pinkish-red hair falling below her shoulders and a bright yellow uniform, she’s instantly recognizable, a fan favorite. McDonough’s been in the sport for 11 years, a driver for the last seven. We’d spoken by phone a few weeks earlier, when she told me the sport has changed dramatically. They used to just crush cars, she says, but now it’s doing backflips over buses.
In such an ostentatiously macho environment, she got a lot of hazing at the start of her career. In spite of breaking out as a mechanic, she had to work twice as hard to prove herself.
“Being a woman in this sport, everyone thought I was there to look pretty,” she says. “They were like, ‘Oh, she’ll make it two weeks,’ or ‘Oh, we’ll give her four.’ ‘Oh, all right, she made it to finals, she’ll probably be gone by the end of the year.’ Eleven years later and I’m still here kicking, so I proved my point.”
“I’ve earned the guys’ respect,” she says. “The ones that do come in now, knowing that’s where I came from and did it for so long, they kind of know.”
Out in the parking lot is the real tailgate action. Kids play soccer in the twilight under the high-tension transmission lines. People drink cans of beer in the open, gladly sharing with strangers, while one party has a blender in the back of their pickup that’s attached to what Wes recognizes as a “two-stroke, 50-cc motor from what looked like a weed-eater or some lawn-maintenance device.” We find an amiable group with a jockey box set up in a Pinzgauer, a refitted Swiss military transport vehicle, and throw in with them until it’s time to enter the arena. We’re right next to the bay, and the wind feels like it’s picking the parking lot clean.
I’ve been to one monster-truck show in my life, at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island — which is an enclosed arena. By the end, everyone was breathing a mix of one part air to two parts carbon monoxide.
That’s not the case tonight, although the noise in the stands is just as intense. Two by two, the trucks drive out over the dirt mounds for their initial runs, which McDonough says aren’t especially planned out because of the vagaries of the course. (“Whatever happens happens,” she’d told me, describing the sport as “NASCAR meets football.”) Apart from the need for speed, the scoring system seems inscrutable. But as a gladiatorial energy fills the coliseum, it’s impossible not to get swept up in flourishes like the revving of an engine in neutral — let alone the backflips. They’re a marvel when executed perfectly, but perversely better when they’re not, and the McDonough calls her signature move the Bull Buck.
“I just go up — like a pirouette, almost,” she says. “And when you do pull it off, I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I did that!’ And when it doesn’t work, it’s catastrophic.”
The 14 five-ton trucks do take a pounding, although not as bad as the spray-painted cars — two orange, two light purple — that mark an inside turn on the course. Unlike the elaborate choreography of World Wrestling Entertainment, it’s real. Seven-point harnesses and neck restraints hold the drivers in place, and although the oversize wheels make the trucks look enormous from afar, the driving compartments are standard size. So they’re bouncing around a lot, with occasionally intense g-forces. While every truck is essentially the same underneath the painted chassis, the quirks of individual vehicles can make for an adjustment period, McDonough says. Her lower back, hips, and shoulders bear the brunt of it, leaving her as out of breath as if she’d just run a 5K.
“We have a lot of fans come up at the end of the show,” she says. “And they’re like, ‘On my video game, if you would’ve just did this, you could have saved it.’ It’s cute, because they’re little kids, but it’s a lot more forceful than people think.”
“I never understood that as a crew person,” she adds. “Like, ‘What are you doing, you’re just moving your arms, why are you so out of breath?’ But being in it, it’s a whole different story. I don’t think people understand that, and everything happens so fast — especially when your adrenaline is going like it is.”
Unless you’re an avowed partisan, there’s a similarity between Monster Jam and Olympic figure skating in that you don’t necessarily root for any given truck or skater, but for the intensity of their moves. You just want them to land hard and smash things. The night flows over us, a distillation of pure Americana with raucous eruptions for everything loud or dangerous. Clapping feels hopelessly effete. In the end, Son-uva Digger’s Ryan Anderson wins, but that’s secondary to the overall enthusiasm, which every truck contributes to.
To my surprise, Monster Jam is a worldwide phenomenon. The drivers spent a month last fall in Australia, and they’ve been to Costa Rica and to Europe so many times that McDonough can’t even recall all the countries she’s visited.
“I remember being in Copenhagen, and we were mobbed after the show,” she says. “It was something they’d never seen before. It’s very cool.”
Monster Jam, Saturday, April 22, pit party 2:30-5:30 p.m., main event at 7 p.m., at Levi’s Stadium, $20 and up, monsterjam.com/en-US/events/santa-clara-ca