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Rising From the Dead at Monster Jam

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At a recent Monster Jam event at the Prudential Center in Newark, as shark-finned and dog-eared and zombie-limbed monster trucks careened around a stadium floor caked in doughy, cinnamon-brown dirt, I remembered the first pseudo-sentence I ever spoke: “Big truck go by.” Gaggles of young children wiggled around the stands, their mouths agape and their ears covered by muffs or a parent’s palms.

Big trucks were going by, loudly.

They also went up into the air. They crashed back into earth recently dug out of a storage facility near MetLife Stadium. They bounced aloft again — that is, if they were lucky enough to land on their 66-inch tires and not on their roofs.

But before they did any of that, they stood quite still, posed around the space like sleeping beasts for a popular appetizer event called the Pit Party, which, for about $20 a head, granted attendees access to the stadium floor for an hour and a half that morning. There, fans lined up to meet drivers like Weston Anderson, the 21-year-old who operates the 37th edition of Grave Digger, the tour’s most famous truck.

Tall, blond and scruffy, Mr. Anderson hails from a monster truck dynasty out of Kill Devil Hills, N.C. His father, Dennis Anderson, built the original Grave Digger in 1982, and two of his siblings drive different iterations of the ghoulish, purple-and-green behemoth on other Monster Jam tours, while another competes in a spinoff truck.

“It’s like driving on a marshmallow,” Mr. Anderson said of the squishy Prudential Center dirt. “Some trucks will hike up, flip over. Some won’t.”

Monster Jam has grown significantly — monstrously — since its founding in 1992, a decade before Mr. Anderson was born. It now runs six series, five based in the United States and another overseas, and sells, by its account, millions of tickets each year between its indoor stadium extravaganzas and larger arena blowouts.

Monster Jam, it seems, has become faddish with Gen Z-ers and millennials. “There were a lot of 20-something-year-olds going with their friends, kind of ironically,” Eli Hauser, a 23-year-old artist, said of a Monster Jam event in San Francisco last month. Mr. Hauser posted that the irony had tipped into genuine enthusiasm. But a vast majority of the Prudential Center audience on the afternoon of Jan. 27 was made up of Gen X-ers and elder millennial parents with their children in tow, though some younger fans dotted the crowd, recalling how they had grown up watching monster trucks.

Self-described superfan Mark Galloway, 26, strode around the Pit Party with a custom-made, wrestling-style championship belt on his shoulder and took photos with Jamie Sullivan, who drives a truck called Monster Mutt Dalmatian. Mr. Galloway, who attended his first Monster Jam in 2003, said he had twice driven monster trucks in a training camp. “Although it was intimidating and it was surreal, I was able to get a feel for it,” he said.

Collin Groom, a high school junior from Upper Pittsgrove, N.J., said he toddled to his first Monster Jam at age 2 and never looked back. “You can’t sleep on an event like this,” added Mr. Groom, now 16 and wearing a baseball cap covered in driver autographs.

Around the pit, children played with toy monster trucks in sandboxes. Adults purchased beer and merch. (A collectible Grave Digger mug full of syrup-laden shaved ice cost $15.) Smells of moist soil and popcorn mingled with ambient exhaust fumes and soap, presumably emanating from freshly washed trucks.

The Pit Party wound down by noon, spectators found their seats, and at 1 p.m., the 12,000-pound monsters roared to life. Grave Digger and its seven competitors — Zombie, Dalmatian, Megalodon and El Toro Loco, among others — made a lap around the course, parked, and prepared for a series of brief, one-on-one races.

Neophytes might assume that cars are still regularly crushed under-wheel at these events, which mainly feature aerial acrobatics and tricks. The winners — determined by the fans watching, who score the non-racing performances on a scale of 1 to 10 using their phones — win only bragging rights, no money. And so it makes sense that Monster Jam is a spectacle-first business. Two drivers stomping on 1,500-horsepower apiece for 30 seconds sounds like 10 cars backfiring into your eardrum. It is shockingly, ecstatically loud. That’s the point.

Mr. Anderson gunned Grave Digger to ultimate victory in the racing contest, earning eight points. He climbed atop his truck for a touchdown-style, chest-beating celebration.

Next up was the two-wheel competition. The trucks had two chances to ramp up the mound of dirt at the center of the pit and land on their front or back tires. The announcer walked everyone through the finer points of wheelies, poppers and other tricks as the crowd took out their phones to make their assessments. Mr. Anderson secured another first-place finish after standing his truck on its nose and reversing into a wheelie.

By 1:45 p.m., the Prudential Center smelled like an exhaust pipe. Cindy Castillo, who had brought her daughter, Jaylene, and son, Izaiah, whose seventh birthday they were celebrating, said that her family had gotten used to the odor after about four years of attending the rallies.

“When we first came, my eyes actually burned from the smoke coming up,” she said. “But now we’re immune to it.”

While many parents made the trip to Newark at their children’s behest, some came on their own initiative. Champagne Pedro, a sneaker enthusiast who owns an ice cream business, traveled in from Middletown, N.Y., because he wanted “to feel like a kid again” on his 52nd birthday. “Who doesn’t love monster trucks?” he asked.

Wearing a fur-trimmed coat and oversize glasses, Mr. Pedro, who was accompanied by his two children and a fellow sneakerhead, noted his delight that three of the drivers were women. “Nothing’s impossible,” he said.

During halftime and other empty moments, interviews with drivers were broadcast on the Jumbotron. A dance cam scanned the crowd. Drivers played games like rock-paper-scissors with tykes, who earned a toy for their efforts. When halftime ended, motocross bikers rocketed up a thin ramp and performed midair stunts. Then the trucks returned, though not all lasted very long.

Monster trucks tear through doors, hoods — El Toro Loco’s hood crumpled and tore off mid-competition. “Everything but the chassis will more than likely be replaced once, if not 100 times,” Mr. Anderson said.

Sometimes the trucks simply fail. A Caterpillar vehicle dragged Zombie, now more dead than undead, off the course in the second half. Grave Digger risked a similar fate when Mr. Anderson flipped the vehicle onto its roof during the “Sky Wheelie” round. (It wouldn’t have been the first time a truck had died on Mr. Anderson — he totaled Grave Digger No. 33 in his first year driving.)

Would Grave Digger return for the freestyle event? “We’re not sure if Weston will be back,” the announcer said at one point, eliciting a lone boo from the stands. The favorite to win might yet lose.

The event was running 12 minutes into unofficial stoppage time. Monster Jam schedules its indoor events to run for two hours, approximately the amount of time parents can reasonably hope their children will sit still. Wrecks slow things down.

Then word came. Grave Digger’s theme song, “Bad to the Bone,” began to play. Mr. Anderson sped his truck into the center of the pit and promptly put up the highest score of the round, securing his supremacy for another day.

Or at least for a few hours. The central mound of dirt would have to be quickly rebuilt and the racetrack soil manicured. Another competition was scheduled to start at 7 p.m.



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