By Greg Clark
Battle of the Monster Trucks
And there was.
And the people saw that it was good.
The engines of a dozen bashed and mangled 1970s muscle cars revved as drivers readied to take each other down.
The crowd of 1,200 was on its feet for a rowdy demolition derby at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds last Friday night.
A trophy and $400 would go to the last car driving, but Gary Dennis wasn't interested in the prize money.
"It's a blast," Dennis said from the shell of his black '77 Chrysler Lightning.
"Some guys get too serious about winning. My goal is to destroy this car," he said.
The starter dropped his orange plastic flag and fled as two lines of cars sped backward toward each other for the first crunch.
The crowd howled.
During the next six minutes the cars, with doors welded shut and hoods chained down, slid, sandwiched and smashed into each other in the muddy arena.
The audience went nuts. They did the wave.
Number 13 took a sharp hit from a lavender K-car with gaping shark jaws painted on the front quarter panels and its radiator spewed.
In the end, cars littered the field- wheels splayed, tires flattened, engines stalled.
Jim Woolf, who was judged most aggressive driver by audience applause, jumped up and down on the crumpled hood of his '71 Ford Torino wagon, even as smoke poured out from his burning engine.
For the most part, the fans also saw it was good.
Except for Tucsonan T.J. Scordato.
"They got it too muddy," Scordato said, "They couldn't get up no speed."
Tow trucks came out to drag the groaning leftovers off the field for the main attraction.
The Main Event
This was the event 500 kids had dragged their parents to the rodeo grounds to see: the 11-foot-tall, alcohol burning Monster Trucks - Bounty Hunter, Cyborg and, of course, Grave Digger.
Behind the cowpens the three drivers got ready to mount their rigs.
Grave Digger's driver, Robert Parker, looked like a stick man next to his truck's 66-inch-tall, 43-inch-wide tires.
"I look at it from the fans' point of view," Parker said. "People wanna see big trucks go fast, get some air and tear stuff up."
"If we don't win, at least we put on a good show," he said.
Lonnie Raper, Grave Digger's crew chief, said the truck is a crowd-pleaser.
"We've developed a reputation of being the most destructive of the Monster Trucks," Raper said. "If he's gotta destroy the truck to put on a good show, he'll destroy the truck."
The truck is powered by a Chevrolet, bigblock, 438-cubic-centimeter engine that burns methanol racing fuel, Raper said.
It has four-wheel steering, four link suspension and a highly modified transmission wrapped in a bullet-proof Kevlar vest.
"They like to blow up," Raper said. "They get hot and fragment, and it's the driver who is in the most danger."
The rigs are required to have radio controlled engine-kill switches in case a truck wrecks and the driver loses consciousness.
Such safety measures are required by the Monster Truck Racing Association, said Bounty Hunter's rookie driver Corey Clark.
"People have been killed by trucks that went out of control," Clark said.
As they roared out of the pit, it was clear these trucks would have no trouble jumping the concrete and chain-link fence perimeter of the rodeo grounds to rumble up 40 rows of bleacher seats, crushing spectators, cutting a 12-foot swath of panic and carnage.
The trucks raced a couple show laps around the field and skidded to a halt in front of an appreciative crowd.
They roared up dirt ramps at 30 mph, taking flight- and crashing from 12 feet in the air to land on car bodies. The Monsters spit dirt and shook the crowd's bones and chest cavities with the 8 million decibel roar of their engines.
A fan named Larry came out because he watches the trucks on cable.
"I'd really like to see 'em race where they get a quarter mile run at it and really get some air," Larry said.
Grave Digger raced in one of those earlier this year in Connecticut, Parker said.
"Our guy flipped over backwards going about 70 mph. They worked all night and all the next day, got 'er working and raced the frame without a body the next night," Parker recalled.
The Future Has Big, Fat Tires
January through April is peak season for shows, Parker said. He reckons America is experiencing a real cultural awakening to Monster Truck racing.
This year he raced in a 12-truck event that packed 70,000 people into Tampa's Houlihan Stadium. He raced in Seattle's Kingdome in front of 60,000 and for as many in Orlando.
"All the shows have done really good the past couple years," Parker said.
Out in the dirt, Grave Digger sailed over four junked car carcasses.
The brake rotors glowed red-hot and the crowd went wild as hot-blue flame spurted out from somewhere in the exhaust system.
Raper stood at the edge of the arena with Gravedigger's kill switch in the pocket of his overalls.
A few seconds later Cyborg, the only two-wheel-drive Monster Truck in the world, roared up the jump and launched itself into the air.
It came down on its rear tires about 15 feet away on the fourth car in the wrecked row.
Cyborg spit the car's crumpled hood into the air behind it and bounded down the dirt ramp.
Five-year-old Eddie Raines, who had called his dad that afternoon asked to go see Monster Trucks, played with an $8 miniature Grave Digger. He pushed the toy along the bleacher next to him and mimicked the jumping action.
"It's cool. I like the Monster Trucks," Eddie said.