Monster Jam at Garrett Coliseum

By on 19 December, 2016 in Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Friday night we went to see monster trucks at historic Garrett Coliseum. Neither of us had ever seen a live show of this particular kind before, so we weren’t sure quite what to expect — except that maybe it might be loud, gratuitous and spectacular. The hordes of children racing in with us from the parking lot seemed to share that expectation.

Parking was pretty easy, and lines to buy tickets were short. After shelling out $50 for two tickets, we were on our way. Soon we were wandering among tables of Monster Jam merchandise (neon cotton candy served in a truck bed, colored shaved ice poured into some kind of plastic zombie head, a pink beach towel with trucks on it proclaiming “Girl Power,” assorted pirate flags, and of course dozens of  T-shirts). Also for sale were large noise protection earmuffs ($25). We were glad we brought our own, considerably cheaper, earplugs.

We went up into the stands to find our seat. Garrett Coliseum is a very cool building with awesome modernist features like the ramps that go along the sides. It was designed by Montgomery’s own Betty Robinson and completed in 1951.

For this particular show, the floor was covered with a layer of red dirt. There was a kind of mound of ramps in the middle, also built of dirt. Eight trucks were parked around the edges of the floor. There were two cars near the mound, completely painted in hunter’s orange, clearly rescued from a junk yard. The bottom rows of seats were covered with Monster Jam-branded tarps, which prompted us to wonder if the event might be dangerous. Could a truck fly up into the stands? Would there be explosions of fiery metal? We promptly found online reports of multiple accidents and even deaths at similar events, and this added an extra bit of nervous excitement to our pre-show wait.

While we waited, we watched someone wander the arena tossing and catching a pair of pretty extraordinary neon green plastic boomerang things. This turned out to be the sole visual entertainment before the show. As is the audience weren’t sated by a half hour of watching this teenager play with boomerangs, he returned for more solo throw-and-catch during the intermission.

There was some audio in which the drivers were interviewed (“I’m just going to get out there and do a good job tonight” type of stuff), but the PA system at Garrett really needs an overhaul. The sound is incredibly muddy, and it was nearly impossible to understand the things being yelled at us before and during the event. Audio is an important part of the show if you’re going to establish any kind of narrative other than “watch these trucks do stuff.” With no big screen to convey video information, the audio is especially crucial — and it was exceptionally hard to hear, whether ear plugs were in or out.

It turns out that the event was more than a demonstration; it was a competition, with four stages for the giant trucks. The first bout was a preposterous race, with two trucks circling around the mound at the same time – but not side-by-side. This made it very difficult to understand who won. In fact, after each bout the announcer had to tell us which truck won. With eight trucks, these races were a bit monotonous. Each truck had to line up, race, return to a parking slot, and then there was a semi-final round of races and a final, which was won by Backwards Bob, a truck cleverly engineered to appear as if it were driving in reverse.

After the races, we were subjected to what seemed like an eternity of ATVs zipping around the track. Then it was time to see the big trucks catch some air in a “wheelie contest.” Each truck had a few minutes to drive up the edges of the mound and get elevation. This was pretty cool at first, until we realized that there were only a few ways to accomplish this and that all of the drivers basically knew how to do it. Although it’s pretty cool to watch a giant truck leap into the air (and they really do get up high), the novelty wears off surprisingly fast.

At this point we really began to feel the slowness of the event creeping in on us. It turns out that each truck needs permission from the ground crew to pull out of (and back into) their parking space. This is probably the safest way to do things, but this process takes a while. Imagine the speed and agility of large passenger planes on the tarmac at the airport, each being waved into and out of the gate. And while we understood that they didn’t want all the trucks flying around a small space at the same time, they could have done something to make the transition a little less painful. Blasting rock music through muddy speakers only takes so much of the pain away.

After a totally unnecessary intermission (all the trucks left the arena, presumably for maintenance), it was time for donuts. That’s right. There’s a whole “event” devoted to seeing these trucks spin in circles. Endless. Loud. Circles.

Donuts, like all of the final three events, were judged by a panel giving scores from 1-10. The MC of the event read scores and struggled mightily with the math throughout the night. Eight spinning trucks can do a lot of donuts. And although it’s probably hard to make a vehicle spin like that without flipping over, they all kind of look the same. Although the MC repeatedly encouraged the audience to critique the scoring, we didn’t hear much of that. Perhaps because everyone was wearing giant ear mufflers.

After donuts (won by the Grave Digger truck), the ATVs were back for an obstacle course. This also lasted for far too long. The final event, which we were excited to see, was the popular “Freestyle” competition. Drivers have a few minutes each to do whatever they want. And forklifts bring the orange cars back into the arena for added potential car-crushing drama.This was the thing we were waiting for. Remember when monster trucks appeared in 1981’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and other crazy ’80s movies like “Roadhouse” and “Tango and Cash” and maybe a few of the Police Academy films? This was going to be the apocalyptic payoff we’d been waiting for.

We would have liked to have seen more car crushing, overall. And more different stunts. Part of the problem is that Garrett Coliseum is smaller than other venues used by Monster Jam. You can do a lot more stuff outdoors, or in an arena the size of the Astrodome. And maybe there was less risk taking due to crackdowns on safety after the aforementioned spate of accidents and deaths. And, again, we’re new to the monster truck scene, but part of the problem might also be that the trucks aren’t really that interesting. They’re kind of cool, sure, but they basically seem to be all the same but for paint, logo and a few external details.

This might be why people seemed to like the Ice Cream Man a lot – the truck was (as you might expect) made to look like an ice cream truck, and even had its own theme song. It stood out as a little different from the crowd. And Grave Digger? Well, it’s famous. Maybe it’s supposed to look a little like a hearse or something? We were surprised to subsequently learn that “famous truck” Grave Digger was also driving in Santiago, Chile on the same night as our Montgomery show, until we learned that there are actually nine trucks bearing that name. And if you’re a super fan, you can go visit tourist locale “Digger’s Dungeon,” dedicated to the global brand of zombie-themed necro-trucks.

In any case, the most exciting thing that happened during the freestyle competition was that one of the trucks (Backwards Bob) fell on its side and had to be righted by a forklift. It was kind of cool to see what this process was like, even if it wasn’t exactly the brutal accident that many folks were probably hungry to see. It kind of tumped over, got flipped back onto its wheels, and seemed to be fine. These trucks are designed to absorb a lot of punishment.

If you’re monster truck novices, should you check this out next time Monster Jam comes to Garrett Coliseum?

There’s no doubt that the in-game presentation needs some work. For a show involving specialized trucks weighing thousands of pounds flying through the air, it was kind of boring. We like when Iron Man talks about cutting-edge engineering and lightweight alloys. We enjoy talking about what a real-life Batmobile would be like, and what it could do. But this show wasn’t about the tech specs of the trucks, or their limits.

We couldn’t tell what we were supposed to care about. Were there storylines? Beefs? Good guys? Bad guys? Were some trucks newer or cooler than others? It would have been cool if the trucks were more different from each other. The company evidently fields a “monster” schoolbus, which we’d hoped to see. We also imagined a revved up ambulance or a fire truck or police truck – something other than different wrapping paper on the chassis. What about a Volkswagen beetle with monster truck tires? That’d be awesome!

We were also curious about the “sport” itself. Signs at the venue advertised the world championships, a THREE DAY EVENT held in Las Vegas this coming March. How did one qualify for this event, we wondered? Could any person off the street enter their own modified truck into one of the qualifying events?

It turns out that Monster Jam is owned by Feld Entertainment, a production company that also owns the United States Hot Rod Association, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and other traveling shows. The USHRA has been through multiple attempts to popularize monster trucks, including the fascinating and short-lived television series Monster Wars, which used costumed mascots to personify trucks in the style of professional wrestling. This show was (allegedly) controversial in the monster truck community, and the clip below might help explain why enthusiasts didn’t find that it particularly dignified their sport.

One way to think about Monster Jam is that it’s a worse kind of professional wrestling (also a regular feature at Garrett Coliseum). Although it isn’t pre-scripted like pro wrestling, there are some similarities. The trucks (and their associated intellectual property) seem to be mostly owned by the company. The results of regional events don’t really “lead up to” the finals, except insofar as the “top 32” trucks get to compete in the big “championship” show. It’s unclear how they decide these top 32. There are probably entire parts of the Internet where people debate the merits of various trucks and drivers, gearing up for the grand finale, but we were only willing to chase this particular rabbit so far.

The whole experience felt out of time somehow. In a world where the terrifying consequences of dependence on fossil fuels are clearer than ever, we gathered (and paid) to watch overtly preposterous vehicles gratuitously burn gasoline (and god knows what else) for our entertainment. In an entertainment economy where you can stream any media on any device from the comfort of your own home, we sat inhaling red dust as ATVs raced around a poorly marked track for little-to-no discernible stakes. And yet Monster Jam continues to push into new global frontiers. The shows in Santiago were the company’s first in South America.

Overall, we’re glad we went. It was a nice change of pace to get out on a Friday night and experience something different. We got exposure to a whole new subculture, which was cool, and we did get to see giant trucks fly through the air. One thing to consider is that it’s a family-friendly event. We saw entire families with many spellbound small children away from their screens and out in the world. This made us happy.  Wikipedia lists more than 20 other promoters who might bring monster truck shows to cities near you. In 2016, the Monster Truck Destruction Tour came through town, so it’s a safe bet that you might get a chance to see these trucks in action right here in historic Garrett Coliseum again soon. Bring earplugs.

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