Another Kind of Rally: Monster Truckin’ in a New America

“Sunday! Sunday!! Sunday!!!” For years a booming, gravel-scuffed voice had promised me non-stop, heart-pounding, show-stopping, rocket-fueled thrill rides as rapid-cut images of oversized pickups crushing hapless K cars played across my television. Tickets were always on sale for such an apocalyptic display, but they were always going fast. Consistently, I changed the channel, secure in the notion that I had better things to do with my time and money.

Not long ago, though, a friend presented me with a proposition that was half-lark, half-exercise in morbid curiosity. The tickets were paid for and my excuses had dwindled. And so, not without trepidation, I found myself in an arena filled with clouds of exhaust, the muscular scream of engines, and a host of roaring fans. My monster truck show had begun.

As I took my seat, I struggled to assume the studied detachment of an anthropologist. Who actually went to these things, anyway? What might I learn from the cavalcade of camouflage-wearers that I expected to fill the seats around me? Such posturing, though, was both reductive and revealing. In retrospect, a better question would be: what do such expectations say about the cultural resonance of the monster truck rally, and motor sports more generally?

Today, things have changed, though by degrees. NASCAR is by far the most accepted brand of vehicle-based entertainment. Steadily gaining television coverage and sponsorships throughout the 1990s, the sport now commands dedicated attention from major media outlets, whose substantial advertisers in turn underscore the presence of a fan base that is more diverse and far-reaching than the redneck race fan stereotype would suggest.

Still, that fan stereotype, like all stereotypes, is a persistent one — and particularly so when it comes to other, lesser-known varieties of motor sports (Formula One’s predominantly European following excluded). Kart, drag, off-road, midget – these categories and others all attract their own cadre of followers. But are these fans really understood as sports fans? Are such motorsports truly regarded as sports?

The stereotypes suggest otherwise. Although every variety features the well-regulated rigors of competition as its central attraction, motor sports are more seen by casual observers as pastimes or hobbies. It’s not the thrill of victory that lures fans to the track (or so the thinking goes), but rather the (mindless) spectacle of fast cars and loud noises.

Yet, as the rally unfolded before me, it became clear that even a monster truck rally is predicated on competition. Admittedly, there was a portion of the event devoted to circus-like exhibition. At one point, a space-aged van, lit with lasers and accompanied by an ’80s-style voice-over, raised up on its hydraulic back tires and shot up an invading alien truck — a shower of sparks issuing forth from its stricken chest plate. And, perhaps even more bizarrely, a handful of couples were (legally, as far as could be determined) wed amongst the tire tracks and dirt clods of the arena floor.

Still, such frivolities were really just minor asides, breaks from the main action of the rally pitting truck against truck. Not only were there time trials, as in other racing events, but the monsters’ car-crushing performances were evaluated by judges, who awarded scores according to strict criteria.

These judging regulations were read over the arena’s loudspeaker by the event emcee. Strolling among the bent steel and twisted debris of previous runs, he pontificated into his microphone at length — both for the judges’ benefit as well as the audience’s — about the need for objectivity and the dangers of audience influence. “This is not a popularity contest!” he intoned more than once, reminding us all that, for all the robot wars and wedding gimmicks, serious business was at hand.

His function, then, was as a different kind of officiant than had come on earlier to marry the couples. Instead, he sanctified the sporting nature of the proceedings. Through his announcements of the judging standards (such as the truck’s height achieved while jumping the cars beneath it) and his on-mic interviews with drivers after their runs, he sought to frame the event specifically as a sport, not an exhibition. And, as such, the emcee (intentionally or not) invited me to consider the people around me as fellow sports fans, not as cartoon yokels bent on seeing big things go boom. I looked and saw the same families I would at any ballgame, eager eyes trained on the goings-on below.

This impression is only heightened by the “post-partisan” paradigm that has emerged in Obama’s America. Real or imagined, the move beyond blue-state, red-state divisions is not a force that can be merely articulated at a political level. In fact, if a truce in the culture wars is to be in any way successful, it will be precisely because such rhetoric has moved beyond the level of discourse and taken root in the fabric of our lived experience. To that end, it seems, we might better understand the pleasures of cheering for these trucks and their drivers as the same pleasures of cheering a strikeout or a touchdown.

While it’s simplistic (to the point of comedy) to suggest that monster trucks can heal our national divide, they may play a part in better understanding the chasms that divide us. Though sports, through their insistent regionalism and tribal identities, are responsible for so many divisions among us, they also represent the possibility of tangible, and visceral, shared experience. Our cheering, in the end, may yet drown out the rancor of our internal strife.