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The Grave Digger team of monster trucks, considered to be one of the most influential monster trucks of all time, is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary and racing in the United States Hot Rod Association (USHRA) Monster Jam series. (NPR)

'We Crush The Cars': Inside The Monster Truck Arena

Feb 22, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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It's that time of year again — the time when the sports world starts to zone in on basketball's March Madness, hockey's playoff push, baseball's spring training ... and monster trucks. That's right, it's prime time for four-wheeled contraptions that specialize in crushing each other.

While it may be hard to get past the deafening radio ads, a funny thing can happen on the way to a Monster Jam show. It turns out that young fans' giddiness over the awesome destruction they're about to witness can be pretty contagious.

Monster Jam events draw more than 4 million people to arenas like the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C. What started in the late '70s as intermission entertainment for tractor-pulling competitions is now a multimillion-dollar industry that tours the world. This year's marquee star is Grave Digger, a team of drivers and trucks that's celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Monster Stats

We sneak into the arena before showtime at a D.C. Monster Jam show in late January to find out what it's like behind the wheel of "the black and green wrecking machine."

The basketball court at the center of the arena has been replaced by a stockpile of red dirt. As part of the last-minute preparations, workers spread the dirt around the floor and paint junkyard cars in the middle of the pit.

Rod Schmidt, one of Grave Digger's drivers, gives us a tour of his truck.

"Are you ready to get in?" he asks. "I can tell; your eyes are getting bigger. You're like a crazy fan right now, I love it."

Obviously, Grave Digger is big — elephant big. It's twice the height of the average basketball player. On the outside, there's a ghoulish skeleton head painted on the black cab and bright green flames painted on the hood. It sits on a neon green frame and shock absorbers the length of hockey sticks. At 5 feet 4 inches, I'm not quite as tall as the hand-carved tires. With Schmidt's help, however, I manage to climb my way into the cab, which has been stripped bare except for a single driver's seat and some ominous looking buttons.

A mud bog hobbyist named Dennis Anderson built the original Grave Digger in 1981 out of a '50s era Chevy and the wheels of a tractor. The truck became a huge hit because of its horsepower and ability for maximum destruction.

The fiberglass-covered machine Schmidt shows me is far more complex. He shouts out some numbers: It weighs about 10,000 pounds; it's approximately 11.5 feet tall; each tire weighs about 600 pounds; it has a 1,500 horsepower engine; it gets about 10 gallons to the mile.

A truck like this will run you up to $200,000, and that's before you buy the semi to take it on tour.

'We're A Show, But ... We're Racers'

The sport — yes, sport — of monster truck driving has come a long way. According to Schmidt, it's not just about crushing cars anymore.

"We crush the cars, yes. But do we crush them like we used to in the old days? No," he says. "We bang them up a little bit; we smash in the roof and smash in the sides, but not nearly as bad as we used to."

For one thing, the truck is so shock absorbent that rolling over a full-size sedan feels a little something like hitting a pothole. "It's a bump in the road," Schmidt says.

So instead of driving over a bus and calling it a day, monster truck drivers now compete for trophies and sponsorships. They go head-to-head in racing competitions, leaping over massive dirt ramps. In the freestyle segment, they earn points for tricks like standing the trucks up on their back wheels or flying 100 feet in the air over stacks of cars and rows of school buses. It's kind of like a figure-skating routine, but much louder.

"We go by a rule book like every other race association," Schmidt says. "People think it's a show and it is a show — it's entertainment — but we also race. We race for real and we freestyle for real. We race for points, we freestyle for points. And that score gets calculated throughout the year so you get power-ranked. So we are a show, but yet we're racers."

The Monster Truck Driver's Alter Ego

When he isn't sporting a 10,000-pound ride, Schmidt drives a GMC Yukon. He says his driving styles inside and outside the arena are pretty different.

"I'm a pretty good driver. I'm pretty calm," he says. "I drive a little faster than I probably should, but I take all my frustrations out here. It's like an alter ego. I get to come out here and just absolutely have fun with this thing and I go back to my regular car and it's la-di-dah."

Schmidt has been driving Grave Digger for more than a decade. He says that even after all that time, it's just as exciting as when he started.

"Sitting back there listening to the national anthem and stuff, your heart starts beating a little faster," he says. "You can kind of hear the fans. Your blood starts pumping. And as soon as they give you the green light to hit the floor, you're on the gas."

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