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Get Ready To Change Your Perceptions About Monster

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Todd LeDuc, driver of the Megalodon Neon monster truck, powered toward the near-vertical barrier faster than anyone else during Monster Jam’s World Finals XXII in Nashville; his tires managed to bite the curve of dirt, and with a blip of acceleration, he accelerated into an absurdly high backflip. Somehow, LeDuc managed to land the flip, his suspension soaking up all that energy as he came to a sudden stop in the dirt. With my jaw just about touching the floor, I had to admit it: Monster Jam is a much different beast in 2023 than it was when I was a kid.

(Full disclosure: Monster Jam invited me to join the series at World Finals XXII in Nashville, Tennessee, where it put me up for a weekend and organized a great amount of behind-the-scenes access.)

Monster Jam has had a long and complex history. What started as a series dedicated to slopping through mud and crushing a car or two has transformed into a sport that chases Guinness World Records and features a perpetual push to find even crazier feats to accomplish behind the wheel of a 12,000-lb vehicle.

It’s a testament to the limits of both the human body and automotive technology — but not everyone sees it as a legitimate sport. In fact, rumors have persisted for years that Monster Jam is similar to the WWE in that it’s less sport than manufactured spectacle, where storylines are engineered and winners are determined in advance. According to Jayme Dalsing, Monster Jam’s senior director of global operations, nothing could be farther from the truth.

“When I hear [Monster Jam] is rigged, it’s like nails on a chalkboard,” Dalsing told a group of journalists before the World Finals event. “If it was just entertainment, it would be a singular event here and there. Instead, we have the whole series aspect, where series points lead you to the World Finals. It’s all competition.”

The 2023 Monster Jam World Finals featured a diverse set of competitors taking on a range of events, from two-wheel skill sessions to high jump contests to freestyle competitions. If the names themselves don’t give it away, this is no longer a show of merely crushing cars — it’s a glorious assault of acrobatic automotive feats.

But even though Monster Jam is a truly awesome spectacle, it’s also a sport — one that deserves to be taken seriously, even as you cheer and grin from the edge of your seat as a truck equipped with outstretched zombie arms does a backflip in front of you.

It might sound silly, but the sport I can best liken Monster Jam to is figure skating. The spectacular costumes are only one part of the show; we can fawn over a beautiful leotard or a cool-looking livery, but we’re primarily watching for the skill exhibited by the athletes in question as they pursue even more impressive and complex maneuvers.

When you’re sitting in the stands, the skill it takes to enact any of these maneuvers is obvious. You’ll watch drivers screw up a moonwalk during the two-wheel challenge. You’ll see trucks flip during qualifying as a driver tries to cut a corner just a little too tight. You’ll see the legitimate joy as a driver completes a successful maneuver, and you can hear their frustration in post-event interviews when things just don’t go well. It’s breathtaking. It’s terrifying. It’s a little bit goofy. But it’s one of the greatest spectacles I’ve witnessed as a motorsport fan — and as I chatted with fans in the concourse ahead of the event, I realized I wasn’t the only one.

“We started watching [Monster Jam] because of them,” a woman named Monica told me as she gestured at her twins. “I grew up with NASCAR. My husband, he’s from Indianapolis, so he went to [the 500] as a child. And, like, yes, that’s all really cool — but can you even imagine a truck flying through the air? It just shouldn’t be possible.”

Monica’s twins were decked out in matching Grave Digger gear, negotiating who would get to play with which brand-new diecast truck first. As she and I chatted, she occasionally stopped to wrangle one back to her; by the end of our conversation, she had ended up with a few of those diecasts in her own hands.

“We’re here because they love it, but, like, I’m just as big a fan as they are,” Monica admitted as she spun the tire on a Linsey Read Scooby Doo truck. She held it out to me, saying, “I loved this show when I was a kid. Now there’s a Scooby truck, and a woman is driving it? So cool.”

Later, after the high jump competition, I spoke with a fan named Jimmy, who told me he was 63 years old and had been a local mud bogger himself in his early 20s.

“I’ve been watching from the start. Ain’t nothing like it used to be,” he said, “but, wow. You tell me back then we’d be running around doing flips and flying over cars, I’d have told you to get outta here. Just can’t believe it. Real crazy stuff.”

The competition over the weekend was tight. Rain delayed the start of the World Finals and rearranged the schedule; the event started with a sloppy High Jump Competition, where Ryan Anderson and Cynthia Gauthier were mere inches apart in their battle for first place. Flips abounded during a damp two-wheeled stunt challenge, which was followed immediately by a record-breaking nine-truck jump by Colton Eisenberger. A hair-raising race bracket came just before the highlight of the night: freestyle, the section where each driver has two minutes to complete a series of progressively more impressive stunts.

Even the rain couldn’t put a damper on the day, and thankfully, the track had dried up by the time the racing really kicked off. I was there for work, but by the time the freestyle competition began, I had fully embraced my inner child. I turned the camera off, and I did just what the commercials advertised: I perched on the very edge of my seat, cheering and screaming and applauding and heckling, just like the fans that packed the grandstands.

When I was a kid, I remember how special it was to see a few jumps and to watch some cars getting crushed — but the Monster Jam World Finals XXII was an entirely different event. It was fun, yes, but most crucially, it was an awesome display of engineering, driver skill, and fan engagement. All of motorsport could learn a little something from Monster Jam.

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