As I walked from the parking lot toward the grandstand at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds, I heard the strident growl of a very large engine up ahead. Despite my innate suspicion of all gas-guzzling non-essential vehicles, my pulse quickened at the sound. I couldn't see it yet, but I knew I was in the presence of a monster truck: one of those souped-up behemoths on five-foot-tall tires whose only purpose is to stoke the primal fires supposedly smoldering within the breast of every patriotic American. The audacity of these vehicles, and the ethos of unlimited consumption that surrounds them, makes me sick -- intellectually, at least. They're wasteful. They're completely useless. And yet, actually hearing that noise, that siren song of brute force -- it's intoxicating.
I went to the 9th Annual New England 4-Wheel Jamboree because I was curious about these enormous machines. I'd seen them on TV, crushing cars and showing off, but I'd never seen one in person. While I waited for the two o'clock show, I checked out the "Performance Marketplace" sprawled across the fairgrounds.
The first thing I saw was Sergeant Smash, the "truck" I'd heard as I approached. Sort of a cross between a Hummer and a school bus, the Sarge was painted in camou colors and jacked up on the usual oversized tires. It fit about 20 kids and adults, who paid five bucks each for a two-minute ride. I watched as the driver slalomed around the field a few times, a giant American flag unfurling behind the jouncing pseudo-truck. Ambulances and fire engines sat conspicuously off to one side, a reminder that Sergeant Smash was no Ferris wheel or teacup ride.
I found another child-appropriate attraction beyond the concession stands and vendor booths. A miniature replica of a race track put kids at the remote controls of mini-monster trucks. To help the kids get into the spirit, the track was strewn with plastic cars and toys, including stuffed versions of Scooby-Doo, Tigger and Barney.
Two boys got behind the toy wheels, revved up their trucks and started ramming into obstacles. One boy rolled over Barney, then backed up and pummeled him again and again. "Look, Barney's getting smashed!" a boy standing next to me shouted gleefully. I asked one of the boys if it was fun to drive the trucks. "Oh, yeah, it's fun," said his mother, answering for him. "It's well worth the $4. It shuts 'em up, too."
Most of the other women I saw seemed to be tagging along with husbands, boyfriends or kids -- no surprise in this hyper-masculine world sponsored by companies with names like "Herculiner" and "Flow-master." Many of the men wore T-shirts splashed with boastful, chest-beating slogans like "If you ain't been with a hillbilly, you ain't been with sheeeet."
The decal vendors, who follow the show circuit from town to town, exhibited similar sensibilities. Their stickers ranged from the crude -- "Imports are like tampons, every pussy needs one" -- to lewd -- "If you're gonna ride my ass, at least pull my hair" -- to downright offensive -- "Nine out of ten women are battered, but I eat mine plain." When I asked a Texan vendor which were the most popular, the guy standing next to me suggested one that said, "Nice people swallow." I might've gotten down on my hands and knees for him right then and there, but it was almost two o'clock and I didn't want to miss the monster truck and tough truck show.
I climbed the grandstand stairs in search of a seat just in time to hear the national anthem. Six monster trucks, including "Eradicator," "Raminator" and "Black Stallion," lined up in front of the crowd. Beyond them lay various obstacles -- junk cars, a 30-foot mound of dirt and a collection of furniture to be smashed in the "Extreme Annihilation" freestyle competition. I have to admit that when the drivers started their engines and the ear-splitting roar ripped through the air, I was pumped. I was ready to see some action.
Even though the monster trucks stayed on the sidelines for most of the show, I wasn't disappointed. In between their brief appearances, "tough trucks" -- smaller, less formidable SUVs -- took the stage. In one event, civilian drivers donned helmets and bounced their unmodified vehicles over a series of jumps. One Bronco smacked hard into a dirt ramp. "Bruce is definitely going to need a chiropractor," quipped the announcer.
The most dramatic event of the afternoon was an accident. An ordinary green pick-up flipped over on a turn. People actually leapt to their feet cheering. Men on ATVs raced to help the driver, while the ambulance and fire engine sped to the scene. "Looks like something's on fire down there," said the announcer. After the driver climbed out -- to a round of polite applause from the crowd -- a tow truck spirited the smoking wreck away.
The climax of the show was the "Extreme Anni-hilation," the freestyle round, when each monster truck had a few minutes to do a demolition routine. One by one they sauntered up to the field, then let loose, crushing four-door sedans beneath their mighty wheels. They spun in circles, spraying sand and gravel in all directions. They obliterated the flimsy furniture. They flew off the top of the 30-foot mound, sounding their internally combusted yawps across the debris-strewn arena. The noise was so loud I could feel it in my belly. One young boy in front of me held his hands over his ears the whole time.
Afterwards I asked the woman sitting next to me what she thought of it. "It was awesome," said Leslie Jarvis. She'd come with Gary Davis, an excavator who had seen the event advertised on TV. Both live in Northfield. It was Davis' first truck show, and he loved it. I asked him why. "The horsepower," he said. Jarvis smiled and shook her head. She had a different analysis: "The hormones.