Rigg Hipps, a track construction director with the monster-truck series Monster Jam, sometimes has the same nightmare. The nightmare is this: It’s the day of a Monster Jam event, and Rigg arrives at the stadium, looks out, and sees no dirt.
Dirt is surprisingly integral to Monster Jam, and that dirt is Rigg’s responsibility. Without it, without him, the disparate monster-truck tour that holds hundreds of events a year across the world wouldn’t work. And it’s not a low-maintenance job. Parking lots are dug up, giant mounds are chemically cooked, all in service of the dirt.
At almost every stop, workers like Rigg will have organized the logistics starting about a month in advance. That includes the dirt, which Monster Jam doesn’t take with it, preferring instead to source its dirt locally, for reasons of cost mainly, since hauling 5,000 cubic yards of dirt, as the tour used at event recently in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, isn’t cheap.
“It’s not a matter of it being worth a lot of money,” Rigg explained to me. “It saves you money because of trucking time.”
(Full disclosure: Monster Jam kindly gave me two tickets to its event in New Jersey on May 12 and also helped me get interviews with various folks. I ended up only using one ticket, which was for myself.)
How does that look like at MetLife, which the tour comes to once a year? This year, it started on the Tuesday, May 8, ahead of the Monster Jam event on Saturday. Around 30 laborers first covered MetLife’s field in plastic, while simultaneously putting down two layers of three-quarter inch plywood, or 6,500 sheets in total, all of which takes about 10 hours. The dirt, which is stored throughout the year at a facility ten miles away, came in on Wednesday, truck load after truck load, or 400 truckloads in all. The MetLife dirt is stored around a mile and a half away “as the crow flies,” Rigg, 61, said.
As the dirt is still coming in, crews are erecting obstacles. The work was done by Thursday afternoon, ahead of a planned practice on Friday and the main event on Saturday. The practice never went off, owing to some wet weather, but the main event did, with thousands of children and adults—many wearing ear protection—pouring in to fill MetLife’s lower decks. Grave Digger ended up the night’s winner, edging out Mad Scientist and Whiplash. Immediately after the event was over, the echoes of the giant V8s almost still echoing off the walls, crews got to work dismantling the track and removing all the dirt, plywood, and plastic. Teardown, it turns out, is quicker than building. By 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, MetLife’s artificial turf for football was back in evidence, as if Monster Jam had never happened.
If you’ve never been to a Monster Jam event, I can say that it’s a bit like watching the Tonka trunks you played with as a kid come to life. A big part of that is the dirt. Drivers like Adam Anderson, who drives Grave Digger, Monster Jam’s most popular truck, exploit it for the benefit of the crowd, spinning out and slinging mud in wild directions.
I had assumed that Monster Jam operated like professional wrestling, with the storylines pre-produced and winners predetermined, but Tom Meents, who drives the Maximum Destruction truck and is a monster truck legend, assured me before the event that that wasn’t true. The racing, Meents said, was real. When the actual race occurred, I saw how dumb my question was: Even if Monster Jam wanted to concoct fake story lines, it would be mostly pointless, since the 1,480 horsepower, 12,000 pound trucks are a constant risk of breaking down. Indeed, part of their charm is that they operate like drunk toddlers, gamboling back and forth and spinning out in unpredictable ways.
Also unpredictable is the dirt, which has to be kept dry but not frozen, though at MetLife the rain was coming down, meaning that it was less than optimal and, in fact, mud.
More about that dirt: At MetLife, like most everywhere else, it’s around eight-inches deep and wholly owned by Monster Jam, itself owned by Feld Entertainment, which was most recently better known for accusations of notorious treatment of elephants in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which the company shuttered last year. But Feld was always more than that, operating Monster Jam in addition to a whole slate of other live events like Disney On Ice and supercross. Monster Jam, which is one of Feld’s biggest attractions, was acquired by Feld in 2008, after they purchased the motor sports division of Live Nation.
Meents, who’s been involved with Monster Jam for 25 years, or long before that, says that it only gets bigger each year. Monster Jam owns most of the trucks that race, except for some independent teams like Grave Digger. Grave Digger was made famous in part by its rivalry with Bigfoot, the world’s most famous monster truck, though Bigfoot doesn’t race with Monster Jam, in part because of the desire of its creator, Bob Chandler, to stay independent. Here’s Chandler in Car and Driver last year.
C/D: Bigfoot and Monster Jam don’t get along?
BC: Well, I ran for them before they were Monster Jam. That’s maybe five companies back. When they came in, they wanted to buy Bigfoot. And I said I wasn’t interested in selling. They’re pushing Grave Digger, and the trucks they push are the trucks they own. And they can get all the novelty rights and everything else off them. I understand what they’re doing. It’s a business decision. People seem to like their shows.
Enmity isn’t the right word, but when I asked Meents about Bigfoot he said that, “There’s some good guys on that team,” before changing the subject. In any case, the exclusion of Bigfoot also means that Monster Jam trucks are all, largely, the same. All of them run on methanol, which is sourced locally, bought in huge quantities, and stored in barrels onsite. They run on two-speed transmissions that also have a reverse gear. The fuel tanks are 22 gallons, of which around 5 gallons is burned in the race alone. (The race lasts about 20 seconds.) They are also all equipped with remote shutoffs, and up to six people in the stadium can power off a truck’s engine instantly should anything go awry. The truck’s differences are usually limited to their suspension, which is tuned for driver’s preferences.
The fact that the trucks are mostly the same doesn’t hurt the racing, since it quickly becomes apparent that racing requires some amount of skill, but also a good amount of luck. Grave Digger won the night I attended, beating Team Hot Wheels Firestorm, after it initially looked like Hot Wheels may not be able to run in the final at all, owing to a huge amount of smoke emanating from the truck. But Hot Wheels continued anyway, and, weakened, lost to Grave Digger by a clear margin.
Let’s get back to the dirt, which Rigg refers to throughout our interview on calling the dirt “material,” as if to afford it some respect. By the end, I get it. As Rigg explains, there’s good dirt and bad dirt, and even the best dirt can wear out in 10 to 15 years if not properly cared for. What makes good dirt good dirt and bad dirt bad?
There’s an absence of rocks, for one thing, in addition to what Rigg calls “compactability.” The best Monster Jam dirt won’t all dissipate as a monster truck spins its wheels.
“Good dirt will have a good consistency to it,” Rigg said. “If you put a truck on there and it blows it up and they reach the plywood, you never want that. I’m not saying it never happens.”
Which means that Rigg spends a good amount of time thinking about keeping his dirt healthy.
“You can actually wear material out,” he said. “There’s things you can do to protect from that: wood shavings, sawdust, different types of organics that can help bring life back to your dirt.”
When not in use, the dirt is covered up and a carpet of grass is grown on top, in part to avoid erosion and in part to help keep the dirt insulated, since frozen dirt is bad dirt. In New Jersey that’s a concern, since Monster Jam does an event in Newark in February.
The dirt storage can take on extraordinary proportions, like at Angel Stadium in Anahem, where, in the summer, the Los Angeles Angels play baseball, but where, for several days in February, Monster Jam moves in as a sort of residency. The dirt there is storied in the stadium’s parking lot, which Monster Jam excavates each year and puts down in the stadium, destroying the baseball field in the process. The Angels are happy with the arrangement since, once Monster Jam is done, they install new grass.
“They get a new field every year,” Rigg said.
Moisture is Rigg’s biggest enemy, since mud is heavier to transport and, if it’s muddy enough, impossible to lay down, since dump trucks tend to get stuck in it. Rigg uses calcium hydroxide to dry it out, which causes a chemical reaction and heats everything up, turning the water into steam.
“You’re actually cooking your stockpile,” Rigg says.
I asked Rigg what he would do if he showed up to New Jersey one year and their dirt was magically gone from storage. That, he said, would be a problem, but not an insurmountable one, though it would be pricey, or up to $200,000 for the best dirt, and would also take some work researching local suppliers. Indeed, usually Rigg’s problems are more mundane. The worst thing that ever happened to him or his team was over 20 years ago in at what is now UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
They had an overnight move-in, meaning they would have around 12 hours to get in and get a track built. But there was a problem: In the tiny confines of the arena, the dump trucks were too big to make a corner.
“You sort of go into the panic mode a little bit,” Rigg said.
Working as quickly as they can, crews loaded the dirt into smaller trucks, which then brought it into the arena. The crews later figured out that the big trucks would actually fit, but only if they backed in. And so the tour ended up returning to UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena several times after that.
“It was just that first time,” Rigg says, “but it was like oh, my goodness.”
Rigg went to college for forestry, but got started in live events playing for a band. Eventually, he got on some crews in Arenacross events, working his way up. I asked him how he ended up becoming a dirt expert to the wildest, probably loudest, most classically American show in the country.
“Never had the wildest dream that I would be in this position,” Rigg said. “It just sort of happened.”