The air is thick with sand, mud and the scent of diesel. It’s loud, too — even through your headphones, roaring engines make your head ring.
You’re not stuck in a "Mad Max" movie, though. This is Monster Jam.
The national monster truck rally show began its Columbia run on Friday night at the Colonial Life Arena. Other than basketball games, Monster Jam is the first event held in the space since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“We actually were going to come last year, but it got canceled, so we were happy that they brought it back,” said Robyn Warner, who brought her daughter, Olivia.
Last April, the Monster Jam event was canceled due to COVID-19.
The show presented plenty of stunts. Beginning with a timed race around the course, the events escalated to two-wheeled stunts, donuts and the famed freestyle event.
The freestyle is by far the most difficult, according to longtime Monster Jam driver Adam Anderson.
“The freestyle is basically a compilation of all [the other events], and you go out there and you structure stuff and hope you can survive,” Anderson said.
Anderson is the son of Dennis Anderson, who drove with Monster Jam for decades. For over 15 years, Anderson has driven Grave Digger, his father’s green-purple bone-clad truck. Growing up, he said he wasn’t always inclined to ride, though.
“My dad created Grave Digger in 1982 and created me in 1985 so, this is, from the beginning, been my entire life," Anderson said. "Once I actually had got behind the wheel of the truck when I was 19 years old and drove for the very first time ... It was amazing.”
As a legacy figure, Anderson is one of Monster Jam’s most utilized drivers. Following a several-months-long hiatus, Anderson was one of the first to drive when Monster Jam restarted with restrictions in January.
“Nobody scares. No, you know, all the precautions that normally Monster Jam is requiring for the venues, but also what the venues are upholding to. It seems to be working pretty well,” Anderson said.
Until Friday, though, all this year’s shows have taken place in Texas and Florida, two states frequently criticized for their COVID-19 recovery policies.
Friday’s event was adequately socially-distanced, though. Only 3,500 of the Colonial Life Arena’s 18,000 seats were permitted to be filled and masks were required in all areas of the arena.
However, the halftime concessions rush did have people packed into small spaces.
One of Monster Jam’s largest audiences is children. The event includes dance challenges on the Jumbotron, green screen photo opportunities and autograph sessions called “Pit Parties.”
Anderson prides his organization’s family-friendly nature.
“Us being, you know, second-generation Monster Jam drivers and now, there's second and third-generation Monster Jam fans,” Anderson said. “It's a continuous thing for these families, to come out and to see these — these people grow and their changes throughout life. And [the fans] actually share that with us.”
Lifelong Monster Jam fans, like Nick Schurg, are exposing the culture to the next generation. Schurg came with his son, Keller.
“We’ve been racing cars. He’s my little boy, and I’m trying to get him into it, I guess you could say, trying to feel him out on it,” Schurg said.
A new generation of Monster Jam drivers is on the rise, as well. The winner of Friday’s event, Iowan Tyler Menninga, is 23 years old.
Menninga grew up doing off-road racing, but every year, his father was contracted to decorate for the local Monster Jam event. There, Menninga was connected with Anderson and drove homemade trucks for him over a summer seven years ago.
This experience, combined with Monster Jam University, the competition’s training program, gave Menninga crucial experience early on. He doesn’t tout his successes, though.
“I'm a firm believer in if you can get yourself in a motorsport at a young age — no matter what motorsport you decide to actually do — when you're old enough, I feel like you will be thriving,” Menninga said.
Menninga won Friday’s show — his first show in nearly a year — with an exceptional score of 23/24 points driving Anderson’s historical car, Grave Digger.