It's the Saturday before Labor Day at the Cornfield 500 in Northern Pennsylvania, and Nancy Weston is doing her best to stay in the shade. Her 8-year-old son, K.J., dressed in an oversize T-shirt and the kind of mullet that grade-schoolers grow when they refuse multiple haircuts, shyly spins around, waiting to be allowed to zip off in his ATV. The air smells like motor oil and melting rubber, courtesy of a demolition derby that just began on the dusty track in front of us. Groups of children in matching baseball caps watch the vehicular chaos while their parents sip beer on nearby lawn chairs. Weston, a gracious, petite blonde, travels to about 50 motor-sports events like this one a year. She and K.J. are monster truck drivers.
"It all started with Power Wheels," Weston explains, laughing. "We just moved up from there." For Nancy, or Fancy Nancy as her monster truck fans know her, and her husband, Tod (who also happens to own the fastest Rolls Royce in the world), monster trucks are the family business. The Westons own several of them: the full-size hulking Black Knight, which Nancy occasionally drives; the half-size Monster Bear, named by K.J. and designed to fit his tiny frame; and another smaller one, Sir Crush-a-Lot, for K.J.'s 6-year-old brother, Jake. It's an expensive habit: Monster Trucks cost around $250,000 each and a small fortune to operate, maintain, and haul across the country. But the Westons turn a profit through appearance fees, work through the week at Tod's law offices and motor sports company, and take off on Thursdays to bring out the trucks. As Tod triple-checks all the pieces of Monster Bear in preparation for their run, K.J. squirms in the restraints, slurping a juice box. "When we tell his classmates what he and his mom do, they don't believe him," Nancy smiles.
Nancy is one of a small pool of women drivers breaking into the hypermasculine sport. Monster trucks, tricked-out pickup trucks with drag-racing engines and King Kong-worthy tires, first became popular as sports entertainment sideshows for races in the early 1980s. Independent truck owners like the Westons are fairly unusual; most monster trucks operate under the auspices of enormous promoters, such as the Advanced Auto Parts Monster Jam, whose 2010 attendance record was about 70,000 people in a Jacksonville, Fla., arena. It took until 2001 for the first woman driver, Debra Miceli, aka Madusa, to appear on the scene. Miceli, a former professional wrestler, became the "First Lady of Monster Jam" thanks to an adrenaline addiction and a well-timed offer from a recruiter. "I'd never even been to a show when I got the call," Miceli confessed, "I didn't know what the hell I was doing, just hit the jumps and prayed for the best."
For Miceli, monster trucks provided an opportunity to display her prowess in a sport where the result of races wasn't predetermined and the fellow competitors weren't "total candy asses." After four years on the circuit, Miceli made it to the Monster Jam finals in Las Vegas, nabbing the racing championship away from the fan favorite, Dennis Anderson, and his hulking green Grave Digger truck. "It was the first day for women in Monster Jam," Miceli proudly declared. But not the last. Some monster-truck-sponsoring organizations, like the Advanced Auto Parts Monster Jam, have been actively seeking women drivers to appeal to the crowds of girls at events.
Monster truck events usually follow a set pattern: Four to six trucks roar out onto the course and rev their engines angrily as the announcer describes their various records, speeds, and favorite objects to crush. Because the "truck" part is really just a racing shell with a truck veneer shellacked on, some vehicles have creative themes. One is styled to look like a Dalmatian, with huge steel ears and a bright red tongue hanging out the fender. Others are fashioned to look like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, Spiderman, and Bigfoot, each with their own line of Hot Wheels toys and bevy of adoring grade-school fans.
The real appeal of the events is the freestyle segments, when the drivers pull wheelies, doughnuts, and, of course, crush the junk cars that are strategically placed under the major jumps. Every so often, one of the drivers, rearing back over a pile of crumpled minivans, flips the truck over onto its back. Drivers and their mechanics anticipate minor spills like this, and there's a front-end loader at the ready to turn the trucks upright. Flips, as Tod Weston explained, are the crowd's favorite part.
Nicole Johnson, a newcomer to the scene, can attest to that. "Your test drive, man, it's rough," she laughed. Every truck driver gets a custom-fit seat, complete with an array of safety harnesses and a helmet. But the first ride? "You're flopping around, getting shot up in the air. And it's not like you even get to practice, really—just to drive one of these takes a crew and an ambulance standing by, not to mention that they go through three gallons of alcohol a minute and overheat by minute five." Johnson suspects that the potential for injury scares away many women. Candice Jolly, the owner of that Dalmatian truck whose fiance Neal races the truck Maximum Destruction, joined Monster Jam after years of swamp buggy and go-kart racing. "They've been testing a lot of women," she said, "but the physical demands are serious. I'm 5'3" and 120 pounds, my body just can't take the hits these guys can."
But because monster truck racing is part time and seasonal—most events take place between January and March, though there are small exhibitions dotted throughout the year—it happens to be a great fit for working mothers. Johnson co-owns a construction company with her husband and is grateful that the circuit has been so accommodating to their small sons. Most monster-truck drivers have day jobs: Miceli runs a doggy day spa; and Jolly runs a restaurant, owns a go-kart track, and sells Avon products. Jolly also has a 6-year-old son who accompanies her to many events. "There are a bunch of us with 6-year-olds, the monster truck moms," Jolly said. "The kids all hang out together at the rallies."
The group of women at the helm of the monsters might be small, but if the audience has anything to do with it, the gender balance may soon shift. Despite the monsters' hypermacho presentation, the real fan base isn't rough-and-tumble gear heads, but families with motor-obsessed children, both boys and girls. "I have dads coming up to me all the time, telling me how their daughter wants to be a monster truck driver," Jolly said. The next generation of drivers could include a lot more like her.
After driving over junked minivans all day, how do you transition back to being in the carpool lane? The more seasoned women seemed to take it as a cue for more caution. "I'm a grandma on the weekend," Miceli said, "I go 30 miles per hour." But the newer drivers are less sanguine. "Oh, my god, it's frustrating," Johnson said. "I see all these tiny cars in a traffic jam and all I want to do is crush them." She laughed. "Everyone has a little bit of road rage, right?"