Skeletons of rusty sedans sit in the Mellon Arena parking lot, windows freshly smashed, crudely spray-painted from hubcap to muffler. Some are painted red, some white and some blue.
On another day, these spots might be home to the luxury vehicles of a championship hockey team or provide bathing grounds for visiting circus elephants, depending on the season.
Today, the Mellon Arena parking lot is the on-deck circle for these lemons. Soon, they’ll be brought inside the arena and stacked in mounds of dirt and mud. Tonight, they’ll be nothing more than Bubble Wrap under children’s stomping feet.
After 23 years, Monster Jam, the world’s premier monster truck event series, is in Pittsburgh for its 85th and final performance at the Mellon Arena. These clunkers are the building blocks of the monsters’ playground.
Like demolition derbies and NASCAR, Monster Jam is a competitive driving event that epitomizes America’s obsession with cars by showcasing their mortality.
Even as the auto-industry freefalls into an uncertain future, Americans are still turning out in droves to see cars destroyed.
An hour before the Friday night show, the line of parents and sleeping toddlers wraps around the spherical arena. Countless antsy kids zip around their parents wearing t-shirts with light purple and neon green lettering that read: Grave Digger. Quickly, it becomes clear that Digger is the main attraction.
Grave Digger is the most famous monster truck in the world.
As fans pile inside, Digger’s mystique grows. His name is everywhere: T-shirts, hats, jackets, stickers, posters, DVDs, backpacks, video games and Hot Wheels replicas all brandishing his crypt-like lettering and 1990s color-scheme.
The arena floor is coated in pale brown dirt, which, with the smell of burnt rubber and gasoline makes for a junkyard motif. The rusty sedans, junkyard alumni themselves, are now in place. They’re piled and sculpted with the dirt into a three-layer jump for the big guys, creating a sort of plateau of mud and metal, called the “stephill.”
A youngster points to the south tunnel.
“Mommy, look what’s over there!”
Lurking in the shadows and only partially visible, it’s Grave Digger with his green and purple underbelly revealing contorting metal pipes like a second-cousin to the Harley.
The growing crowd is on its feet. Driver Pablo Huffaker takes Digger for a pre-show spin as the announcer rattles off the truck’s stats.
A 540 CI Merlin 1500 horsepower engine.
The body of a 1950 Chevy Panel.
Tires 66 inches tall.
10,000 pounds heavy, 12 feet tall.
The stagehands are dwarfed as Digger glides around the small circumference of the floor. Even at this modest speed, the truck is louder than the loudspeaker and the announcer Greg Whitacre. Monster Jam is a circus of over-stimulated senses, of noise and light and the smells of destruction.
Huffaker parks the rig and walks towards the north tunnel.
“Grave Digger!” a child yells. Monster trucks and their drivers are referred to interchangeably.
Huffaker doesn’t look over, but raises a triumphant fist in the air as he disappears into the tunnel.