by Skylaire Alfvegren
Transformed for the weekend, Del Mar Raceway plays host to a typical motorsport extravaganza featuring tractor pulls, drag racing, demolition derbies, and those kingly icons of the white trash world, monster trucks. Children and Neanderthals crowd the bleachers, running rampant in a hurricane of pot bellies, red-to-white tan lines and denim. Tarty, buxom women fan themselves in the heat or dispense promotional beef jerky.
"Are there any Dodge fans out there?" The announcer screams, veins bulging from the collar of his grey work shirt. Half a dozen heavily modified American trucks gun their monsterous (575 cubic inch) engines and circle the arena in ritual anticipation. Ghoulish graphics or feats of manliness are airbrushed onto fiberglass bodies christened The Gravedigger, The Terminator, Monster Patrol or Nitemare, and are festooned with regulation five-and-a-half foot tires. Particularly popular with children, the larger-than-life vehicles overwhelm their simple sensory needs with blinding paint jobs and the instant Tinnitus created by 1,500 horsepowered engines. The primal desire to crush, maim and conquer is satisfied as the parade of junked '70s sedans is obliterated in timed 'trials', half-minute automotive orgasms.
This Independence Day, Pat Gerber has dyed his cropped hair fire engine red and his goatee, turquoise, which are a striking contrast to the canary yellow of his truck, The Shocker. But it's more than just a creative flair that sets Gerber apart from his more down home competitors. At 21, Gerber is the youngest professional monster truck driver in the short but fiery history of the sport.
Gerber is known on the circuit as the token upstart. "It's the hair. Last June I dyed it red, then two shades of green, blue and then blonde, and finally purple for Altamont." Once you get past the glamour of the arena, you find Gerber to be an achingly typical 21-year-old, non-plussed by his profession. Like children born on farms or to globetrotting missionaries, he sees his monster truck simply as the tool of his trade. He professes a love of 'alternative' music and if you ask nicely, will show you the maniacal clown tattooed on his right bicep. An only child, his truck has helped him get the attention he requires.
Bob Chandler created monster trucks when he built the original Bigfoot in 1974 by grafting industrial sized tires onto his Ford pick-up to promote his repair shop. "I was just a little older than Pat when I opened my 4by4 repair shop in 1968," Says Pat's amicable father, Ed, who raced 'mud boggers', early versions of monster trucks equipped with tractor tires, when the concept first came to the West Coast. To this day, most drivers who race for a living subsidize their competitions by being owner-operators like Chandler or Ed. "The majority of the drivers are my age, in their late 40s, early 50s," says Ed. "Some of them get mad at Pat because he makes them look bad! It's hard to be daring when you have to go back to the shop Monday." Pat doesn't have their responsibilities. He shrugs "I can have more fun."
Pro sports have always had their share of ingenues. "Racing doesn't seem novel to me. I've been doing this for six years already! But there have been times I've sat back and thought, 'How bizarre. What's this little kid doing driving this gigantic truck?'" So, has your driving mellowed in the last six years? "No," he grins. "I'm still a kid." Pat's co-ordination is superb and he's a surprisingly delicate driver. His youth has given him an edge. "I've never felt alienated because of that," Pat says. "But some of the older drivers complain I drive crazy." There's no ranking among the 150 or so professional monster truck drivers around the country. No ones seems overly concerned about this, not even Pat, who probably ranks among the top 10. "He deserves recognition," says Beef Jerky kingpin and monster truck promoter Eric Hanson. "He's the King!"
Pat was never discouraged by his parents. "It's a great way to keep a teenager out of trouble." says his mother, Mary Gerber. Monster trucks create a good environment and aren't plagued with the various scandals that infect most pro sports. "Most drivers don't flaunt their money," Says Ed, "and they aren't into drugs or alcohol." Do you get flack for your age? "No, it's almost like a big family." says Pat. There are friendly rivalries among competitors, however. Pat's perky girlfriend Randi giggles. "It's just like any guy with their truck... Mine's bigger than yours!"
"As soon as he could walk, we took him to the mud races. At six, seven, we put him and his buddy on little three wheelers and let them run around." Pat learned the ways of the monster trucks in his father's shop, and they have been a good antidote to the snail's pace of his hometown of Bakersfield, California. Ed has worked on four monster trucks over the last decade, including The Shocker, Pat's bionic Dodge Dakota. "It was like a fish to water. We had to trade the truck out from the owner." Laughs Ed. At 15, Pat got behind it's wheel, and it was by chance that at a rally in Lancaster later that year he was allowed to compete. "The officials said he had to be 18. Pat had the experience, and the owner said he'd just haul the truck home if Pat couldn't drive it." Chuckles Ed. "He's just gone from there."
"I was terrified at first," Mary admits, "but I'd rather see him doing this than playing football or riding a motorcycle!" Safety is the main concern of the Monster Truck Racing Association, the sport's regulatory organization. Remote control kill switches, on board fire retardant system, and bodily protection like helmets, foam neck padding and fire suits are required. And for all the twisted metal, Pat's no Evel Kneivel. "I've never broken a bone in my life," he asserts. "You may fly 30 feet into the air, but you're in a steel cage, there's no body to ground contact." "Pat's only safety concern," Randi interjects, "would occur if he flirted with one of those chicks in the audience!"
You can't help but notice the ripe female spectators, most of whom look as though they've just come from an afternoon KISS concert in Des Moines, circa 1988. Do these 'groupies' see the grossly over-sized trucks as reflections of the drivers' masculine capabilities? "Even though I'm young and daring," Pat jokes, "They don't come after me too much." Pat met Randi, 23, a year ago, and they're an adorable couple. She dyes his hair and takes snapshots at the rallies.
Although most popular with the blue collar crowd, monster trucks are no poor man's hobby. "Big trucks, big repairs, big expense," Ed states flatly. "You'd need $100,000 to build a truck ground up." Competitors are paid a flat fee for each race, and the winners receive a bonus. After taking first place both days at Altamont against 14 competitors, Pat received an extra $1000. We're not exactly talking NASCAR money. But monster truck fans are more interested in the bombast than any actual competition, and drivers can make up to $70,000 annually, provided they can endure the gruelling national circuit. "I don't have the money for national domination just yet," Pat relates. "But if Budweiser sponsored me, I could take the damage I do to a national level!" Currently, Pat competes in between 10-25 rallies per year, running between county fairs and the biggest stadiums on the West Coast. Monster trucks are immensely popular nationwide; well publicized rallies can draw crowds of 15,000. "It's size; the bulk and the ability to take 12,000 pounds airborne, demolish cars and still maintain control," says motor sports promoter Mike Johnson. "It's like life."
Pat can't fathom life without his truck. "This seems to be my calling." he says. His future holds more country fairs and fire-breathing announcers, more busted transmissions and discarded Slim Jim wrappers. Pat sees himself taking over the family shop one day, but right now he's 21. "We're hoping to begin building another truck this year; a lot of the equipment on the Shocker is outdated." Everyone has nitrogen shocks now, at $1000 each. "And with eight," Pat shakes his head, "you can see where Budweiser would come in handy!"
Back at Del Mar, Pat is positioned against Chris Wise, one of only two professional female drivers in the MTRA. As twilight settles over the arena, Pat sails across the parade of sedans one last time, landing hard on his right front tire, only feet away from the twisted, unrecognizable hulks the junk cars have become. From behind a curtain of engine smoke, Pat slides out of the Shocker's window, removes his helmet and salutes the crowd. He's the star of the show, and for him the crowd scream loudest. "When they send that first manned probe to Mars," chuckles Eric Hanson, "They're gonna find Pat Gerber already up there."