When my British husband insisted that what he truly wanted for his birthday was to see a Monster Jam Truck show, I cringed inside. This, I told him, is not really my America (or my thing). But it IS America, he argued. Given that it was a present for him, and that men, including my husband, are notoriously difficult to shop for, I relented.
A few months later I found myself in some of the best seats at a Philadelphia stadium waiting for the motor-powered entertainment to begin. My expectations were low. It seemed that I, a staunch feminist, had found myself in the epicenter of macho culture. Fumes filled the arena, engines revved, and the beastly vehicles made their way out on to the spotlight. As the driver bios appeared on the jumbo screen, I flashed a toothy grin after noticing that two of them were women. In fact, one of the best moments of the show came when Candice Jolly, who drives Monster Mutt, landed upside down sending the crowd into a fit of applause.
“The people who are shocked the most are just the fans,” Nicole Johnson, who has been driving the Scooby Doo truck since 2011, told The Daily Beast. “They have a preconceived idea of who should be driving that truck.”
While the world of Monster Jam truck driving is still dominated by men, a class of dynamic and intrepid female drivers has made it a women’s sport too. These self-dubbed gear heads go toe to toe (or perhaps more accurately, crash to crash), with the men in the sport. And when they aren’t trying to best each other in donut competitions (spinning in a circle) or wielding a wrench to fix the damage they did on the obstacle course, they are taking care of kids, managing their own businesses, or doing charity work.
Out of the 93 Monster Jam truck drivers in the 2014 season, only six are women: Jolly, Johnson, Madusa (Debrah Miceli), Dawn Creten, Taryn Laskey, and Becky McDonough. If Sheryl Sandberg is the poster child of the one percent of women having it all, the First Ladies of Monster Jam serve as feminist exemplar for the other 99 percent.
Madusa, a former pro-wrestler who used to compete alongside legends like the late Macho Man Randy Savage, was the very first woman to drive one of the Monster Jam trucks. Back in 1999, Feld Entertainment—the corporate parent of Monster Jam, which also runs Disney on Ice and the Ringling Brothers, among other shows—called to see if she would be interested in taking the job. They flew her out to North Carolina for a test drive.
“I jumped over a few cars, almost turned it upside down in a pond and came out on top of all four tires,” she wrote in an email. “I got out of the truck and they said: You are hired!”
She had never even been to a show before. Five years later she would be the first woman to win a Monster Jam Finals Championship in the freestyle category. The following year she defeated Dennis Anderson, driver of Grave Digger, the most popular truck in the game, in the racing championship.
She makes no bones about her identity and unusual career path.
“I don't care what they say: I was a 5'10”, blonde, blue eyed, big-chested chick driving a truck and they were all men,” Madusa wrote. “It's a no-brainer and I understood sports entertainment already.”
Also known to her fans as the Queen of Carnage, Madusa had to put in a lot of “sweat equity,” in her words, to earn her spot in the world of Monster Jam. This meant helping to change those insanely large tires and working to repair the vehicles. She also helped to mentor McDonough into the sport. Before earning her spot as a driver, McDonough rose to become the first-ever female Crew Chief keeping the Nitro Circus truck performance ready. Nowadays she is one of the drivers for el Toro Loco.
The key to making it in the boys club is working hard, according to Johnson.
“If you are going to get into a male-dominated sport, there may be some anticipation that you can’t do the job,” Johnson said. “Work hard and you’ll earn the respect of your peers.”
Jolly, who entered the racing world when she was eight years old, remembers being taunted as a kid.
“When I first started guys would tell my dad: ‘your daughter shouldn’t be racing go karts,’” Jolly said. “My dad was like, ‘my little girl can do anything your little boy can do.’ It’s never bothered me.”
Like Jolly, most of the women raced other motorized vehicles before making it into Monster Jam. Johnson competed in rock crawling (off-road driving), Laskey started on quarter midgets—cars that are one-fourth the size of the racing cars known as midgets—and then moved on to dirt sprint cars. And Madusa had spent time on motorcycles, dirt bikes and four wheelers, among other rides.
While the women are diplomatic about the gender politics of their careers, it doesn’t mean that aspects of it aren’t difficult.
The wrestling fans are “incredibly horrifying when you age,” Madusa, now 50, wrote. Back in the day, women wrestled all the way up to their 50s, 60s, and 70s, but “you don’t see that now” because of the criticism, she added.
Inspiring others to follow in their footsteps is one of the best parts of the gig, the drivers said. Madusa’s Facebook page is filled with pictures of small girls smiling and clinging to their Madusa memorabilia.
While driving a 10,000-pound Monster Jam truck demonstrates that these women are just as tough as their male counterparts, it doesn’t mean sacrificing femininity.
“We are still very girly,” Jolly said, who is not bothered by the traditionally feminine nature of the trucks they drive. Madusa’s vehicle is hot pink and Creten drives the Scarlet Bandit, for instance. Most of the men’s trucks have aggressive names like Iron Warrior and Hurricane Force. “We are not masculine in any way,” she added. On social media, Madusa refers to her fans as pink warriors.
The women have different views, however, on whether it’s appropriate to promote their sexuality.
“I dress modestly so that girls have something to look up to regarding skills,” Johnson said, who won’t even wear a tank top in public pictures. “I want girls to make it with their brains. I don’t want to see them using their bodies to get ahead because that’s a flash in the pan.”
McDonough, in contrast, sells posters of herself in revealing clothing leaning over a car in a sultry manner. And Madusa poses in a bikini on her website. Madusa doesn’t think that her overall Monster Jam image “oozes sexiness,” but rather “confidence.”
When they aren’t competing, the first ladies of Monster Jam balance a wide array of hobbies and jobs on top of family. Madusa is studying to become a yogi and she used to own a pet-grooming salon before she moved to Germany for her husband, who is in the military. Laskey, who earned a degree in psychology, enjoys painting and poetry. Jolly and Creten, who are both married to Monster Jam drivers (Neil Elliott and Jimmy Creten, respectively), have kids.
At the age of five, when Jolly’s son Chase realized that his mom was something of a commodity, she had to tell him not to “volunteer mommy to attend birthday parties,” she said laughing at the memory.
Jolly somehow finds the time to also manage a restaurant and help kids who have Autism and Down syndrome ride horses. To boot, she also just got her real estate license.
With her husband, Johnson owns a retail gun shop and raises two boys. Previously they were general contractors until the economy went belly up in 2008.
In 2015, Monster Jam will have a fleet of eight female drivers. The female fan base tends to hold steady at 38 percent, according to Amanda Regan, a spokeswoman for Feld Motor Sports. The company declined to comment on their efforts to recruit more women, but the current drivers say they are working hard at it.
Monster Jam executives “have test driven quite a few women that have decided to pass” on the gig, Johnson said. It’s an “odd job” that’s very “physically demanding” on the body, she added. The reality is, Johnson continued, that there are a limited number of women out there who have some motor sports experience and are “willing to give this a try.”
I can’t say that my foray into the world of female Monster Jam drivers turned me into a huge fan. I will probably only return if my better half takes me there. But I did learn that Monster Jam is not only a place that celebrates aggressive masculinity; it’s also home to a group of kickass women who truly do it all.