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By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
They snarl and growl and snort, darkening the summer sky with thick, black smoke. They are 7,500-pound monsters, intricate, angry molds of metal, fiberglass, and rubber. Their motors roar, jittery pistons hot and ready for an announcer's call to war, a crooning: "Drivers, start your engines!" They stand 13 feet tall. For sport, they use the power of 1,500 horses to crush everything in their paths. Their treads rip open the earth, cutting deep, grass-lined wounds. Their rough tires spray mud on hundreds. And they've got names to match their menace: Gravedigger. Bigfoot. Predator. Carolina Crusher. El Toro Loco. King Kong. Maximum Destruction. Monster Bear.
That last truck, steered by a towheaded 8-year-old boy, zooms onto a dusty field. K.J. cuts the wheel hard to the left. His half-scale monster truck — air-brushed zombie green and blue, with a sneering, bug-eyed grizzly — loops quickly, digging a teardrop-shaped line into the moist, red clay of a fairground in Cedartown, Georgia. K.J. steers to the right. He pinches another pointed loop in the soil, forming a tidy figure eight.
K.J. guns it, heading straight toward a termite-mound-sized pile of dirt. The truck's body seems to hiccup as the front tires mount a slight incline. Monster Bear soars momentarily, then lurches earthward with gravity's smooth pull. Snap, crackle, crunch! K.J. smashes a school bus made of yellow foam with a hollow pop. Soft, plastic shards fan outward as K.J. steadies the clumsy, all-wheel-drive truck. He floors it, zipping off the field, into an unlit lot behind the announcer's pavilion. Children rush off the bleachers, pressing their noses against the wire fence that lines the fairground field. A dirty harlequin in mismatched, striped socks and a camo hunting vest approaches from the shadows. He throws the crowd chunks of the bus. They squeal, shoving each other for a shot at a piece of refuse. The announcer congratulates K.J. on his signature move, the bus crush.
Monster Bear, still hidden, idles. K.J. kills the engine, and the motor gives one final, smoky pant. The slight, sinewy boy — among the shortest in his third-grade class — climbs down from his truck. With golden-brown eyes and the kind of suntan that comes only from summers spent outdoors, K.J. makes his way toward the concession stand, then sits at a card table by himself. The show will end soon, and K.J. has to prep for his fans. He has to get ready to sign hundreds of autographs.
Meet Kid K.J., the world's youngest monster truck driver.
K.J. — given name Kaid Jaret Olson-Weston — has been touring the country as a monster truck driver since age 6. Most weekends, the Pompano Beach resident and his family hop on a plane and travel to sleepy, middle-American small towns that have grown sleepier since losing their lone factory. There, they partner with the country's few independent monster truck promoters and participate in two-day rallies made up of wheelie, donut, freestyle, and drag-racing contests.
But Kid K.J. has his eyes on bigger venues, and not just for fatter checks. Right now, his parents say, the Westons' motorsports "team" — made up of Monster Bear, Black Knight, and Sir Crush-a-Lot (another pint-sized truck that's soon to make its debut) — is just breaking even. And that's largely because the adult truck, Black Knight, can land appearance and competition fees for the team — around $3,500 for a weekend. That sum turns out to be small change in the high-cost world of monster trucks, where a single, full-sized vehicle costs around $150,000. Add in cross-country truck transportation at $2 per mile, staffer salaries, travel expenses, and the near-constant purchase of parts and equipment and the cost to compete per weekend winds up being around what they get paid — $3,500 per appearance.
K.J. also won't fit in Monster Bear forever, meaning a new truck could be a new, necessary expense in a few years. So his parents, Tod and Nancy, are trying to get K.J. exposure — in hopes of snagging an elusive yet much-needed sponsorship. At the end of the day, family members say, they just want their little boy to reach his ultimate goal: growing up to be a full-time, professional monster truck driver.
On a recent weekend, New Times traveled with the family to Cedartown to watch K.J. in action. As the weekend progressed, it became clear that he could make it as a monster truck driver — despite the fact that the industry is becoming more corporate in a way that downplays individual stardom. What isn't clear: Whether Kid K.J., who suffers from the same bouts of sleepiness, indecisiveness, and, occasionally, temper tantrums as less-talented tykes, can balance the pressures of his career with the demands of being a kid.
The family pulls into a Cracker Barrel off of Georgia's Interstate 20. It's a little after 9 p.m. on a recent Thursday, and the family — parents Nancy and Tod, K.J., and his 6-year-old brother, Jake — rolls into the parking lot in a rented Dodge SUV. They touched down in Atlanta and are headed 60 miles west, just shy of the Alabama border, to Cedartown for the weekend's monster truck competition. And they have to get to the county seat quick, because work starts at 7 a.m. tomorrow.
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