"But he was so nice about it," Nancy says. "He took me aside and told me, because he didn't want Tod to know."

"I didn't want my dad to hear, because I didn't want him to feel bad," K.J. says.

"When K.J. said he wanted a monster truck, we thought he meant 'go-cart,' but, no, he actually meant a monster truck, so we figured out a way to get him one," says Tod, a real estate lawyer. The New Jersey native developed his own interest in cars while working his way through law school as a mechanic.

Nancy, K.J., Jake, and Tod at the family’s warehouse.
Michael McElroy
Nancy, K.J., Jake, and Tod at the family’s warehouse.
K.J. signs pieces of a foam school bus.
Kevin Berryman
K.J. signs pieces of a foam school bus.

Six months later, K.J. got Monster Bear, a $65,000 half-scale contraption that was custom-built in Wisconsin. The family later added the adult-sized truck, then purchased Sir Crush-a-Lot for Jake, who hasn't started competing yet. They won't say exactly how much they've spent on the trucks.

At first, Mom, Dad, K.J., and Jake would drive the monster trucks on the family's 50 acres outside of Ocala. Despite his age, K.J. kept insisting that he wanted to do more than just play with the big, motorized toys.

"He said, 'I want to be a professional monster truck driver,' " Nancy says.

"So Tod and I had a discussion, and we made a decision then and there," she says.

"We figured: If K.J. really wanted to do this — to be a professional monster truck driver — then we'd handle it in a business way."

And handle it in a business way they did: They hired an agent, and K.J. started participating in monster truck exhibitions at the tender age of 6.

Nancy pauses and looks at her sons. The boys have become somewhat slower in their near-constant movement. Somebody asks for the check.

"Mom," K.J. says.

"What, you want the keys so you can go sleep in the car?"

"Yeah," K.J. nods. The boys scamper off.

"It's late for them, you know?" Nancy says.

The Country Inn is one of three hotels in Cedartown, population 10,000. The woman behind the counter, a five-year veteran of the hotel named M.J. Gable, says the town is abuzz with monster trucks. Sixteen rooms are booked just for the rally, she says in a bored, Appalachian drawl. This is as many rooms as when a big movie studio recently decided to film something there or when the wheelchair races come to town.

M.J., 22, says motorsports are big in Cedartown. Her family's now-defunct dairy farm has been converted into a mud bog and is one of the area's main attractions. Just this year, more than 500 people signed waivers to ride on the unnamed, soggy, 270-acre patch. "We dig a bunch of holes in our backyard, and everyone comes out," she says. "There's really not a whole lot else to do here."

The conversation lulls, and the noise is replaced by the TV, tuned to County Music Television. "You were too bad for a little square town, with your hip-hop hat and your pants on the ground," sings a tall, dark, 20-something with an acoustic guitar. "Heard you cussed out Mama, pushed Daddy around."

A faint pitter-patter suddenly grows louder until two sets of sneakered footsteps drown out the song completely. K.J. and Jake appear in the lobby, mullets slicked back with musky hair gel. Jake rushes toward the continental breakfast display, pocketing a cinnamon bun and a six-pack of chocolate donuts.

"Don't!" K.J. warns. "Put it back."

Tod and Nancy descend. There's so much to do before tonight, before even getting to the track. The boys have to eat, and the parents have to drop off laundry, and they need to stop by the auto parts store to pick up a gasket or a wire or a screw, she says breathily.

The family piles into the rental truck. K.J., eyes still heavy with sleep, shows off a new M&M bean bag that he got from Walmart. His brother, Jake, takes notice and hurries to show off a robotic mummy doll that dances to "Thriller" when you press a button.

"I got this last night. Look," Jake says, pressing the button again.

In the van, en route to the laundry, normally reticent K.J. opens up about his hopes, fears, and aesthetic sensibilities. "I don't want to go to college," he says coolly. "When I'm older, I want to live in Miami, because that's closer to Monster Jam, and I want to have a house, but not a really big house, because even if you're rich, you don't need a really big house. I'd have a house like we have now. And I'd have a Ferrari, with those doors that go up. And it'd be orange."

K.J. then says his favorite songwriter is George Thorogood. "He wrote 'Bad to the Bone,' and that's what they play when Gravedigger comes out." Justin Bieber, K.J. says dismissively, "sings like a girl."

"You know what I don't get?" K.J. says. "When they say that a house is 'on the water.' It's weird; I don't see why you say it's on the water, like it's literally on the water, like just floating there, and it's not," he says. "But I wouldn't want to live on the water anyway. Hey, Mom?"

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