Then comes a Christian prayer and a version of the national anthem that sounds like it's on cassette tape. After the formalities, the announcer counts down — three, two, one! — and the drivers roar out, one by one: Lil Truck, Predator, Lone Eagle, Pouncer, Black Knight, Prowler, Outlaw Clydesdale, and, finally, Monster Bear. The names of the trucks come first in the roll call, followed by the names of the drivers and their hometowns. All hail from the Old South, except for K.J.

K.J. and his family are not just from a different part of the country than most monster truckers and enthusiasts — they're cut from a different demographic. Indie team owners and small promoters — like the kind at the Cedartown rally — are often the proprietors of motorsports shops or construction companies. K.J.'s family is hard-working, make no mistake, but it's hard to ignore that they have acquired an affluence — and white-collar comforts — beyond that of most monster truckers.

These disparities, however, are not apparent on the track. The machines, decorated with anything from tiger stripes and leopard spots to airbrushed birds of prey to bullet-wound decals, circle the space, exhaust roaring with apocalyptic showiness. Since the inception of monster trucks — said to have been in 1979, with Bob Chandler's infamous Bigfoot — the contests have been as much about entertainment as sport. They have even been called the motorsport version of televised wrestling.

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.

Seasoned attendees are easily spotted: They know to bring earplugs. The competition begins with wheelies but isn't run like a typical competition, where there are objective criteria to determine a winner and a loser. Instead, a truck's uprightness is largely determined by how loudly the crowd cheers. This is also how winners are determined in the freestyle component. Only the race around the track, which is timed, seems to be undemocratic.

Winning, in fact, seems to be as much a function of pageantry as pragmatism. In independent leagues, payment has nothing to do with winning. Sometimes, more popular trucks get more money to "compete" because they can draw a bigger crowd, but that's about it.

K.J. does "compete" alongside the big boys. His half-scale truck has a four-cylinder engine — whereas full-sized trucks have eight cylinders — so he sticks with wheelies and freestyle, with the occasional long jump thrown in.

That night, Monster Bear tails the full-sized trucks, coming in last in each segment. "K.J. is still a winner," Nancy says, nodding at K.J. from the stands. "Everything he does, he's just so good at it. We're really proud of him."

When it comes time for his signature move — when he drives into a foam school bus — the crowd calls his name all the same.

"The thing is, it doesn't matter if you're competing," Nancy explains. "It's a family. Everyone is in it together. If something happens to your truck, the other teams will help you fix it in the pit."

As the cries of "K.J.! K.J.!" soften, he circles around the track. The wiry, curly headed announcer steps onto the field. It's time for an interview.

"K.J., you're the world's youngest monster truck driver?" he asks. Nothing. "K.J., you just jumped a school bus?" More silence. "K.J., how does it feel?"

K.J. exhales into the mic.

"Everybody, let's give it up for Kid K.J.!" the announcer says.

K.J., still wordless, drives away.

Twenty-three-year-old Chad Deerfoot has thinning black hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a shirt from a worldwide monster truck championship that took place in Las Vegas in the early 2000s that he did not attend.

Deerfoot, of nearby Dallas, Georgia, is like many of the attendees at Saturday night's preshow pit party. Like the ribbon-haired girls who tiredly lumber around the corral in pastel cowboy boots and like the ruddy-cheeked, Wrangler-clad boys who've got six months until they join the service, Deerfoot likes the roar and the rush of the trucks and their loud, rusty promise of escape.

Deerfoot, in fact, plans on making it big as a professional monster truck driver. Being of Native American descent, he already knows that he wants his truck to be named the Indian Renegade.

"It'd have a big deer on it, like, a wacked-out-looking deer. Or maybe it would be called Psycho something instead."

Deerfoot, who doesn't have a car, says he knows he has to work his way to driving a monster truck — let alone owning his own — but is prepared to attend technical school and put in several years' worth of grunt work as a member of a pit crew. He says he knows he has to get his driver's license at some point too.

The other attendees are not altogether unlike Deerfoot in their aspirations. They are kind, patriotic, salt-of-the-earth people who describe themselves as adrenaline junkies and "gear heads" who feed off the rivalry between Chevy and Ford. The adults race their own trucks during breaks in the planned programming. And the kids, the lion's share of K.J.'s fans, want K.J.'s life — their own slice of motorized pie.

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