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.
K.J. and Jake swing open the doors. They fly across the parking lot into the building, where they get lost among the flotsam and jetsam of the restaurant's country store. Nancy worries because it's late and the boys are tired. They need to eat, and they also need to be up early. Accompanying the family are two men, Brian Kenney and Hillbilly, who refused to give his legal name, out of concern over stalkers. They're the team's drivers, and they haul K.J.'s Peterbilt and storage trailer — where the monster trucks are kept — to the tracks every weekend.
"You're goin' back to Atlanta?" Hillbilly asks a New Times reporter, his words a garble of Western Kentucky mountains. "Why, shoot, you should come to Cedartown and stay with me 'n' Brian, and Brian can sleep on the floor!" he says, unironically slapping his thigh. Nancy corrals the boys, who, by this moment, would have already bought every trinket in the store had their allowances permitted. Meanwhile, Tod makes small talk with the hostess about her shaved head. Something along the lines of "What happened to your hair?" He doesn't mean any harm by it, but not everyone gets Tod's deadpan sense of humor. She offers a half-laugh and wordlessly leads the family to a table for seven.
K.J. scoots into the corner and jams a gummy crayon against a kid's paper menu. As soon as his brother sits down, Jake spills the plastic pegs from the wooden triangle game onto the table. Jake grins, showing off a black cavern of missing baby teeth.
"Hey, hey, hey, so my dad and I, we built some rocking chairs that were little bit bigger than those," he says, pointing between a child-sized chair and an adult rocker, visible through the window. K.J. looks down, grabs his crayon, puts it against the paper, and bites his lower lip. He looks up, eyes a fading flash. "But they, um, didn't come out right."
The waitress approaches. Nancy orders the boys milk and grilled chicken tenders with applesauce and side salads.
"What kind of dressing do you want, K.J.?" Nancy, a Fort Lauderdale native, asks.
"Peh, peh, peh... "
"K.J., what kind of dressing?"
"Peh, peh, peh... "
"Peh peh peh... "
"He wants pepper — "
"Peppercorn ranch!" he says, squishing his mouth.
"Me and my brother made swords and shields and were playing with them," he says. "They're made out of wood. With tinfoil on them. Jake's is SpongeBob and has SpongeBob on it."
What's on his?
"A monster truck."
The waitress drops off the salads and the main courses too. K.J. pushes the lettuce around with his fork but shoves the tomato and onion to the side of the plate. He and his brother gnaw on the marinated chicken tenderloins but tend to match each bite with a fidget. On the flight, K.J. spent the hourlong jaunt playing monster truck videogames on one of several hand-held consoles that he owns. He returns to his food.
At the other end of the table, Tod, Hillbilly, Brian, and Nancy talk about the track and whether the jumps are set up and what can be expected from Cedartown.
"Hey, Kaid," Tod asks, "what kind of jumps do you want?"
"Like this," K.J. says, holding his hand at an angle.
"That's called a 40-degree jump."
"I want a 40-degree jump then."
K.J. drops his chin into his hand.
"You want to say what you're going to do tomorrow?" Nancy asks. "Your routine?"
K.J. pouts and shakes his head.
"No?" she says.
"You want to keep it a surprise?"
"Yeah," K.J. says, tucking his knees against his chest.
"You boys done with your food?" Nancy asks. They give some form of a nod, and she slips the remaining chicken and accompaniments to Tod, who has cleaned his own plate of a trout dinner moments earlier.
Talk returns to the track. K.J. slouches. His head is in his hands.
Nancy details how K.J. got into the sport, speaking with that cadence and familiarity with which a mother tells her son about the day he was born. According to Nancy, K.J.'s obsession with monster trucks began at age 3, when she took him to his first Monster Jam. "From that point on, everything was monster trucks," says Nancy, who works as a title agent. The curvy blond's soft voice and general girlishness belie that she also participates in the sport. From time to time, Nancy will commandeer the mastodon of a truck that is Black Night during these weekend bouts.
"In preschool, every time K.J. had to draw something, he would draw monster trucks," she says.
Fast-forward two years. K.J. told Mom and Dad that he wanted a monster truck for his fifth birthday. He wanted it to be named Gravedigger, after his favorite Monster Jam contender. Mom and Dad agreed. They bought K.J. a go-cart and airbrushed it with a gray-scale graveyard, with hints of electric green.
When K.J. got home and saw his present, he said: "That's not a monster truck."
"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.
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?"
"You know what I don't get about Batman Begins?"
"Nobody found out about Batman, but there was a big hole in the ground, where he was building his bat cave. There were all these people coming and going." K.J. pauses to think. "Unless... he did all the construction work himself."
"Alfred, you know, the butler? I'm sure he knew," Nancy suggests.
"He probably did," he admits.
K.J. points to the yellow scab on his elbow.
"I had a big crash on my bike, and I was trying to steer myself forward, and I hit a rock, and I didn't see it, and I flew off the bike and scraped my elbow like this."
K.J. shifts in his seat and points his bony joint in the air, proudly, as if holding up something for show-and-tell.
The family pulls onto the fairgrounds. K.J. roars out of the door and rushes toward a red four-wheeler. He zips around the grass, making his way toward a group of junked cars next to the track. There are two minivans, with the word fag scrawled on one of them in spray paint.
Nancy excuses herself. She has to go to Walmart and get some cold cuts for the boys' lunch. As she steps away, Tod, with his easygoing tan and boat-moc-style Crocs, wraps up a conversation about merchandising. What he eventually envisions, he says, is a kids' monster truck league in which children can compete alongside K.J., using trucks supplied by his family's business. In the motorsports world, they already have junior-drag-racing leagues, he says, and junior quad competitions but no junior monster truck leagues. In the long run, he says, he and Nancy would like to set up a kids' monster truck camp on their land in Ocala.
"Right now, K.J. is in a league of his own," Nancy says plaintively.
The goal of these weekend expeditions, Tod says, is to get K.J. exposure and, with that, long-term commercial viability.
Other pros say that K.J.'s got what it takes to do that. Robert Parker has been driving monster trucks, including the famed Gravedigger No. 8, since 1984. Parker — who drove Pouncer that weekend but normally works as a professional catfisherman — sees a bright future for K.J. Some pros get involved in monster truck driving during their teenaged years, and there's one 14-year-old driver on the circuit, but K.J. is the youngest monster truck driver yet.
"He's going to be a world champion. Getting him started at that age, getting him behind the wheel so young," says Parker. "That kid's got talent. He'll be someone to reckon with when he gets of age."
By phone from Indiana, legendary monster truck driver Paul Shafer paints a grimmer picture of career monster trucking. Shafer's Monster Patrol is said to have been the third monster truck ever. (The truck was originally built by Fred Shafer, no relation, in 1979.) Shafer says that small promoters like Old Skool Motorsports — the group behind the Cedartown event — and himself are getting pushed out of the industry by entertainment conglomerates. Feld Entertainment, which puts on Monster Jam events, has changed the nature of the competition, Shafer says. Before Feld, people used to see the artistry of the custom trucks and the skill behind tricky jumps. At stadium events, though, the audience wants to see crashes and rollovers, which take place when a driver turns too quickly, causing the top-heavy truck to land on its roof.
This technique costs about $10,000 per truck per show, which small promoters just can't pony up. But it's the roll trucks, Shafer laments, that fill big, metropolitan arenas with up to 80,000 spectators. This leaves monster truckers like him with far less lucrative carnivals and the demolition derby circuit.
"You've got the big corporations around, and they're crashing the trucks, and it's all about the money," he says. "They do a show, and they roll over five trucks, and they do quite well. The private guys like me, we can't. A truck used to entertain people by going over cars, and the drivers would wave and sign autographs. Now, people go to the show and they want the trucks to hit a brick wall, to roll over and crash."
K.J. and Tod remain undeterred.
"What we eventually want are Kid K.J. Dolls or action figures," he says. "We're still looking for that sponsorship."
Nightfall at the fairgrounds. Pickup trucks crowd the parking lot. A faint westerly breeze carries the odor of funnel cake and burned hamburger to the stands. Nancy and Jake sit impatiently in the bleachers, waiting for this Friday night's exposition to begin.
Meanwhile, Durty Dingus McGee, a clown with smeared face paint and a live hen sitting on his head, calls kids to the track. Two adolescents descend. Durty Dingus, who refused to give his legal name, also out of concern about stalkers, puts a balloon on their heads, then pops it. Baby powder explodes out, all over them.
A little after 7 p.m., the announcer officially starts the show with a salute to the troops. "Without them, there wouldn't be any monster truck shows like tonight's," he says.
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.
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.
That Saturday night, K.J. stands by his truck, waiting for his fans. He signs autographs and answers questions about driving. K.J. has taken acting and speaking lessons at the advice of his agent. He is congenial but says little. He plays the folk-hero part that all monster truck drivers do, but he doesn't seem completely at ease being an Everyman, a role model.
That's not to say that K.J. doesn't enjoy the pit parties and autographs. It's just that all K.J. seems to really care about is the monster trucks, not so much the hours of side work that goes along with making a life out of professionally driving them.
Later that evening, when K.J. tips Monster Bear far back on its rear tires for the wheelie competition, the crowd of nearly 1,000 roars. K.J. is the most vertical and has beaten usual audience favorite Predator in the wheelie contest.
Then comes the long jump. Bigger, more powerful, eight-cylinder trucks rush over a tightly packed row of four sedans. Nobody thinks that K.J., the underdog in skill and size, will even participate. But the announcer unexpectedly calls him onto the field. K.J. circles the track several times, building momentum with each loop. K.J. nears the cars, then backs up, away from the rows, then approaches quickly again, to pack the jump's dirt with his front tires. The tighter the dirt, the easier it is to launch off the jump.
K.J. roars backward one last time. From a distance of about 25 feet, he rushes over the four cars, clearing the last by several yards. K.J., judged on half-scale terms, is the crowd's favorite that night. From their yells and claps and hollers and shouts, the announcer determines that K.J. outright beats the competition.
Shortly after, when K.J. leaves the field in a wake of cheers, he lumbers up the bleachers and finds his mom, brother, and a female friend from Florida.
"Yay, K.J.!" Nancy says. "You did it! You did so well! You won the long jump, and you've never done that before!"
K.J. looks around.
"No, K.J., that was your first time. And you did great. I'm so proud of you!"
K.J. climbs down. He has to sign autographs, just like the night before. The crowd eventually thins around 11 p.m. Nancy reminds Tod that the boys need to be fed before bed. She doesn't want them falling asleep without eating. They have to leave for the Atlanta airport at about 5:30 a.m.
Tod tells them to go to the Huddle House first. He'll meet up with them later, once everything is set with the trucks. Inside the diner, K.J. drags a Star Wars action figure across the table. His brother squirms in the booth across from him.
"What do you want to eat, K.J.?' Nancy says.
"You have to have something besides toast."
"I want toast."
"OK, then, one order of toast," Nancy tells the waitress. She also orders a sirloin-tip dinner, with fried shrimp and mashed potatoes, for the boys to share. She doesn't get real hungry, she explains, but likes to pick at whatever they're having.
The waitress writes down the order and circles back to the open kitchen.
"Hey, is that the little boy that rides in them monster trucks?" she asks from behind the counter.
"Yes," Nancy replies, smiling. "That's K.J."
"I heard about him!" the waitress shouts. "I heard he's real good, but I didn't get a chance to go out there tonight and see him."
"Thank you," Nancy says, patting her son on the head.
K.J. squirms a bit. He asks his mom for his toast. He's stretched out on the bench next to her, almost lying down. She really wants to get some food in him before he passes out.
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"I'm sorry, I don't mean to bother you again, but if we could just have the toast, just an order of toast. I'm worried that he's going to fall asleep."
"Comin' right up," the waitress says.
She turns to pick up a plate from the counter.
K.J.'s head falls into his mother's lap.