Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A quick look at the native origins of Samurai Shodown...

At the end of 2019 fighting games had returned from the dead. The genre had established itself as an important part of the gaming landscape. In the late ‘90s the genre seemed like a footnote in history. The market had been saturated with fighters for almost the entire decade. There were some good titles but many bad. That combined with the decline of the arcade took its toll on the community. It was hard to predict that there would be a resurgence in the late ‘00s. A lot of classic titles have returned to prominence, including Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Guilty Gear. One of the great titles, Samurai Shodown / Spirits, an SNK gem from 1993 was given a new life in 2019. There is so much to unpack in the series, I have talked about a few of the characters in this blog. I might do some more breakdowns in the future, however I just want to point out a detail from the series. Something that made it unique in the sea of games were the spiritual, cultural, and environmental themes explored through the characters.

 

Two of the major villains in the series, Amakusa and Yuga, were fantastic designs. Imagine if a game studio art team were challenged to create androgynous fighting game bosses. That of a male with traditional feminine features and that of a female demon with masculine features. The prerequisite was to give them elaborate Japanese robes, while making it obvious that they had one foot in the physical world, and one foot in the spirit world. Chances are nobody could have come up with anything better than what SNK produced. The Samurai Shodown series gave designers leeway to explore all sorts of fantastic themes when building their library. This extended to stage designs, background characters, and especially playable characters. Take the Kazama brothers as another example. The ninjas were reflective of the elements. Kazuki was coded as fire, and his brother Sogetsu was coded as water. This extended into their respective personalities.

 

Easily the most overlooked contribution to fighting game history came through some of the smallest characters. Did you know that there was a lot of Native Japanese representation in the series? You might be thinking it’s obvious given the title of the game. The samurai were a warrior class exclusive to Japan. There are a great number of sword fighters from Japan, archetypes of real and fictional samurai are featured throughout the series. When I talk about Native Japanese, I mean the Ainu, the indigenous ancestors of the land.

 

The Ainu share a spiritual narrative with traditional Japan. Kamui, or spirits, inhabit all things. This is a similar belief in Shinto tradition, where spirits are in nature, in rocks, essentially everywhere. They can also be bound to objects and people. In Ainu culture the bear was revered above all of the animals. They would be raised as a family member, unfortunately only to be sacrificed as they got older. Nakoruru, her little sister Rimururu, and their family was coded as Ainu in the Samurai Shodown series. Her stages were named the Kamui Kotan, the first of which was in Hokkaido, where there was a large concentration of Ainu at the turn of the century. The way Nakoruru and her clan was presented was done with tremendous forethought. This was important because the Ainu people have been fighting to have their culture be recognized by the nation of Japan for centuries. Western audiences might not have understood that there was a native class in Japan. To the Japanese however this was more apparent.

 

The costume choices, clothes, colors, weapons, stages and even Ainu spiritual leanings were featured in the series. Nakoruru wore a simple garment, with animal-skin boots. It was something that could not be confused for a kimono, or traditional Japanese robe. She fought with a modest short blade, not a polished katana. Her gigantic hawk, Mamahaha, could be summoned for special attacks. The forest creatures seemed to respond to her commands. As sequels came out little sister Rimururu was able to summon the spirits of nature themselves. I cannot think of another series that featured Ainu, or their spiritual underpinnings in any capacity. By comparison we have seen the Native American character done many times in different games from both the US and Japan. The native characters are often ugly caricatures based on stereotypes. We’ve seen totems, teepees, thunderbirds, and tomahawks done to death. The Japanese spiritual themes were handled much better in the Samurai Shodown series.

I’d like you to think about how different cultures have been presented in fighting games, and if native cultures are shown in a positive or negative light. If you would like to learn more about the Ainu I ask that you check out The Golden Kamuy, a manga series which started publication in 2014 and got an anime adaptation as well. It does a brilliant job of intertwining the Ainu culture with a historical period, not far removed from the era that Samurai Shodown captures. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Monday, August 5, 2019

The new wave of black fighting game protagonists

I am very excited following on the footsteps of EVO 2019. A lot of great tournament action went down and there were several great reveals by the game studios. I'm going to talk a little bit about a theme that went through two of the most recent announcements. Arc System Works has been cranking out some fantastic titles over the past few years, including Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and Melty Blood. They teased that there would be a new character introduced into the world of Guilty Gear. He didn't have a name (as of August 5 as I write this) but he stood out from the crowd. He was a strong black man with decidedly futuristic samurai armor. The crowd in Las Vegas, as well as online, went crazy by his reveal. It stood to reason because strong, positive black characters and Japanese designers haven't always been on the same page.

 

I was wondering if this new character might be based on Yasuke. The only black samurai in recorded history. I talked a little bit about this character while dissecting black stereotypes in fighting games. The animé character Afro Samurai, and Samurai Showdown character J were loosely inspired by this historical figure. Sadly, the black character in many fighting games often wore a large afro and a silly costume. The only alternate for the black characters seemed to be showing up as a boxer.



Representation went a long way in fighting game character designs and especially in the community. I have already argued that age and gender helped make the Street Fighter series unique. And I also argued that even body type, like fat characters, had a proper way to be introduced into the genre. Minority characters were something that I felt Capcom and the other studios could do better at presenting. I have a feeling that the growth of e-sports, especially the spectacle of of the EVO tournament has made Japan keenly aware as to how popular, and important, fighting games are to the western market. The impact of powerful minority characters is even more important to the minority community. Because of that it was wise of Arc System Works to include a new black character in Guilty Gear. But almost as important is Namco introducing a new character into the Tekken series.

 

The name Leroy Smith is a little too generic, almost too stereotypical for my tastes, but I think his inclusion serves many purposes. First let's talk about his look. The character is older and a master of the kung-fu arts. He is seen practicing with a classic wing-chun wooden dummy. He then takes on Marshall Law and Lei Wulong in his teaser trailer. Marshall is modeled after Bruce Lee and Lei after Jackie Chan. He defeats both soundly with his smooth minimal strikes.

 

After this he takes on Feng Wei, a master of Chinese Kempo and probably the most pure wuxia villain in the Tekken series. He defeats Wei as well. His strikes and form are very reminiscent of Wang Jinrei, an elderly master of Xin Yi Quan. The character was a friend of Jinpachi Mishima, the founder of the Mishima Zaibatsu. Wang passed away in the series. Sadly for many fans of Tekken this also meant that his style of fighting went with him. I have a feeling that Leroy was introduced in part to bring back this classic form.

 

The appearance of Leroy might be strongly attributed to the character of Ezekiel from the Walking Dead television series. The older black character sported large dreadlocks and commanded respect in the series. He was often referred to as King Ezekiel in the graphic novel and television show. Negan, the main villain from the Walking Dead was introduced in Tekken 7. It's not hard to think that the designers appreciated the character of Ezekiel and wanted to include their own version without having to pay AMC or the actor to use his likeness. What if I were to tell you that the character of Leroy and his importance in the series, and with the fighting game community went much deeper than that?

 

The kids from Generation X grew up with heroes like Bruce Lee, Ron Van Clief, and Jim Kelly. The non-white heroes spoke to minority kids in every city and town from coast-to-coast. Finally there were heroes we could identify with. They did not play sidekick, or act subservient to any other character. That generation was raised on a steady diet of Shaw Bros kung-fu movies. When they got older that passion for the marital arts never faded. In fact the love of kung-fu built a cult following. The rap group Wu-Tang Clan out of New York were obsessed with classic martial arts films and even named their debut album after the iconic film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin aka Master Killer.

 

The group did more than pay lip service to the genre. They paid to have a collection of classic films get restored, dubbed, subtitled and transferred to DVD for an entirely new generation. Not only that but the defacto spokesman for the Wu-Tang Clan, the RZA, wrote, produced and starred in his own martial arts film. In the era where Hollywood wouldn't greenlight any classic style martial arts movies the RZA put up his own money and reputation to get the movie off the ground. He also appeared as a villain in the Protector 2, aka Tom Yun Goong 2, against Tony Jaa.

 

The RZA, and many more Hip Hop performers, including Lupe Fiasco were vocal about their love of fighting films and games. They were living proof that an entire generation was shaped by Asian culture. It was something that Capcom, Namco, Sega and the other Japanese developers seemed oblivious to. If you travel backwards through time you begin to see that kids in the inner-city had been clamoring for the Leroy Smith archetype for ages. The 1985 film the Last Dragon featured Tiamak Guarrello as Bruce Leroy Green. He was a mixed-race kid that modeled his life after Bruce Lee. The film was filled with an almost cringe-worthy fetishization of Chinese and Japanese culture. The villain was as over-the-top as any fighting game boss. Julius John Carry played Sho'nuff the Shogun of Harlem. I'm kind of surprised that none of the Japanese studios picked up on this earlier, considering how much they poached from US cinema.

 

To be completely honest, the first US-produced film that glorified inner-city gang fighting culture was the Warriors. Yes, there were earlier gang films that turned white protagonists into the anti-heroes. See James Dean in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. What made the 1979 film the Warriors stand out was the idea of mixed race gangs. Each gang had their own look and costumes. Recreated faithfully by Rockstar in the 2005 game by the same name. The title gang was out of Coney Island. It was founded and run by a black man named Cleon. His lieutenant was a white guy named Swan.

 

In the story the largest gang in New York was the Gramercy Riffs. Their warlord was known as Cyrus. He was trying to unite all of the gangs so that they could take over the city. He was assassinated by Luther, the leader of The Rogues, a gang from Hells Kitchen. This triggers an inter-gang war where all of the gangs mistakenly go after the Warriors. The Riffs are controlled by the former lieutenant named Masai, who becomes the new warlord of New York. With his dark sunglasses, and no-nonsense attitude, he is as imposing a villain as ever there was one.

 

So here is where things lead back to Leroy and Tekken 7. In the official story of the game Leroy was caught in a gang conflict in New York 50 years ago and disappeared. He is returning as a martial arts master in order to seek revenge. There are two bits of trivia that I feel you should know. The Tekken series is set in the near-future. It's not hard to argue that the game is set at least 10 years from now. Also, the Warriors battled in 1979, exactly 40 years ago.

 

If a young man like Masai had lost his leader he might have escaped to become a better fighter. Let's assume he was 18 when the events of the Warriors happened. He would now be pushing 70. Technically he would still be the elderly kung-fu master but, still have enough gas in the tank to be a formidable fighter. I have a feeling that the developers with Tekken liked the surface appearance of Ezekiel, however wanted someone grounded in the era and experience of New York during its peak gang life. What they ended up with may be the most unique fighter in the past few years. At least Arc System Works and Namco are validating the colored community with the inclusion of these new characters. At best they are forever changing the landscape of Japanese fighting game designs. What do you think?

 

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Friday, July 12, 2019

The monster files, when giants roamed the Earth.

So I had some extra details that I had gathered on monster trucks that didn't quite fit in with my diesel series. Rather than let them go to waste here's one extra post on my favorite automotive freak show. Most of you may know that the tires are really what make the monster trucks unique. In the four wheel drive community bigger is better. At the start of the monster truck movement it got to the point where traditional truck tires were not enough. So the pioneers in the late '70s and early '80s looked elsewhere for resources. Farm, construction, forestry and even mining vehicles were scoured for their unique, and massive tires. The early builds used military wheels and axles to support the weight of these new tires. With the exception of the motor, the biggest cost of each monster truck are the tires. On average the "terra" tires are 66 inches tall, 43 inches wide, and cost $5000 or more each. This price does not include the rims. The tires weigh over 800 lbs. each. On average monster trucks are 10,000 pounds, so a good chunk of that comes just from the wheels and tires.

 

In normal farm applications these oversize tires are not modified. Their wide stance and deep treads are meant to help pull heavy equipment across soft terrain. They provide enough buoyancy to help move a vehicle over swamps, marshes and even rivers. More important, they can do all of this without damaging crops. The extra weight of a stock tire however affects the performance (and safety) of monster trucks. So the tires are shaved using a hot tool. Hundreds of pounds of rubber are cut from each tread. The process of shaping each tire can take over two days. Teams sometimes have different treads or patterns that they cut depending on the types of shows they perform in. If a truck performs on mainly concrete courses they would have almost no tread. If they performed on mixed courses with dirt, and asphalt then a light tread would suffice. They would cut very little off if they performed on sand.

 

There were no templates to work from in the early days of monster truck construction. Each vehicle was completely unique. Builders were figuring out how to create suspensions, what types of motors and transmissions to use, and even the different sizes of terra tires to go with. The profile, or stance of each truck was different. This was something that I absolutely loved about the early days of monster trucks. Each truck had its own personality. Today the sizes and frames are almost all uniform with just a different fiberglass body on top. Back in the '80s a long-bed or short-bed truck determined the wheelbase, or distance between the wheels. Longer trucks tended to race better and turn quickly. Shorter wheelbase trucks tended to bounce, and lose control quickly because their center of gravity was very high. Yet for many of these builders the look of the truck was more important than how it performed.

 

Everyone knew that the big trucks could crush cars, but how many could look good while doing it? Some trucks were considered more for show rather than for sport. One of these was Showtime. It had a bright yellow paint job and a lot of chrome detailing. It did compete in many events but it also looked amazing. It boasted a powerful sound system, and it showed up perfectly polished in many car shows. The 1978 Ford Bronco had a shorter wheelbase than others, and when it that was combined with 73 inch tires, then it really stood out. There were a fewer number of trucks that used 73 inch Firestone Flotation 23's rather than the 66 inch Goodyear Terra's that most ran with. These trucks included Casper by Dale Harris, High X-pectations by Scott Palmer, Lon-Ranger by Gary Bauer, and the Giant by Kirk Dabney. When those trucks lined up against others the difference was noticeable. The extra size of tires also meant they raced slower and broke parts with more frequency. It was a small price to pay to stand out from the crowd. But like I said, in the early days bigger was better, and some builders started going to extremes.

 

The Dabney brothers, Kirk and Kevin, experimented with different monster building techniques. Instead of a truck for example Blue Thunder was a 1968 Camaro SS. It was piloted with a joystick from a Huey helicopter. That bar not only controlled the front wheel steering, but also the lights, nitrous, hydraulics, and rear wheel steering. Then they built two Nissan King Cab trucks. Mega Force and Alien. They started with 66 inch Goodyear Terras as well, but then made the switch to 80 inch Heavy Duty Deep Tread Firestones. When paired against other monsters these compact trucks looked gigantic. In fact the Nissan's were advertised as the "world's largest mini trucks." The only other import trucks that compared were The Toy. A 1985 Toyota Hilux compact by Joe Rinke that also sported the 80 inch Firestone's. It actually had a giant metal wind up key in the truck bed that rotated, making it look like an enormous toy. I have very vivid memories of seeing this truck as a child. Then there was So High Too by Dave Bell. The 1985 Toyota Hilux long bed had 73 inch Firestones, however the body rested on an elevated frame that made it stand over 13 feet in height.

 

Shots kept getting fired at Bob Chandler and his Bigfoot team as monster trucks got bolder. Every new build was a chance to do something original, and try to dethrone the king of the monster trucks. I had mentioned in the previous series that Jeff Dane's Awesome Kong II had a 3000 hp engine from a helicopter. In the golden age of monster creators Scott Stephens built the Coors Brewser, and Coors Silver Bullet with engines from a jet airplane, each generating over 1,800 hp. Then there was the diesel powered beast Godzilla. It took years to build, and when it was unveiled the monster truck community took notice. With its "standard" 73 inch tires, and custom features, it was much bigger and heavier than Bigfoot. The builders Al Thurber Jr., and Al Thurber III wanted to make their beast incomparable so they got even bigger tires. With 96 inch Firestones (and gold plated rims) Godzilla stood 16 feet in height, taller than So High Too. It weighed 28,000 lbs. Many thought that Bigfoot couldn't compare. History would prove them wrong.

 

Bob Chandler got tired of comparisons and wanted to settle the issue once and for all. Bigfoot was the King of the Monster Trucks. To prove it he built different versions of Bigfoot that could support 10 foot tires. That's not a typo. He has several sets of 120 inch Firestone tires. Their origins of those tires are fantastic. The LeTourneau Land Train started off as a military project in the 1950's. The company wanted to create an off road vehicle that could cross any terrain, especially extreme locations like the arctic or desert environments. This was to support research stations that could not be accessed by helicopter or ship. Roads were not readily available where this beast was headed. The company created hybrid diesel, electric motors that went into each wheel and helped pull the train over everything. Several versions of the land train were built, each better than the last. Each of those sported the enormous 10 foot tires. Sadly the military stopped testing the train, and parts of it ended up scattered all over the Pacific Northwest and Canada.

 

In the mid '80s Bob Chandler was on tour with Bigfoot when he saw some of the enormous tires at a salvage yard in Seattle. The owner was asking tens of thousands for them, so Chandler let it go. He returned later and offered to buy multiple sets at a lower price. After lots of back and forth they finally agreed on a price. Chandler then started work on Bigfoot V. Not satisfied with being able to run with a single set of 10 foot tires he created rims that could connect two sets, or "duallys." Its total weight jumped from 28,800 lbs to over 38,000 lbs. Each tire weighs a ton, with the aluminum wheel they jump to 2,400 lbs. In dually configuration that is over 19,000 lbs. In the end Bigfoot V stood 15' 6" tall, 13' 1" wide, 20' 5" wide with duals. In 1986 Chandler set the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest, tallest and heaviest pickup truck. By this point Chandler was on top of the world. It was apparent that Godzilla and the rest could try to take the title, but his best could never be beaten. With the Bigfoot name out there it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling again. Silver Pictures needed an expert to build a monster truck for a very expensive stunt. Chandler's shop rose to the occasion and they created Bigfoot VII so it could be used in the 1989 movie Roadhouse.

 

Bigfoot VII originally had the traditional 66 inch tires. In the movie they used the truck to drive through an auto dealership, crushing every car inside. Estimates say the shot cost about a half million dollars to put together. I'm sure most of that went into building Bigfoot VII. After the movie Chandler returned it to his shop configured the truck so that it could also use the 10 foot tires. Chandler was approached by the Race Rock Cafe, to sell them Bigfoot VII for their collection. The cafe was a themed restaurant in Orlando Florida that had racing memorabilia from all over the world. The engine and transmission were removed and the truck sat outside as a show piece. The restaurant closed down in 2007 and all the memorabilia was sold off. Bigfoot VII ended up at Fun Spot USA in Kissimmee. The amusement park painted the truck slightly different and changed the name to BigFun. This version of Bigfoot was so iconic that an homage to it appeared in the Splat Pack, a video game expansion to Carmageddon. The Mac and PC title from 1997 had a cult-like following (I was a huge fan). The truck went by the name of the Monster Masher. It sported "Firestarter" tires and was driven by Herman Monster.

 

With the Bigfoot legacy secure this piece of history could be laid to rest. But if you know me then you know that I like to dig a little deeper. What if I were to tell you that there was a monster truck even bigger than Bigfoot VII? It turns out that in the super heavyweight category Godzilla had the third biggest tires, and Bigfoot VII was the runner up. There was a colossal monster truck from Canada that owned the title. This enormous beast went by the name of Superfoot. It was the undisputed champ of gigantic monster trucks. It used 150 inch tires, that's 12 feet, 6 inches of rock hard rubber. The tires came from an earth mover, one of those enormous yellow dump trucks that Tonka modeled their toys on. The tires were designed for enormous mining equipment and definitely not for regular trucks. It didn't stop the madman Richard Arel from trying the impossible. Richard was known for tinkering with engines, transmission, and making his own vehicles for use on his pig farm.

 

The original name of the 1980 GMC 3500 truck was Suberfoot, it was the French-Canadian spelling of Superfoot. Arel had actually put two GMC trucks together to make his ultimate farm truck. This was way back in 1982, making him a pioneer of the culture. He put his (then) black and red truck on 66 inch terra tires, and it became the first Canadian monster truck. He did stadium shows all over the country. He was joined by the Super Toy, a Ford monster truck and fellow early Canadian monster. Suberfoot was eventually painted hot pink with bright blue lettering on the side. The spelling was changed to English. When the monster truck shows slowed down Arel decided to use his truck as a centerpiece at Le Madrid, a hotel-restaurant that he owned. The restaurant was a popular rest stop, it was situated on the long road between Montreal and Quebec City. It featured a number of roadside attractions, including a collection of giant cement and fiberglass dinosaurs. Superfoot would fit right in with them.

 

To make it really stand out however Arel built an extended frame and mounted the 12 foot tires on the truck. The engine and transmission were removed and it remained outdoors for years, just like Bigfoot VII. The downside was that he let the truck fall into disrepair. He would tell patrons that he was going to restore it someday but that day never came to pass. The truck ended up rusted and covered in graffiti near the end of its life. Arel sold off the property in 2011 and the truck vanished. Many assumed to the scrap yard, but I like to imagine that it got bored and instead ran away. It now roams the countryside looking for abandoned cars to flatten. Like a cryptid it pops up every now and then to startle young motorists. So if you're ever driving alone in the middle of nowhere and see a bright pink giant off in the distance, just keep moving, or you might get crushed! As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Monday, July 1, 2019

American Daredevil, the monster trucks that changed the world, final part

 

For more than 40 years Bob Chandler had been widely considered the father of the monster truck. It was a title that he never claimed but rarely disputed. His Ford was called the “King of the Monster Trucks.” Other builders, and drivers would come out over the years claiming that they had bigger, and more powerful trucks earlier. They should be considered the real fathers of the monster truck phenomenon. By his own admission Chandler remembers someone from Michigan showing a picture of his build. It was an earlier truck with 2 1/2 ton running gear, the monster standard. The truck lacked Chandler’s four wheel steering which many acknowledged made Bigfoot truly unique. That person's name was lost to history, could he have owned the original monster truck?

 

The thing about the four wheel drive community is that people had been experimenting with military, and farm components on their trucks for years if not decades before Bigfoot. It was many men working on similar ideas around the same time as Chandler that led to monster truck culture. Many different cultural movements happened in the exact same same way. Take the evolution of Hip Hop in the early ‘70s as an example. Many forces in New York helped lay the foundation. Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore, were deejays and emcees that threw block parties. They had their finger on the pulse of street culture. They each added an element that led to a revolution. No single person could be called the true father of Hip Hop. Monster trucks, hot rods, street racers, and just about any other car culture subdivision were very similar in that regards.

 

There were people like Everett Jasmer (USA-1), Don Freed (God of Thunder), and Fred Shafer (Bearfoot) all working on bigger and bigger trucks back in the late '70s and early '80s. If history had gone a little different the most iconic monster truck would probably be called King Kong, and the owner / builder Jeff Dane would be wearing the crown. Dane was a friend of Chandler’s. The duo each had their own Ford F-250’s that they would customize. Chandler’s was a ’74 model, and Jeff’s was a ’75. They appeared with their trucks at the same events on many occasions. Jeff however had started lifting his truck and going with oversize components sooner. Both had 48 inch non-directional military tires when they started crushing cars. This was before moving up to 66 inch terra tires, created for fertilizer spreaders. The bigger tires became the standard for monster trucks. Both trucks had also been featured in a number of magazines.

 

Many witnesses would testify that Dane was actually the first to start crushing cars, at least half a year before Chandler if not earlier. According to Jeff it was Bob that asked him for advice on how to crush cars when promoters wanted to see Bigfoot do that in events. History certainly would have been different if a certain promoter had walked into Dane’s shop and saw video of what his truck could do. What made King Kong unique was actually the power plant. The majority of monster trucks ran on heavily modified gasoline, or alcohol racing engines. Kong had a Continental Diesel engine. It generated about 600 horsepower and enough torque to move the massive truck up and over anything. A large silver smokestack protruded from the side of the hood. The truck belched huge plumes of black smoke when it ran. It was an eye catcher on the show circuit. Everything that Bigfoot could do King Kong could do as well. Mud bogs, tractor pulls, hill climbs and car crushes. It proved that it was no slouch in the performance department.

 

The Brodozer is touted by Monster Jam as the first and only diesel monster truck. It certainly is a pioneer on several fronts however it is certainly not the first. King Kong would not be the last. Dane didn’t have all of the resources of Chandler. He didn’t have the luxury of building a new Kong every year. Early on it was fixing and rebuilding the same King Kong again and again for competition. Perhaps dressing it up with a new paint job. As he became more successful he eventually started building new rides, each more radical than the last. The Undertaker, the Punisher, Awesome Kong, Awesome Kong II, and King Kong II and III. He was not happy simply repeating the same building techniques. He experimented with original chassis, with engines and more. Awesome Kong II for example was one of my personal favorites. The 1984 Ford F-150 stepside truck featured a 3000hp aircraft engine in the bed. Dane was not the only builder that took chances with diesel technology.

 

Rollin' Thunder was the world’s first monster van. It started its life as an ordinary 1972 Dodge Tradesman Van. The owner / builder Jim Oldaker used the van to transport dirt bikes in Southern California. He had already put a hundred thousand miles on it when he decided to convert it. He was going to make it a four wheel drive but then saw a picture of Bigfoot and went in a different direction. The engine was swapped out for a 600hp Detroit Diesel from an abandoned water truck. Actually the truck wasn’t abandoned as much as it was torched during a union labor dispute at a nearby construction site. Oldaker rebuilt the engine and converted the bright orange van to a monster circa 1984-85. The van wasn’t fast but it was powerful and popular. Rollin’ Thunder was in high demand and Oldaker toured the country for exhibitions. I have fond memories of this van because it was parked in Wilmington California. I think it was the location of his Streetable Customs shop. According to his bio Oldaker was based out of Redondo Beach but I always saw the van in Wilmington on family outings.

 

Around 1986 Al Lucas debuted one of the earliest diesel monster trucks on the East Coast. Grizzly was a 1978 Ford Bronco, and it was powered by a Detroit Diesel engine similar to Rollin' Thunder. Lucas worked in construction in the New York area, specifically with moving equipment. He knew the ins and outs of diesel motors, from traditional big rigs, gigantic earth movers, and everything in between. Like many of the pioneers he built his monster from scratch. For the frame he used structural tube steel, this was used more for buildings than vehicles. It made his truck heavy but strong. He also set his truck on 73" Goodyear tires, making it taller than the average monster tires. From his experience with long haul trucking Lucas employed a Jacobs Engine Break to help stop the massive beast. Grizzly was among one of the biggest, and heaviest diesel monsters that ever lived. There was an earlier diesel powered monster truck that could be considered the biggest, and baddest of them all.

 

Al Thurber Jr. and Al Thurber III from Rhode Island wanted to shake up the 4x4 community. By the mid ‘80s all of the good monster names had been taken. There was Bigfoot, Cyclops, Frankenstein, Taurus, and of course King Kong. When you think of the king of the monsters, what usually comes to mind? Ah yes, Godzilla! The 1983 Ford F-250 had been in the building stages for several years. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been poured into it when it jumped into the mainstream in 1985. There were a number of electronically controlled gimmicks on the truck. It had a remote control hood and tail lift, steps and light show. It had gold leaf lettering and a brilliant green paint job featuring the atomic beast. The engine and trim were chrome plated for even more flash. It looked to be part show, and part show, capturing the design elements of the original Bigfoot and improving on them in almost every regard. Many wondered if Bigfoot would finally be dethroned as the king.

 

Godzilla was powered by a Detroit Diesel engine, cranking out 1000+ horsepower and 1,850lbs of torque. All that power was needed to move the 74 inch Goodyear Terra tires. They were much bigger than the standard 66 inch tires that most ran. On occasion it would swap out to even bigger 96 inch Firestone tires. Take a look at the picture above for the tires with gold rims to get a sense of scale. It was bigger and badder than just about every other truck, save for Bigfoot V and its 10 foot tall Firestone tires. Sadly there would never be a showdown between the two. It turned out that the Thurbers had used the Godzilla name without permission from the movie studio Toho. The truck had already been featured in a number of magazines, and books. The father and son team had even started selling merchandise using the name. The owners needed to rename the truck and sell it off to recoup the cost of a legal battle.

 

Diesel powered monster trucks would fade into obscurity shortly after Godzilla. The trucks built in the early '90s were evolving to be lighter, faster and more powerful. Over the next 20 years the monster builders had transitioned into full blown racing technology. Modified street trucks could no longer compete with the new generation. The small garages, and four wheel drive hobbyists that founded the sport were out of luck. Everything was custom built. The frame, suspension, engine, and driving components were all specialized. At a quarter of a million dollars (or more) per build it stood to reason that corporate sponsors became invaluable to teams. While Diesel engines were strong they took a long time to spool up and deliver that power. They were all but useless on the racing circuit. Alcohol engines with superchargers offered instant power. The diesel industry however had changed greatly through the ‘90s and ‘00s. The ability for those motors to generate power on the fly was becoming reality.

 

A veteran monster driver / builder named Dave Radzierez wanted to get diesel engines back into the spotlight. He found corporate sponsors willing to support his unconventional idea. Flowmaster helped bankroll his first attempt. An all-modern tube chassis, mid-engine construction. The Hushpower Diesel was a Dodge Ram-bodied truck. It ran in exhibitions between 2007 - 2010. The Cummins-powered diesel generated more than 1,000hp and had been a staple in the Dodge family for years. Now spectators were getting a sense of its full potential. The truck was well received but didn't see much head-to-head competition. The years of travel caught up and it needed some work. Dave got it in the shop to get a new body and some mechanical changes. AirDog Diesel appeared shortly after and ran from 2010 - 2011. Dave was not satisfied with his initial attempt. His follow up truck was far more ambitious, and interestingly enough built in just 33 days for the SEMA (after market auto parts) show in Las Vegas.

 

The XDP (Xtreme Diesel Performance) truck was modeled on a Ford F-250, like Bigfoot and King Kong. The 2011 monster had an all new Cummins motor generating more than 1,500hp. This new truck was much sportier. Able to run in competition on the independent circuit against established monster trucks. It proved to be capable of holding its own in racing and freestyle contests. Radzierez was demonstrating that his truck could do it all. He even landed the first diesel monster backflip. To make sure it was safe for competition his team invented a new remote ignition interrupter (RII). Normally officials have a "kill switch" that allows them to shut off the truck by remote control. This is in case the driver is incapacitated or loses control. Diesel engines do not use spark plugs, which is normally what the RII disables. XDP and later builds use an air-flow kill switch that shuts off the motor 0.02 of a second slower than a regular RII. The era of the modern diesel monster had finally arrived. There was one setback however. Diesels generated a lot of black, smoky exhaust. XDP could only run on outdoor arenas, it wouldn’t hold up when the trucks ran the indoor stadium shows during the winter months. After several years Radzierez went back to the drawing board.

 

Dave unveiled the XDP II a few years ago. The truck went back to a 2017 Dodge Ram 2500 body. It had a methanol motor through 2017, allowing it to run in indoor Monster Jam events. He then debuted an all new Cummins motor generating some 1,800hp in 2018, shortly after the Brodozer appeared. This engine was also almost smoke free, making it more friendly for audiences and potentially suitable for indoor events. This new Extreme Diesel 2.0 would not get a chance to show off on the big stage. Monster Jam’s marketing had picked a side. They began promoting the Brodozer as the worlds first diesel monster truck and the only one that would be competing in their tour. This was a travesty.

 

Jeff Dane had beaten the Diesel Brothers to the punch by 40 years. Not only that but “Diesel Dave” Radzierez had almost single-handed made diesel monsters competitive as early as 2007. Radzierez parted ways with Monster Jam after Brodozer came out. Many believed that they had intentionally buried his truck simply because they did not own it. The Diesel Brothers skirted the issue by not talking about it. They would back the Monster Jam’s narrative, and their stake in the the Brodozer. I recognized that it was a business decision not to talk about the competition. It was something that Chandler had done more than 30 years earlier when giving interviews. He was protecting his name, and his brand. The livelihood of his company and the dozens of people he employed rested on not giving away credit. I felt that it was poor judgement then, as it is now. Ignoring the legacy that created the industry was disrespectful. It would only prevent other drivers and builders from trying new things, and from pushing the industry forward.

 

I am happy to promote the stunts of the Brodozer. I will loudly say that it was the first diesel monster to perform consecutive backflips and the first ever to jump over a flying airplane. I will always be in awe of the business, and building achievements of Dave Sparks and Dave Kiley. I do not however want readers to forget why they have a platform. There were many drivers who literally broke their backs driving the first generation of monsters. They were crippled by the sport they founded, and no one remembers their names. There were many owners that went bankrupt chasing a dream. Monster trucks had been abandoned, stolen, and parted out in the boom and bust era following the rise of Live Nation and Feld Entertainment. Those that survived did so by hard work. Some survived by living lean. Some made it by sheer luck. The vast majority faded away.

 

I wish the Diesel Brothers continued success, but I want everyone to see the bigger picture. Jeff Dane should also be considered the father of monster trucks, and Dave Radzierez the person that modernized his diesel legacy. Remember this the next time you're flipping through the channels and see Monster Jam or the Diesel Brothers playing on TV. If you want to find out more about monster trucks I’ve compiled some handy links: Driving Line did an incredible job putting together the most important diesel powered monster trucks of all time. Here is a History article on the birth of monster truck competition. Four Wheeler magazine had an Anniversary feature on Bigfoot. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Friday, June 28, 2019

American Daredevil, the monster trucks that changed the world, part 2...

 

The USA has always had a fascination with cars. That deep interest is a reflection of our pop culture. It is constantly changing and evolving. Trends flow from state to state, cross pollinating with local car scenes. Southern California for example gave rise to hot rod's Kustom Kulture. Enthusiasts could express themselves through their cars. The freshly paved freeways of post-WWII America were ripe for cruising and racing. People began modifying old cars and turning them into sporty coupes, race cars, or dragsters. All over the country similar opportunities were happening for DIY mechanics, engine builders and fabricators. Trucks were included in the changing landscape.

 

In the American Southwest trucks and buggies were modified to cross the desert, quickly and easily. Suspensions evolved to clear brush and rocks. Four-wheel drive technology was essential in taming the Rockies in the mountain states. Jeeps, and trucks were outfitted with aftermarket parts, winches, roll bars, and lights to safely get out of the worst situations. In the South trucks had to power through swamps and mud. In the Midwest trucks had to be workhorses on the farm, capable of handling any terrain, and strong enough to double as a tractor. Four wheel drive culture evolved from every corner of the USA. It influenced the evolution of both sport, and work trucks. Monster trucks were almost a mash up of all of these influences.

 

In St. Louis Missouri a guy named Bob Chandler would take his 1974 blue Ford F-250 truck out on weekends and show it off with friends. He would often drive it too hard and break something. He’d manage to get his truck back to work, the Midwest 4 Wheel Drive Center. His general manager Ron Magruder would ask “what did you and your big foot break this time?” Chandler would rebuild the truck, trying to make it bigger and badder than the rest. He made the engine more powerful, changed out stock parts for military components that could take much more abuse. Every time it went out it turned heads. It was fun and free advertising for his shop. The truck was quickly gaining a reputation. He thought that the oversized tires he and his friends used made the trucks look silly. He called them “silly trucks.” His wife Marylin said no, they looked more like monsters. He recorded himself driving over some old junk cars and would play the video in his shop. One day a promoter saw this and asked if he could recreate the stunt in front of a live audience. He would be paid handsomely of course.

 

Chandler pulled off many crushing exhibitions in small venues, but one night opportunity struck. In 1983 the Pontiac Silverdome was filled to capacity, some 70,000+ people were watching a tractor pull motorsports spectacular. The big blue Ford was a sideshow. It was bigger and more powerful than any other truck they had ever seen. Chandler had introduced 4-wheel steering, which he said made his truck a "4x4x4." It allowed him to “crab walk” the truck almost sideways. He quickly became the main attraction. The stunt that he pulled off was the most insane thing anybody had ever seen. The reaction would tear the roof off of the building, and thankfully video proof exists. The audience couldn’t believe that “Bigfoot,” now equipped with 66 inch terra tires, drove right over some cars. It was like the moon landing for the four wheel drive community. Monster trucks were about to take over our collective consciousness.

 

Bigfoot had been featured in off road magazines years before the Silverdome. Four wheel drive enthusiasts and manufactures were always looking for the next big thing. Magazines would send out reporters to look for hot reader builds. Few were as big as Bigfoot. It was much more than a “show” truck, whose polished chrome engine and accents could have collected ribbons at car shows. It was a fully functional four wheel drive truck. It proved its worth at every possible challenge. It performed exhibition hill climbs, mud bog runs, drag races, and tractor pulls. These were things that sometimes required a dedicated vehicle. A tractor for example wouldn’t run a mud bog, a hill climber wouldn’t be much use in a pulling competition. The Ford seemed unstoppable, crushing any obstacle in its path. It was a true star and it wouldn’t be long before Hollywood came calling.

 

Its breakout role was in the 1981 film Take this Job and Shove it. Sadly getting wrecked by stuntmen in the middle of filming, it forced a sloppy rebuild. It appeared on screen many more times. In Cannonball Run II in 1984, and in Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment in 1985. On and on through many features over the years. To say that Bigfoot absolutely owned the ‘80s would be an understatement. I was smitten by the big blue Ford. I had seen the aforementioned movies, and had started gathering tidbits of information in the various off road magazines with articles on Bigfoot and his contemporaries. I think the mainstream breakout for the truck wasn’t in the movies as much as it was in the television show That’s Incredible!

 

The show filmed people all over the country performing daredevil feats, crazy stunts, or showing off inventions. Sometimes they would invite guests to perform in front of the studio audience. A young Tiger Woods and Rodney Mullen appeared on the show, respectively they grew up to become the most influential pro golfer and skateboarder for a generation. Bigfoot was tasked with competing in the first televised monster truck race. Chandler was pitted against his friend Everett Jasmer and his truck USA-1. I couldn’t wait for the race, and counted down the days for the next episode. It was all my kid brain could think about morning, noon and night. Just like the Brodozer jump some 36 years later captured my imagination. My brothers were hopeful that the truck I idolized would come out victorious. I bugged all my friends at school to see if they would be watching the telecast. They didn’t believe me when I told them that two giant trucks would be racing each other on top of parked cars. They simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea. Secretly I was praying that my hero would win in the end. Thankfully I was not disappointed!

 

Most kids my age in So Cal were rooting for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson. They were the star players with the Showtime-era Lakers. Others at school were all about the Dodgers, Angels, Rams or Raiders. I tended to gravitate more towards motor-sports, and drivers. I had a list of favorites, Richard Petty for NASCAR, Don “ Big Daddy” Garlits and Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney in top fuel dragster, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme in funny car, and Mario Andretti in Formula-1 and Indy Car. Of these Bigfoot and Bob Chandler were unique. They were the stars in an entirely new type of motorsport. A sport where ordinary people started with a stock truck and turned it into an absolute beast. It was something that anybody could do. It carried the same spirit that founded hot rod culture decades earlier.

 

The whole DIY mentality was the heart and soul of the four wheel drive community. It was the same thing that sparked hot rod culture for cars. As I learned from magazines no two trucks were alike. The way they looked, handled and performed spoke volumes about each builder. Some were mild, but several were outrageous, featuring engines pulled from jets, and helicopters! None of the trucks seemed to have the class or pedigree of Bigfoot and his growing family. Chandler went from rebuilding Bigfoot to starting from scratch and making better versions. Bigfoot II, III, IV... were seemingly coming out every year. Money for these new builds was not from winning races as much as from licensing deals. The Bigfoot brand grew to include toys, games, and even a cartoon show. Everyone wanted a piece of the truck, myself included.

 

The technology behind Bigfoot evolved along with the sport. Despite the hundreds of monster trucks that would appear over the next two decades, only a handful could compete at the same level as the big blue Ford. The best often had corporate sponsors helping pay for the builds. Veteran four wheeler enthusiasts teamed up with race car builders, and engine tuners to shape future trucks. Monsters began touring the country year-round. Appearing at state fairs, in organized competitions, and car shows. The biggest names commanded thousands just to show up. With multiple Bigfoots available, the team could appear every weekend at different venues. They did this over the next 40 years. With monster trucks going mainstream there were bound to be some accidents.

 

Chandler began pushing for increased safety for the trucks, drivers and spectators. His contemporaries were suffering severe neck and back injuries while driving the trucks. Worse yet runaway trucks had injured and killed spectators in small venues. The industry needed to learn how make things safer for everyone. Chandler and George Carpenter helped establish the nonprofit Monster Truck Racing Association (MTRA) in 1987. Almost 50 owner / drivers showed up for the first meeting. The MTRA drafted rules and regulations for operators and invited promoters to attend meetings. The US Hot Rod Association (USHRA) was recognized as the organizing body of the racing events. They helped standardize safety rules while brokering deals to get events on network and cable TV. Essentially helping expose monster trucks to the rest of the world.

 

The USHRA was acquired by Live Nation and Monster Jam was born in 1992. Feld Entertainment took over Live Nation in 2008. Feld was a family-owned company that ran the Disney on Ice, and also the Ringling Bros. and Barnun & Bailey Circus. Feld went on to buy the rights to several classic monster trucks. This created the appearance that they founded the sport. Many owners thought that Feld would continue to push the circus-like atmosphere when Live Nation ran the organization. With colorful, over-the-top monster truck bodies, and camera-friendly personalities on television the veterans weren’t far off the mark. Monster Jam became a traveling show featuring racing and “freestyle” competitions with dozens of trucks jumping over giant piles of dirt. The DIY uniqueness of Chandler and his friend’s trucks gave way to corporate branded monsters, with licensed names, and homogenized construction. The “best” trucks were the ones that performed the most outrageous stunts. Often these were either wrecks or incredible saves.

 

While Monster Jam provided exposure, and paid drivers well, they controlled many of the names, and prohibited some trucks from appearing on other circuits. If you are familiar with the world of professional wrestling I want you to think about the McMahon family, the WWE company which they own, and the wrestlers they hire. Yes the wrestlers are famous and get paid well, but they are all treated like independent contractors and not employees. They don’t own their “gimmick” or stage name, are prohibited from appearing at outside promotions, and do not have health or retirement benefits. Any appearances in games, or merchandising are shrewdly negotiated. The lions share of the profit stays with the WWE and the McMahons. The family didn’t create wrestling, they just cornered the market, and bought out the competition. Feld had been essentially using the same business model.

 

Chandler refused to have Bigfoot appear under the Feld umbrella. He was one of the few owner / operators to go independent and survive. Others would join Monster Jam for a season or two and drop out. They’d either retire, sell their name, or join independent shows as well. Of course no other circuit had guaranteed television broadcasting rights, meaning that the competition would be small at best. It was the price to pay to control your own brand. Indy shows such as the Monster Truck Throwdown, Monster Truck Nationals, Monster X Tour, and Toughest Monster Truck Tour continue to build a following. They are organized by owner / operators, highlight the veteran trucks, and new blood keeping the sport fresh. Coincidentally the indy wrestling promotions seem to do the same for that community.

 

Some of this might be common knowledge to you. Some of it may be completely new. I recalled a lot of this history while watching the Brodozer stunt on Memorial Day. It made me realize that it had been 36 years since Bigfoot raced USA-1. So much had happened in that time. The Brodozer was a star on the Monster Jam circuit. It joined legends like Max-D (Maximum Destruction) and the Grave Digger. Incidentally Dennis Anderson sold Feld the Grave Digger team in 1998. I wanted to make sure that people didn't forget the origins of the sport. We shall dig even deeper, and explore the pioneers that made the Brodozer possible in the next blog. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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