Monster trucks help put the 'wild' in Wildwood

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AmeriCrush, a monster truck owned by Wildwood Motor Events, drives along a hilly track to give passengers the sensation of leaving the ground.

An invasion has landed on the beaches of Wildwood. Through Sunday, the resort will host Monsters on the Beach, a monster-truck racing competition between Lincoln and Spencer Avenues.

For those new to the world of monster trucks, the souped-up vehicles measure up to their beastly moniker. Consisting of a modified pickup truck or SUV body with supersize tires and an upgraded suspension to match, the average truck has a height and width of 12 feet and weighs from 10,000 to 12,000 pounds. With names like Bigfoot, Snakebite, and Brutus, the trucks - whose drivers not only participate in races but show off tricks in freestyle bouts - sound as ferocious as they look. No two trucks have the same name unless they have an owner in common.

According to self-professed motorhead Gary McGhee, president of Wildwood Motor Events and executive director of the Greater Wildwood Hotel and Motel Association, monster trucks have been a Jersey Shore staple since the 1990s.

"It's popular because in the beginning, it was the only monster-truck beach race anywhere. It was one of the first. Most of the time they're in dirt, they're in hockey arenas," said McGhee, 56, a Germantown native and former president of the historic Philadelphia Modifiers Street Rod Club. "To be able to stretch out in the beach here in Wildwood, they just love it, they go crazy."

Four years ago, after the departure of the previous company that handled monster-truck events in Wildwood, McGhee created WME to ensure that trucks down the Shore are a tradition built to last. In addition to Monsters on the Beach, the company also organizes seasonal car shows and a Jeep invasion, and even hosts birthday parties in Wildwood.

Throughout the year, visitors can ride in WME's two trucks, AmeriCrush - which McGhee operates from time to time - and Zombie Crusher. Both vehicles are driven along a hilly track built to imitate the sensation of leaving the ground.

As far as the culture goes, McGhee likens monster-truck fans to NASCAR enthusiasts. People who follow both motor sports have favorite trucks and drivers. He estimates that this weekend's event will draw a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000.

Rick Long, well-known in the monster-truck community for driving a Bigfoot truck - the line owned by Bob Chandler, who launched the monster-truck craze in the '70s - will serve as race director.

"I came to Wildwood years ago. I was actually driving in the show, racing one of the Bigfoot trucks in the show," said Long, 53, of St. Louis, a hometown he shares with Chandler. "Now it's like a big circle. I'm back and now I'm running it."

Although Long won't be in the driver's seat at the beachside races, he knows what it's like to suit up for a competition from 15 years of experience. For safety, monster-truck drivers don fire suits, fireproof gloves, and a HANS (head and neck support) device, also known as a head restraint.

Do all those layers make for unbearably sweltering conditions in the summer heat?

"Once that [start] light changes, I couldn't tell you if it's hot or cold or what," Long said. "When the light changes, you're going."

No matter which driver places first, the feeling of soaring above the sand is not a bad consolation prize.

"It's always a thrill when you start flying through there and hitting hills and everything else," Long said. "You feel weightless. You've got so much adrenaline flowing. It's just a blast."

Monsters on the Beach runs from Friday through Sunday. Friday: Qualifying races start at 7 p.m. Saturday: Two races at 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday: Title races and tough truck races start at 1 p.m. Gates open an hour before each race. Food and merchandise will be available for purchase. Ticket prices vary by day. See wildwoodmotorevents.com or call 609-522-4546.

zmiller@philly.com. 856-779-3813