Heavy Metal
A monster-truck promoter thrives in giant Clear Channel's shadow.
By Jeff Wise/Billings, Mont.

(FORTUNE Small Business) – It's Saturday night in Billings, where 8,000 fans pack the MetraPark Arena for the Night of Destruction, an extravaganza of motorized mayhem on a hockey rink covered in 65 truckloads of dirt. The fans have cheered the dirt bikes and waved flags for the ATVs and souped-up lawnmowers. Now they're pumped for the main event: four monster trucks getting medieval on a row of junked station wagons and vans.

The smoky air is torn by a deafening roar as a 1,500-horsepower behemoth called Sheer Insanity revs its engines. Bursting from the starting line, the 10,000-pound truck climbs into the air at a 45-degree angle and then smashes down on the helpless cars, collapsing their roofs with its five-foot knobby tires. The audience erupts.

For the fans in the stands, it's thrilling to feel the power of a monster truck. But tonight's promoter, Ed Beckley, might find it easier to identify with one of those junked vans. With $2 million in annual revenues, his privately held Checkered Flag Productions runs a distant second to Clear Channel Communications, a $9-billion-a-year broadcasting and entertainment conglomerate whose monster-truck arm organizes more than 100 shows a year and controls an estimated 50% of the market. Yet Beckley, a 54-year-old former motorcycle jumper, says he enjoys the challenge. "It's kind of like a duel," he says.

The rivalry is all the more piquant because Beckley's opposite number at Clear Channel, Charlie Mancuso, used to be a close friend. Back in the mid-1980s both men worked for the same promoter, traveling around the country arranging truck shows. Mancuso booked venues; Beckley bought advertising. Neither imagined that fate would put them on opposite sides in a bare-knuckle business. "It's a good game," Beckley says. "Knowing that one of my ex-best friends is my heavy competitor adds joy to my life." (Mancuso did not return calls seeking comment.)

When Beckley and Mancuso started their careers, motor-sports carnivals were limited to tractor pulls, mud bogging, and the like. The monster-truck era dawned in 1974, when a mechanic named Bob Chandler bolted 48-inch tires on a Ford F-250 pickup and dubbed the result Bigfoot. The freakishly outsized wheels turned heads. And when Chandler drove Bigfoot over a row of old cars at Detroit's Silverdome in 1983, he started a craze. Gearheads across the country started jacking up their 4x4s.

At the time, Ed Beckley was running a sprint car track in Kansas, staging demolition derbies at county fairs, and touring as a motorcycle jumper. At 300 pounds, he was the heaviest jumper in the country by a long shot. From time to time he would raise the stakes by carrying his wife, Linda, on the back seat. But after a series of painful crashes, Ed segued into the monster-truck business. By 1989, Checkered Flag was organizing 20 shows a year.

The biggest challenge since then, Beckley says, hasn't been the burgeoning hegemony of Clear Channel as much as the growing range of entertainment alternatives for his customers. "Ten years ago the Discovery Channel didn't have American Chopper on," he says. "And the NASCAR season ended when the schools opened, as opposed to the end of November, like it does now. So for my core audience, the gearheads, there's a lot more to do."

Nevertheless, Checkered Flag has grown steadily and shown consistent profits. These days Beckley stages 50 to 60 monster-truck shows a year, renting arenas, buying insurance and advertising, and contracting with truck owners. To round out each program he lures local racers with prize money and trophies. Each show costs about $50,000 to stage and can gross $100,000 to $200,000. Though Checkered Flag shows can't match the glitz of Clear Channel's big-budget extravaganzas, they have a rough charm all their own. "Clear Channel events are a lot more elaborate," says independent monster-truck driver Kevin Koszla, who helps promote Checkered Flag by parking his truck outside car dealerships and fast-food restaurants on the night before an event. "But here we work harder to put on a good show."

Koszla and his fellow drivers do their best to fire up the crowd. "At a Clear Channel event, the independents' job is to get beaten by one of the trucks that the company owns," says Linda Beckley, Checkered Flag's vice president. "At our shows, the independents are the headliners."

The monster-truck demographic is solidly working class. Says Ed Beckley: "They come to our shows because, for 2½ hours, they can forget that the kids need new shoes and the car payment's due next week."

It's easy to find similarities between a monster-truck rally and a pro wrestling match. Both are spectacles posing as competitions, ritualized showdowns between competitors with oversized bodies and personalities--though in the case of monster trucks it's the vehicles that do the strutting. The two genres sometimes overlap: Beckley used to run a pro wrestling outfit called Bad Boys of Wrestling, and some monster trucks sport wrestling-theme bodywork.

"My events are a circus," says Beckley. "People come to watch the monster trucks crush those cars, and if two or three don't run into each other and crash, they're going to be disappointed."

Financially, every show is a gamble. To break even, Checkered Flag typically has to sell about half the house. (The Billings show sold 7,000 tickets for an 8,000-seat arena, clearing a good profit.) The odds have only lengthened in recent years, with insurance premiums soaring to $3,000 a show from $400 before 9/11, and ticket prices remaining flat at $12 to $15. Still, Beckley has racked up 10% yearly increases in net profits, mostly thanks to merchandise sales, of which black T-shirts are a major part.

The monster-truck promotion market has been consolidating rapidly in recent years. SRO Motorsports, one of the earliest monster-truck promoters, was bought out by PACE Entertainment, a big concert promoter, which was in turn bought out by SFX Broadcasting, an even bigger concert promoter. In 2000, SFX sold its motor-sports division to Clear Channel. Only a few promoters remain independent, all much smaller than Checkered Flag. As Clear Channel expanded horizontally by buying up small promoters, it also moved vertically, buying out owners of monster trucks, who until that time had operated solely as independent contractors.

As Lenin observed, quantity has a quality all its own. Clear Channel owns more than 1,200 radio stations and has exclusive contracts with stadiums, arenas, and theaters nationwide, giving it unparalleled control over where it can book its shows and how it can promote them. "Clear Channel's been like the Pac-Man," says Beckley.

Clear Channel's massive clout has attracted litigation and regulatory scrutiny in recent years (see the box at the end of this story). But Beckley has largely avoided direct competition with his mighty rival by concentrating on smaller markets such as Billings. Occasionally he even hires Clear Channel trucks to round out the bill at his shows. Unlike Clear Channel, Beckley refuses to buy monster trucks of his own, citing unfavorable economics. After investing $100,000 or more in a machine, a journeyman operator is paid only about $2,500 a show. That's why many independents have traded uncertainty for a steady paycheck by selling out to Clear Channel. Even Beckley would consider selling out. "Oh, hell, yeah," he says. "I got a price. Don't think I wouldn't want to be a multimillionaire tomorrow."

For the fans in Billings, the only drama that matters is taking place down in the dirt. "We like all that horsepower and noise and action," says 52-year-old Gary Knopp, an addiction therapist who comes to monster-truck events with his 10-year-old daughter, Ali. "It's something she and I can enjoy together."

For the grand finale, a 15,000-pound tanklike vehicle called Pure Hell is supposed to flatten what remains of the crushed cars and vans. The cherry-red beast trundles out to great fanfare, only to break down in the middle of the arena. "You're frigging kidding me!" gripes one teenaged boy as a tow truck hauls Pure Hell away. "This sucks!"

The crowd is revived by the entrance of a dozen beat-up, stripped-down junkyard cars. It's demolition derby time. The beaters careen and collide, spewing smoke and dropping chunks of metal. When one car gets knocked over onto its roof, the crowd is on its feet for the first time all night. After ten minutes the slugfest narrows to two crumpled jalopies that take turns backing up and ramming into each other.

Victory goes to a sad, mangled yellow hatchback hardly fit to grace a stack of breeze blocks. There's a lesson here, if you like metaphors: Keep your chin up, because sometimes it's the low-budget scrapper who comes out on top. "I feel sorry for Clear Channel," says Beckley. "They're not having nearly as much fun as me."