January might as well have been "Monster Truck Month" in Cincinnati. For three weekends straight, the Cincinnati market was saturated with three different touring circuits of over-sized pickup trucks that drive around and crush cars. Last week there as an event at the US Bank Arena downtown, next week there's one at the Bank of Kentucky Center on NKU's campus, but this week there were monster trucks at the best arena in town: the Cincinnati Gardens.
I'm not kidding. Nothing beats the Gardens. It's by far my favorite arena. The place is historical and has character. While the Bank of Kentucky Center may be the nicest and newest, the Gardens has a rich history. Its appearance may seem dated and the scoreboard lacks modern video technology, but its a much better venue for hockey than the drab, 1970's era US Bank Arena (formerly Firstar Center, The Crown and Riverfront Coliseum (although USBA does have the coolest zamboni driver)). The seats are perfectly situated for the building's original purpose: hockey, and the steel beams supporting the roof blend in nicely with the wooden seats.
The Gardens has had a long list of tenants in its days, including numerous minor league hockey teams. One of the most notable teams was the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the American Hockey League (one step below the premier National Hockey League), whose remnants can still be found around the arena.
Back when SpikeTV was TNN and US Bank Arena was the Firstar Center, there was a weekly monster truck show called "Monster Jam" (not the current one, the old one from the late 90's). My dad had gotten free tickets to one of the shows at the Firstar Center and took myself and a neighborhood friend. That was probably somewhere around 97 or 99 and was the last time I had been to a monster truck show. With three weekends of car smashing fun to choose from in the area, the Gardens was undoubtedly the best choice. The old cliche motor sports event saying goes: "SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY," so on Sunday, we went to go watch some giant trucks smash some cars and there were other things.
Every time I walk into the Gardens it brings back memories of Mighty Ducks games. The place smells like minor league hockey and has had that smell ever since I can remember (it's a subtle mix between a locker room and burnt popcorn). I kept boasting to my girlfriend and friends about how awesome the place was as we walked up from the gravel parking lot to the ticket window. We picked up the cheapest ticket and a few beers before taking our seats. The show began with the playing of a recording of the National Anthem as everyone except the family in front of us stood up and faced the American flag, whose white stripes seemed to be looking a little yellow with age. Then there was some muffled announcement and a clown who came out in a tiny monster truck to excite the crowd by saying "show me some love" - to which most people in the audience cheered. Then the trucks start up and they take turns smashing cars.
The clown and trucks are not the only form of entertainment though. They also had ATV racing in which three riders supposedly from Dayton square off against three riders allegedly from Cincinnati. I think they do this in every city to try and work up the crowd based on an emotional reaction due to nearby rivalries (like how everyone knows that Dayton is just a minor league Cincinnati). "Team Dayton" won the first race and their "captain" spoke to the audience about how he disliked Cincinnati, further portraying team Dayton as the "bad guys." Then, that clown came back.
The clown's name is Bobby Cox. At first we were confused, wondering why the former Atlanta Braves manager was now doing this. Turns out, its a different guy who regularly performs at monster truck events. He seemed to be a hit with the kids in the audience, but since we couldn't hear a thing he was saying from where we sat, his bit got old kind of quick. I was able to hear him ask for a volunteer kid in the audience from age 4 (I quickly raised my hand along with the other children) to 10 (I lowered my hand, realizing I missed the age cutoff by eleven years). From then on there was about ten minutes of talking which culminated in this kid walking away with a free bike:
Then there was more trucks smashing cars:
An intermission was given to allow the dust to clear out of the arena so we took an opportunity to go get some popcorn. Along the way we wound up in a stairwell and then in a hallway that was apparently once the offices for the Mighty Ducks and Railraiders (the hockey team that was to replace the ducks, but never took the ice). The walls and tile of the hallway still had the Duck's colors, reminiscent of the 1990's Mighty Duck movies.
Stopping at the concession stand, we noticed that the "Happy Hour" special of $1 Natural Light cans had ended. In a way this was a good thing, because I don't even think Natty Light is worth a dollar, so I saved my money (I do think the Gardens should work out a promotion for future events with $1 cans of Hudy, that would be awesome). We picked up a tub of popcorn. I don't know what it is about popcorn at the Gardens, but they have the best. It's buttery, salty and a really good complement to monster truck shows or hockey.
The intermission ended and they began the show again with the clown and then the trucks. This time though, the trucks were competing to see who could jump the highest into the air.
This event however made me question the integrity of the scoring and points system. Instead of going to judges, the announcer would ask the audience who was their favorite and point to a truck. Whenever he pointed to "Bigfoot," that truck got the loudest cheers despite the fact that he had not actually jumped the highest. This was much different than I remember the late 90's t.v. show on TNN where they had judges. It all seemed like a really arbitrary way to choose a winner. I mean, come on, most of those people were just cheering for Bigfoot cause they recognized the brand name. His fellow drivers must get pissed each weekend when they constantly lose to that guy just cause he's driving "Bigfoot." In all seriousness though, I realize it's just a show.
Wouldn't you know it though, "Team Dayton" just had to rear their ugly Gem City heads. They raced their ATV's against "Team Cincinnati" and won the second race. However, the Dayton "captain" seemed very receptive to the announcer's offer for an "all or nothing, winner take all rematch." I just hoped "Team Cincinnati" (or rather, the group of ATV riders claiming to be from Cincinnati) could pull it through this time.
They did. Cincinnati won and the Dayton guys retreated backstage defeated and broken. One guy really did get hurt though when he got knocked off the ATV and fell really hard into the wall. He had to be helped off by paramedics.
The clown returned ...again. This time he said he had to, because they had to let more dust and fumes clear out to ensure air quality (they do this at US Bank Arena too). He launched some t-shirts off of his mini monster truck and told some corny jokes before the main event, in which the trucks put on a freestyle performance.
"Team Dayton" was defeated, the monster trucks were parked, the cars were thoroughly smashed, "Bigfoot" was crowned champion, the clown thanked the crowd and a long line of kids began forming in the concourse for autographs from the drivers who hang out afterwards. We began to leave, stopping to say hello to Charles, a Gardens legend and friend from Mighty Ducks games who I also worked with during a brief and regrettable employment at US Bank Arena.
The show was loud, it was corny and it was best enjoyed with a beer in one hand, popcorn in the other. However, I had a great time. I love the Cincinnati Gardens. If anyone from the Gardens is reading this, please get pro hockey back in that building soon!