News Column

Say 'Hola' to El Diablo Monster Truck

Feb. 7, 2013

Ben Crandell, Sun Sentinel

The all-American appeal of crushing a car with a giant truck may transcend language, but Monster Jam isn't taking any chances. Say hola to El Diablo.

If not everyone got the memo about how an appeal to the emergent U.S. Hispanic demographic helps your commercial, social or electoral success, there are indications the word is spreading in ways that will be impossible to ignore.

Last week, influential Disney-owned sports channel ESPN announced a deal with Univision to carry English-language coverage of El Tri, Mexico's beloved national soccer team. And the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam, which entertains millions of horsepower-loving fans in sports stadiums around the country, recently added a new "Hispanic truck" to its lineup of high-flying, car-smashing vehicles. El Diablo, piloted by Spanish-fluent driver J.P. Ruggerio, will make its South Florida debut on Saturday for more than 60,000 fans at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens.

The initiative was based on evidence that was anecdotal but undeniable, says Mark Abernethy, senior director of brand marketing for Feld Motor Sports, which will operate more than two dozen Monster Jam performances in front of about 500,000 fans in 10 cities around the U.S. and Canada this weekend alone. The company's most-popular shows, Abernethy says, are in markets with large Hispanic populations, including Anaheim (which typically sells out three nights at Angel Stadium), San Antonio and Tampa.

But the decision to go beyond traditional TV and radio advertising to add a Hispanic-themed truck also was driven by social media and old-school, face-to-face crowd-sourcing, Abernethy says.

"We were getting more and more feedback, through social media and talking to fans at pit parties, hearing a lot recently that Hispanic customers wanted a truck that they could call their own," he says.

Monster Jam has had a truck, El Toro Loco, that was Hispanic in name only; it does not have a Spanish--speaking driver.

"This is the first time we really tried to delve into it even further, to add a truck and a driver and create a promotion around it," Abernethy said. Monster Jam fans chose the El Diablo name via online voting, and a new toy and T-shirt line is being developed.

While the trucks are the stars of the show -- the "intellectual property" that Feld licenses on merchandise -- Abernethy says choosing a driver for El Diablo was a challenging process. One that yielded gold in Ruggerio, he says.

"We are always testing new drivers, but we were looking for someone who could speak Spanish and was also an excellent driver," Abernethy says. "J.P. is a great driver, and he's very well-spoken. You have to be good at fan interaction ... [drivers] will sign autographs for two or three hours at the pit party, until the last kid gets one."

For Ruggerio, who made his debut Jan. 5 in Tulsa, that's been the best part.

"I'll see a Hispanic family coming toward me, and they seem very gun-shy and hesitant. But the second I say something to them in Spanish, they get very excited, their eyes open up, and they start talking to me, asking everything about the truck and what I do," Ruggerio says. "What we're doing is making them part of our big family."

Ruggerio's own family is Italian-Argentine from Mendoza, Argentina, though he was born and raised in Burbank, Calif. Also a Hollywood stunt driver who aspires to a professional off-road-racing career, Ruggerio has done work in action films such as "Transformers," "Spiderman" and "John Carter."

Because Monster Jam sprang from Middle-American roots 30 years ago, it's an attractive entertainment option for Hispanics trying to feel more acculturated, Ruggerio says.

"I don't care what race, creed or religion you are, there is something fascinating about watching a 10,000-pound truck going 130 feet in the air and crushing a car," Ruggerio says. And his bosses were very clear about his role as a Monster Jam ambassador.

"I'm really honored to be that guy," he says, admitting that being the El Diablo driver in a market such as South Florida comes with added pressure. "Being so close to South America, it doesn't get more Spanish. So I'm extremely honored but a little scared. They expect me to do well."

It won't get any easier. According to Abernethy, Monster Jam, which is also popular in Mexico and Western Europe, will likely expand to Brazil or Argentina in the next couple of years.



Source: (c)2013 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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