Dawn is still an hour away in the empty mega-church parking lot in Forest Lake. A huge metal cross looms overhead, pointing to a distant white semi-truck that boasts, "Everett Jasmer's USA-1: 1988 Monster Truck Challenge Champion."
"You know the most amazing thing about this?" says Chris Daniels, one of the organizers of the day's car-crushing event. "That guy right there? He built all this in his garage."
He's pointing to Everett Jasmer, a solidly built man in a white cowboy hat, his long white beard spilling over a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off.
"I watched him when I was a little kid," says Daniels.
In the 1980s, it used to take at least $2,500 to get Everett Jasmer to crush a row of cars like the gutted junkers lined up in the west end of the parking lot, and even more to get USA-1 to race.
In those days, USA-1 was competing against the other superstar monster trucks—Bigfoot, King Kong, and Bear Foot—at the biggest stadiums across the country. There were USA-1 toys and comics, a series of Chevrolet ads, television specials, and movie cameos.
But today, Jasmer has agreed to do the car crush for the cost of his fuel. Gigs like this are part of his motorsports ministry. Where the truck once wore a sponsorship sticker from Chevrolet, there is now a cross with an American flag draped across it.
"I'll do any event where they'll have me, but I'm not taking the mission off the truck," Jasmer says.
Randy Kron begins to unload the semi. A garage door repairman, Kron volunteered to help Jasmer just for the thrill of it. "I can live vicariously through him."
Kron rolls a tire to the edge of the hauler, then lets it fall to the pavement with a heavy plonk sound before Jasmer gets it under control and rolls it into place.
Watching Jasmer, Kron asks good-naturedly, "When do you figure you'll be too old to be doing this?"
Jasmer doesn't look up. "I've been wondering that myself," he says. "I hadn't planned on doing it 'til this age."
The sun begins to warm the day, and Jasmer removes his cowboy hat momentarily, revealing an almost completely bald head. In the daylight it's possible to see all the places his denim vest has been patched.
Things haven't been good for Jasmer since 1990. That was the year his favorite promoter, TNT Motorsports, was bought out and the drag-style races that USA-1 dominated were canceled.
Jasmer didn't take to the new owner's pro wrestling-style marketing tactics. He resented being told to pretend to hate the other drivers for added drama.
So against the advice of his peers, he brought USA-1 home to his shop in Ham Lake. Jasmer believed that as soon as he could start up a racing series that he deemed legit, USA-1 would make its comeback to the delight of monster truck fans everywhere.
It didn't work out that way. USA-1's sponsors pulled out. The phones rang less.One by one he let his 15 employees go.
Now his Ham Lake office is full of empty desks and memorabilia. A loop of highlights from the '80s echoes in the lobby. A photo of Jasmer from a 1988 exhibition stands in one corner—he's dressed in the exact same denim shirt and cowboy hat.
"I thought I could bring it back in my own way. And I could've," Jasmer says. "I thought I had a good plan."
By noon, families are beginning to arrive at the church parking lot. Children seem especially susceptible to USA-1's gravitational pull. The crumbs of windshield glass stuck in the truck's tire treads don't stop parents from hoisting bewildered toddlers up for photos.
Jasmer changes into his blue-and-white uniform, the same one he wore throughout the '80s. The only difference is the "America Needs the Spirit of Christ!" patch on the back. He signs glossy photos of the truck for kids too young to know who he is.
"I love this," says a father as he snaps photos of the "Spirit of Christ" logo.
"It's been the most rewarding seven years of my life, except financially," Jasmer shrugs. "It's almost wiped me out."
"I'll pray for you," the man says.
"Have you seen my latest YouTube video?"
The man shakes his head no.
"It's a hard hitting, ultra-conservative message to voters to turn the country around November 2," he says. "It's really important to true Christians."
"Yeah, I'm sick of these guys pussy-footin' around," the man grumbles.
The video was Jasmer's last effort to support the Tea Party before Election Day.
When GM, the owner of his beloved Chevrolet, took a buyout from the government, Jasmer was heartbroken. He'd always been a hard-line conservative—he considers everything from seatbelt laws to gay marriage evidence of America's decline—and a federal takeover of the industry to which he'd devoted his life felt like a personal attack.
"It hurt me deeply," he says.
Further infuriated by the Cash for Clunkers program, he approached the TV show Fox & Friends, asking if they'd air a car crush with USA-1 smashing hybrid cars. They declined.
So Jasmer cobbled together old footage of a car crush and sent it out to Tea Party activists all over the country. A producer helped him edit the footage so that the moment USA-1's front tires come down on the car hoods, a word flies at the screen.
"Obama Care." Smash.
"Global Warming." Smash.
"Bloated Government." Smash .
Michele Bachmann's people passed. So did Tea Party organizations and FreedomWorks. Neither Glenn Beck nor Sean Hannity answered.
The day before the church car crush, Jasmer had his producer put it up on YouTube, hoping it would go viral. So far, it has 486 views.
Jasmer hoists himself into USA-1's seat and waves gawkers out of the way. The sound of the engine rips through the cold air, filling it with the smell of burning gasoline. USA-1 rumbles deafeningly toward the row of cars.
Jasmer hits the gas. At the moment the wheels touch the first car, he slams the throttle and USA-1's front end leaps several feet into the air, roaring like a chainsaw. The front tires crash down on the first car's hood. The back wheels pop up and Jasmer guns it again, bouncing the truck across the row of junkers.
Suddenly, the truck lists to one side. The front right wheel slides off the last jalopy. USA-1 teeters on the brink of tipping, then comes to rest hanging at a 45-degree angle.
Jasmer kills the angry engine. The crowd titters delightedly.
"This has just become a much better show!" a man sniggers.
Jasmer's assistant leaps on top of the cars to get Jasmer's instructions. After several tense moments, Kron harnesses the left side of the truck to a Bobcat loader. Using the Bobcat as an anchor, Jasmer restarts the engine and drives off the pile, righting USA-1.
The crowd claps lukewarmly.
Jasmer guns it toward the cars again, leaping up on top of the row and driving back and forth five times before coming to a stop right in the middle. The cars look like flattened pizza boxes.
Jasmer clambers down to earth and walks briskly back to his semi, waving to the quickly dissipating crowd.
"I'm out of practice, I don't know what happened," Jasmer mutters.
There's no perceptible change in his voice, but Jasmer's blue eyes are wide and bright.
"When it doesn't go perfectly, I'm—I don't want to say embarrassed," he says. "But it bugs me."
Jasmer discovers that he's broken the truck's axle, making the mistake particularly costly. The repairs will cost more than he made that day.
Kron comes up as Jasmer is signing glossy photos of USA-1 for a group of kids.
"You scared me out there!" he says.
"I wasn't scared," says Jasmer coolly. "If you get scared then you better not be out there."