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Monsters Mashed 

Big-ass trucks bring the thunder to Gund Arena.

Jim Koehler and Chris Bergeron grew up a few miles from each other north of Detroit, but the 38-year-old drag racers didn't meet till they raced in the mud 20 years ago. Today, the guys think of themselves as best buddies and fierce foes on the United States Hot Rod Association's Monster Jam circuit.

"We actually compete more against each other than against anybody else, because of the ongoing rivalry of who's better between the two of us," explains Koehler, who became a monster truck racer in 1997, when he turned a '57 Chevy Bel-Air into the 11-foot-tall "Avenger." "After a competition, the winner goes home kinda bummin', because the other guy is going to be rippin' him up. So it just makes for a long or short ride home."

Good thing Cleveland's not that far from Michigan, since the series brings Koehler, Bergeron, and six other monster truckers to the Gund this weekend. While Koehler is the godfather of the freestyle class -- which includes gravity-defying tricks ranging from cliffhangers to the "kiss of death" -- Bergeron is a speed demon in the side-by-side racing competition. They'll square off in both divisions in their 12-foot-wide trucks, which weigh 9,000 pounds each and sit atop 5-foot-high tires. "We'll give them the big air, the doughnuts, the sky wheelies, and the slap wheelies," promises Koehler. "It's craziness. Just all-out destruction."

And the friendly feud adds to the demolition when Koehler takes on Bergeron and his 2002 Ford F-150 named "Brutus." "He's got the edge on racing," says Koehler about his pal. "But when it comes to freestyle, that's where I shine."

Just ask the fans. In 2003, Koehler crushed the freestyle competition at the World Championships in Las Vegas. He's banking on a similar showing at the annual competition next month in front of his favorite groupies: preschoolers. "You get a five-year-old that says, 'Mom! Dad! That's Jim Koehler!' There's nothing more exciting than that," he says. "How cool the kid knows my name."

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