James was asked to have a go driving a monster truck. He didn’t need asking twice.
The enormity of what I’m about to do has just hit me. A shade over 12 feet below me lies the same dirt track, complete with ramps, on which the first ever Monster Jam competition will take place in the Middle East. Under my right foot is the throttle for the monster truck I am about to take for a spin.
I must be insane.
Rewind a couple of hours and I’ve just finished a phone conversation with Flash Entertainment, the event organiser for Monster Jam that is due to take place at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi the following evening. They appreciate it’s incredibly late notice but apparently a spot has just opened up for a monster truck drive experience, and would crankandpiston.com be interested in having a go? Half an hour later, I’m whistling towards Abu Dhabi for the drive of a lifetime.
Although relatively low key across Europe and the Middle East, monster truck racing emerged from grass roots events like tractor pulling to become big business across the states today. Crowd figures can exceed four million across the 375 scheduled events on average each year with fans keen to see local drivers drive, jump, pull wheelies and crush demonstration cars in trucks that have been specifically developed for dirt racing and freestyle stunts. Unsurprisingly, international companies like Monster energy drinks have spied a potential earner and provided some sizeable support.
For such an American-centric – and some might say quirky – series to make its Middle Eastern debut might seem a little odd, particularly when we consider that the UAE’s own grass roots motor racing program is struggling to grab a foothold. What chance does Monster Jam have then? Well quite a good one, actually. An event whose core agenda is to entertain the crowd with a ‘bigger is better’ philosophy being showcased in a region dominated by hilariously overpowered tuned engines and off-road toys seems a match made in heaven. Such would seem the case for Flash too, which is already planning Monster Jam’s return next year.
My genial hosts at Flash are already waiting for me at the Monster Jam paddock on the south side of the Stadium, as are Chad Fortune and Bari Musawwir, two of the series’ most popular campaigners and among the bookie’s favourites for overall victory in Abu Dhabi. Knowing that very soon I will be strapped into the monster truck bucket seat, I’m very keen to learn from each driver’s experiences behind the wheel of ‘Captain America’ and ‘Spider Man’ respectively. It’s proving difficult to concentrate though, and that’s certainly no fault of Bari nor Chad, whose joint enthusiasm is almost tangible.
For the moment my attention is grabbed rather tightly by Monster Mutt Rottweiler – 2010 Monster Jam Freestyle Champion, complete with plastic ears, tongue, water dish and bone – DC comics-inspired Superman and four-time Monster Jam World Finals champion Grave Digger that are towering above us almost menacingly. Each truck is built on the base of a standard SUV – Grave Digger has been built from a 1957 Chevrolet Panel Wagon – yet stand over 13 feet tall (half of which is the tyre, which must measure at least 66-inches high and 43-inches wide), boast extra long 76cm shock absorbers, and kick out 1500hp from their near 9.5-litre supercharged engines: just one of these brutes kicks out the same power as two Lamborghini Aventadors. It’s hardly surprising that at full pelt, these 4.5-ton bruisers growl through 2.5 gallons of methanol per run.
“Under my right foot is the throttle for the monster truck I am about to take for a spin. I must be insane”
Both Bari and Chad have noticed my astonishment, and can’t help but smile. They hope the thousands of ticket holders for the following evening’s event will feel the same way.
“It’s very exciting for us too,” Chad explains. “This is something we knew growing up, but to introduce it to a whole new country, a whole new people and to get them to love it as much as we do, I think we’re going to do a great job with that.” A knowing nod from Bari – “it’s definitely a sign of growth in our sport competing in the Middle East, and hopefully we can keep it going” – shows just how fired up the guys are for the event ahead.
Keen to get the drive experience underway, our group – which includes a few of my fellow rather nervous looking representatives from the media and a Radio 2 listener who’s won a drive via a competition – starts making its way to the arena. Our jovial conversation is stopped in its tracks by a guttural roar from a 1500hp supercharged engine emanating from inside the stadium and ripping the cloudless sky in half. Suddenly the challenge that awaits is all too clear, and a couple of butterflies start fluttering their wings in my stomach.
Soon I’m being handed a fireproof suit and matching gloves to pull over my street clothes, a neck brace to protect the muscles from the potentially violent acceleration, and a helmet. Bari and Chad, along with Monster Mutt driver Dustin Brown have come to watch us suit up from behind the protective tape barrier. Security when working with supercharged brutes as gigantic as these, is crucial. So much so that the entire lower grandstands will remain empty for the duration of the evening’s show for fear that one of the trucks will land amongst the seats. The grandstand easily lies 50 feet away from the track, but the organisers are taking no chances.
Sweltering nicely in our fireproof suits in the 40-degree heat, we’re introduced to Dan Evans, a Monster Jam veteran who’s been competing consistently since 1994 (his wife Lorrie is his crew chief) and will be in action the following evening. There’s little the Michigan-born fan favourite doesn’t know about monster truck competitions, and his experience is a big confidence booster today. Over his left shoulder some 40 feet away is Blue Thunder, the 2008 Ford F-150 Extended Cab modified truck in which Dan will compete throughout 2013 and our drive experience vehicle for the day. Although Blue Thunder has been around for more than a decade, significant upgrades and developments to the powertrain mean this particular model is only four months old, and has completed just over a dozen events as opposed to its rival’s couple of hundred. The butterfly wings start fluttering again, which I try to ignore as I’m called for my turn.
“Security when working with supercharged brutes as gigantic as these, is crucial. So much so that the entire lower grandstands will remain empty for the duration of the evening’s show for fear that one of the trucks will land amongst the seats”
It’s only when Dan and I are standing next to Blue Thunder that the first big issue springs to mind: how on earth do I get in? There are no doors since the fibreglass bodyshell is designed to withstand enormous pressure should the truck land upside down, stability that a panels gaps would irreparably damage. Jumping through the window NASCAR style is also out, since – even with a generously sized ladder – the gap is far too small for even the lithest individual to squeeze through.
Still smiling at my confusion, Dan points to the gap between the bodyshell and the Dan Patrick chassis, and tells me to clamber up the cage Spider Man style while he holds my helmet. Fortunately safety concerns mean crankandpiston.com photographer Arun is too far away to capture my inept attempts to clamber into the cabin with grace.
Inside I find – as well as the roll cage support arms – a custom moulded bucket seat, an ignition box from which the 500 CI Merlin engine is started, a Coan two-speed automatic transmission box (including neutral), a beautifully minimalist (and surprisingly dainty) steering wheel, and two pedals. And that’s it. In order to optimise weight distribution, the seat is mounted directly in the centre of the cabin – as Dan mentions, “it’s like Formula 1 on steroids” – and with the sheer amount of safety paraphernalia about me, there’s remarkably little space to see out through the Perspex windscreen. There’s enough to see where you’re going and where you’re about to go, but that’s about it. While I re-glove and re-helmet, Dan fastens my five-point safety harness just enough to stop circulation to my lower frame: with 1500hp at the mercy of my right foot, I’m certainly not complaining.
“Dan points to the gap between the bodyshell and the Dan Patrick chassis, and tells me to clamber up the cage Spider Man style while he holds my helmet”
A gentlemen in a high visibility jacket soon walks in front of Blue Thunder, and raises both hands, a signal enquiring whether the driver is ready to roll. If I am, as Dan explains, I should signal back with both hands. I do. High vis then twirls his right wrist signalling that I should start the supercharged Merlin up. That involves flicking five switches on the main ignition box, and one final one with a bulb mounted in it. When that fires, I’m to pull the remarkably nimble gearlever into first, get the truck moving, turn the first corner, select second gear by shifting the lever up one notch in the box, and leave it there for the duration of the run. So, to confirm: hands; wrist; twirl; switches; first gear; second; enjoy. And right here is when Dan climbs out.
The enormity of what I’m about to do has just hit me. Under my right foot is the throttle for the monster truck I am about to take for a spin. No pressure.
High vis gives the go ahead – and fortunately has a kill switch for the trucks’ engine linked to a radio control unit should I veer worryingly off-course – and I fire the engine into life. A couple of turnovers later and the supercharged roar that erupts is deafening, bringing with it a surge of the adrenaline that almost turns my stomach inside out. I don’t notice at first, but clearly the “OH MY GOD!” I’ve just uttered was louder than expected, and high vis is smiling knowingly. Slotting home first gear, I very gingerly press the accelerator to get Blue Thunder rolling.
I’ve been warned that 1500hp can be surprisingly eager in first gear, but I’m clearly being too cautious, the truck bunny-hopping off the start hilariously as the power is sent to all four 66-inch Terra tyres. Manning up as I make the first turn, I press the accelerator a little harder and select second gear.
Now we’re rolling, albeit at a steady 30kph. A sudden jolt as the transmission steps up a gear gives me the first impression of speed in the brute. Clearly there’s an enormous amount more to give from the 575 cubic inch unit, and on the night, the trucks will reach upwards of 80kph. I can’t imagine the acceleration being very linear, the supercharger already eager to smack me in the small of the back as I press the throttle a lifter more, and take care to avoid the button on the transmission box labelled 400 Turbo.
“While I re-glove and re-helmet, Dan fastens my five-point safety harness just enough to stop circulation to my lower frame: with 1500hp at the mercy of my right foot, I’m certainly not complaining”
Coming up to the first corner, I reach for the flicker switch on a vertically mounted bar positioned just behind the ignition box. This dainty little switch controls steering for the rear wheels, a system that makes near-five ton behemoths amazingly manoeuvrable: flick left to turn right quickly, flick right to turn left quickly. So intricate is this system that drivers frequently incorporate stationary 360-degree turns, known as cyclone donuts, into their freestyle stunt runs.
It’s an incredibly easy system to use but the resultant speed with which Blue Thunder makes its first 180-degree turn catches me completely off-guard. Power steering through the wheel means the enormous front tyres need remarkably little effort to position, allowing me to concentrate on getting the wheels in line quickly for the upcoming straight. The wheels are fully planted to the dirt and tipping over at these speeds and without hitting the jumps is very unlikely, but the body roll in the cabin reminds me just how loose the suspension and dampers have been set to absorb the impact off a jump. It’s a fine balance though: suspension too stiff with likely destroy the front and rear axles on landing; too soft and the landing wheels are likely to dig into the dirt and cause the vehicle to flip onto its roof. As you’d expect, we’re not really looking for ride comfort in this brute.
The throttle at these speeds is very manageable, so much so that lifting off brings immediate deceleration, and I hardly have to touch the brakes at all. My two-lap run is up very quickly, and so I decide to take the final turn taken at slightly more ambitious speeds. High vis is soon waving at me through the windscreen, signalling for me to brake and pull the monster to a stop. The brake discs are honed for track use, bringing the truck instantly under control, a rock in the bucket seat signalling the discs ferocious capabilities. High vis presses a button on his remote, the Merlin engine cuts out, and my drive is over. I cannot stop smiling.
“You’re shaking. What the hell?” Dan asks with a grin as I hand him down my helmet. The adrenaline is still kicking through me in waves as I think about my drive, so much so that I don’t even notice that my hands are shaking. The same goes for my legs, and it makes climbing out the cabin and down the roll cage difficult. But I don’t care. I’ve been in a two-seater Formula 1 car, driven an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 at speed around the Yas Marina Circuit and hit the drag strip in several different performance machines, but nothing even comes close to the drive I’ve just experienced.
“Power steering through the wheel means the enormous front tyres need remarkably little effort to position, allowing me to concentrate on getting the wheels in line quickly for the upcoming straight”
I get a pat on the back from Dan as I dismount, and I’m pleased that my temporary charge is pleased with my efforts, intercut as that is by a few barely controlled giggles. This was not an experience about speed (clearly) or jumps, but a simple act of taming the beast, something I came nowhere near doing during my two laps, granted. Experiencing the thrill of such brutal power lingering beneath the surface, controlling wheels taller than me with surprisingly little effort and seeing what life is like from the bucket seat of a monster truck is a once-in-a-lifetime experience all of its own.
The next evening I’m back at the Stadium for the first running of Monster Jam in Abu Dhabi, from which crowd favourite Grave Digger takes home the silverware. Though I try my best to be unbiased with my event report, the urge to will on Blue Thunder – my truck – to victory is too hard to ignore.
Dan misses the gold in Abu Dhabi, but it doesn’t matter. For him, tonight has been about the crowd, the experience and the chance to drive a truck that few else will ever get the chance to.
I know exactly how he feels.
*Images courtesy of Arun M.Nair and Awesome Group