What’s it like to be a monster truck driver?

What’s it like to be a monster truck driver?

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

A cursory glance would make it seem like becoming a competitive monster truck driver takes nothing more than a big truck, some piles of dirt, and a daredevil’s mentality. Once the surface has been scratched, there’s a complexity that betrays the event’s primal simplicity. Much like wrestling looks like nothing more than people getting tossed around a mat, monster truck drivers are constantly juggling safety regulations, chasing down hard-to-find parts, and creating a boisterous persona for fans to latch onto.

Monster Jam, the sport’s premiere touring event, plays house to the biggest names in monster trucking, along with a string of side events, most notably the car-eating Megasaurus. In 1997 Jim Koehler built his first truck, Avenger, and quickly made a name for himself with lively freestyle runs before joining Monster Jam. In 2003 Koehler would win his first of two world titles in Monster Jam’s freestyle division, helping cement the nickname “Mr. Excitement” for his high-energy runs. The A.V. Club talked to Koehler about how he got his start in the world of monster trucks, the process of building a vehicle from scratch, and what it feels like to come crashing down after soaring through the air.

The A.V. Club: Did you have professional driving experience before you started driving monster trucks, and did you have to build your own truck before you could start?

JK: Well there’s two ways to do the process. There’s actually probably three ways to do it. I went the route of building my own truck. That was the way I wanted to go. I’d seen monster trucks at shows and just thought, “Man that’s so cool,” and I raced mud bogs and mud drags and quads and did a lot of off-road type stuff, and I thought, “This is the next step for me. Let’s build a monster truck.” So I got together with a bunch of buddies and told them what I was doing. They thought I was nuts, but they were willing to help. So we put together a monster truck and started competing, and we were pretty good at it. So it turned out positive. We kept doing shows, and people liked what we did. We were a little crazy and they liked that. It just kept taking off from there.

AVC: So after you built it, how did you start getting into competitions?

JK: The first part, once you get it done, you had to get with different sanctioning bodies that run monster trucks and see if you could get into their organization. I started doing local stuff, displays and fairs, getting the name out and let people see what the truck is like and if it’s something that they’re interested in. A lot of these shows are invite only. You can’t just show up with a truck and go. You have to be part of the program. So you get your name out there and then the phone starts ringing, and if they like what they see on the videos you sent out and stuff, then they bring you in to compete. And then the better you do, they keep bringing you back. It kind of worked out for me. I did a bunch of local stuff and met a guy from Monster Jam, and he liked the look of the truck. And he said, “Hey, we’d like to have you at some shows. You want to come out and see what you can do?” And I came out to their shows and did okay—not the greatest, but I was new so they weren’t expecting me to be the greatest right off the bat. We started doing it and we just kept excelling from there, making our equipment more dependable and kept getting wilder and wilder. The shows kept getting better and better, and it was a lot more fun.

AVC: When you first built Avenger, were there specific safety regulations you had to adhere to? Are there dos and don’ts for building a monster truck on your own?

JK: There’s a couple safety organizations that have books, and they’re both pretty similar. Safety is number one with monster trucks. They definitely want everything to be as safe as it could possibly be so they give you a guideline of what they’re looking for, minimum requirements on things from robor tubing size to placement to how many bars you need in the truck—just everything from brake specs to engine size to just about every rule you could think of. They’ve got it covered in these rule books, so if you’re going to build a monster truck, it’s almost like your Bible. You grab that book and build it above and beyond the specs that they’re asking for so you know you’re safe, and you’ll be able to compete because you abide by their rules.

Every show you go to, they check your truck and make sure that you have all the safety requirements met. Even if you do a show for that same Monster Jam the week before, they’ll check your truck again the following week just to make sure nothing fell off between weeks. They want to make sure that it’s 100 percent because safety is number one.

AVC: Did you have to build your own jumps to practice?

JK: We had some jumps in the backyard that we set up. We live in the country, so we have a lot of property so there was room for weaving a monster truck around in a field. We set up some jumps and then I actually took it out to Silver Lake Sand Dunes right off Lake Michigan. I had my RV sticker on it and took it out for the weekend and did a lot of practicing, ripped around the dunes like it was a big giant dune buggy. That helped me out a lot and we got a lot of footage that we could show off. Then I caught a break with a local promoter that was doing just small fair shows, and we got footage from the fair shows that actually helped us get our deal with Monster Jam, so it worked out pretty good.

AVC: What was the process of getting in with a bigger organization like Monster Jam? Was it the goal from the start?

JK: It definitely was the goal from the beginning to get out and become the best at what I’m doing, to beat the big guys. Competing against them was definitely the goal from the beginning and to get into shows. Once we did get in them, it was awesome. It was like we finally made it. They accepted us with open arms into their sanctioning body, and we competed with them, and we didn’t fare so great right out of the box, but dependability was really what they were looking for, trucks that wouldn’t break down. They didn’t care if you were a winner or a loser, they wanted you to run every time they called you out to race or they called you to come up to freestyle or do a wheelie contest. They wanted your truck to be ready to go. And we did that. We had dependability. It wasn’t the fastest because it was tough on my truck. It wasn’t 100 percent; the steering stuff wasn’t the greatest. It was a big learning curve. And then once I had gotten it dialed in and got to know more of the guys on the bigger circuit, they pointed me in the right direction on getting better parts and how to set things up so they worked better for me. They’re a great group of guys. They’re all helpful in the pits pre-show, but once the helmets go on all bets are off.

AVC: So there is some level of camaraderie between drivers?

JK: For sure. We want to beat the guys on the track, not because they needed a part or they needed a little bit of help with something and they couldn’t go out on the track. We want to help everybody make sure that they can compete and then beat them in the competition. It’s like a big, semi-dysfunctional family, but it’s an awesome group of guys and gals that run these trucks and do what we do up and down the road every week, and it’s awesome to have them as a bunch of friends.

AVC: How available are parts for monster trucks? Are they easy to acquire commercially, or are they mostly custom made?

JK: It’s a little bit of everything. The steering stuff’s not so bad because most hydraulic shops will carry all the stuff that you’d want for that type of thing, but some of the axel parts you have to search out in junkyards or custom make them yourself. There’s a lot of parts on trucks that are custom made.

AVC: How were you able to build a relationship with the fans so that they felt like they knew you and started rooting for Avenger?

JK: In the beginning it was just about going out there and running a truck. I didn’t realize the big picture. I really wasn’t there for the fans, I was there more for myself.

I rolled over at a show and I got out of the truck all mad, kind of head down, looking at the truck and all depressed about it. Really, it’s just parts and it’s nothing we can’t fix because we built it, but I got a negative reaction from the crowd and I was like, man, they’re negative toward me because I’m upset because I rolled over, which is just what these people came to see. Because when I was watching [monster truck rallies], that’s what I came to see: the crash and the smash and the action, and a rollover is part of that. And I realized at that point that that’s not what they want to see, a guy moping around. We’ve got to turn these people on. I want these people to love me. So when I would crash [in the future] I got out and I gave them the thumbs up, and it just changed my whole attitude about it because, in reality, there was no reason to be depressed or bummed out about it. It’s what I went there to do, and I knew that a rollover was one of the things that could happen in a show. So why cry over spilled milk? It’s already spilled. Let’s clean it up, fix it up, and hammer down the road on to the next show. That became my attitude. I knew I could have it fixed, I knew I could get it back, make the next show—then I was like, if I can make this happen, then there’s no reason to be upset about it. Let’s roll with it.

AVC: What does it feel like to roll over, or jump your truck 20 feet in the air? Can you feel the crowd getting into it in those moments?

JK: Definitely the crowd’s into it. The crowd’s into it even during preshow stuff. They’re excited for what’s going on and you can see them waving their arms and waving the checkered flags and doing stuff like that. They’re fired up for you, and it fires us up when we’re out there. When I first started, they didn’t do freestyle for every truck so it was racing and that slowly developed into freestyle. And then it was like, “OK, cool, Here’s where I can express myself,” because my truck wasn’t the greatest racer, but it was a heck of a freestyler. You’re out there by yourself, so there’s no pressure. You do what you want if you can hit the big jumps. I always enjoyed that sort of stuff, so it worked out really good for me.

AVC: What’s it feel like to land such a big jump? Can you feel it physically?

JK: The best way to describe it is if you like riding rollercoaster, and you’re on a rollercoaster and you enjoy that feeling, that’s kind of the same feeling you get with jumping a monster truck. It kind of gives you that rush.

AVC: What goes into winning a freestyle championship?

JK: You have to qualify to be at the world finals. Once you’re qualified, then its what you do while you’re there. It doesn’t have anything else to do with your season. You could have had a season just good enough to get you into the world finals, one just good enough to get you in, as and then you could win the whole thing. What you do at the world finals is what wins it.

I noticed in the years past that there was always an obstacle that would trip people up. We don’t really get to watch the others freestyle so I put my crew guy on the roof with a radio and he radioed to me every move that looked good, every obstacle that was wrecking trucks, so it made me have a better game plan on what to hit and how to hit it, and that’s how I ended up not wrecking my truck. I was able to attack the stuff smart and save the obstacles that were wrecking trucks to my very last hit. That way you did everything you were supposed to do, but at the same time you were hitting the stuff that everybody wanted to see. Then if the truck did break it was at the end of your run, not at the beginning of it. It was a strategic thing the first time I won.

The second time I won, it was more of just a fluke because the competition got stiffer and stiffer as years went by, and it got to be a lot harder and more intense. More people were doing crazy stuff, so it just got harder and harder for me. At that point, it was just making sure my equipment was 100 percent so that it would last for whatever punishment I was going to give it. And if it would last the whole freestyle then you had a really good shot of winning. There were a lot of guys whose trucks just couldn’t hold up for the type of obstacles that were at the world finals so it took them down.

AVC: Going into a freestyle competition, how much of what you do is pre-determined and how much is done on the fly?

JK: I look at every freestyle track and get an idea of what I can do on every jump, but I don’t set a plan. What happens if you set a plan and on the first jump and your truck bounces in a different direction than what you planned to be going, then it looks horrible as you’re trying to correct it. I just look at every obstacle and say, “Okay, I need to hit this at this speed. I need to get this one this way.” I let the truck kind of dictate where I’m going. After the first hit, if it bounces me in a different direction, it doesn’t matter because I’m going to aim toward that next obstacle and hit it according to what I judged it off of when I track [earlier]. I’m kind of on the seat of my pants once I start going. [If the truck] lines me up for a wheelie jump, then I go for a wheelie or throw it into a cyclone and do a doughnut. I never make a plan for myself. I just look at every obstacle and square up each obstacle on how I’m going to hit it, and then I’m set.

AVC: You mentioned having signature moves. How do you work out something like that?

JK: Well I try to do everything in freestyle, and it just works out that I’m better at some things than others. I didn’t really pick a move and say, “Okay, I’m going to work on this one.” I just try to do all [tricks], just some of them I do a little bit better. Getting big airs is really not hard. It just takes a little bit of nerve to want to hit a jump at 35, 40 miles an hour to shoot that thing in the air and hope it lands and it doesn’t break. It takes a little confidence that the truck’s going to pull together, and that’s kind of how I do it. For the cyclones, some trucks do them good; some trucks don’t. My truck’s ones that sometimes it really rips it; other times it doesn’t. Wheelies are the same thing. It just depends.

AVC: How do the judges score each run of a freestyle?

JK: It’s kind of feel and overall performance, but they have a guideline. They kind of tell everybody, “This is what we judge. We want to see different moves.” They don’t want to see the same move over and over and over and over. That’s going to bore them. Say you’re good at jumping one big jump and you do it 20 times. After the third time, it’s pretty boring. If you’re not mixing it up, you’re not going to score high.

To me, scores, they’re cool and all, but that doesn’t really matter to me. I go out, sometimes you feel like you get gypped, so I stopped letting the scores bother me. I go out to have a wild time, run the truck as hard as I can, and I know at the end of the show, when the fans are telling me in the autograph line, “Oh, you did awesome. You were great.” Then I know I did good whether I got a good score or didn’t get a good score. Some judges seem like they like other trucks, they have favorites and that type of thing. I guess it’s part of the business, and it’s nice to win, but I’m happy going out there and rocking it. As long as I’m happy with what I did, points don’t make much difference to me.

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