Monster trucks are one of God's personal gifts to the United States. While they garner more than their fair share of a negative attention, any self respecting gearhead has to agree that the mechanical awe inspired by one of these creations is tremendous. And before anyone out there rolls their eyes and reaches for the downvote button, let's put things into perspective first. These trucks weigh three times as much as your car, stand 12 feet tall, push about 1500 horsepower and can literally crush you in a 0 to 60 race. And if you're from anywhere in Europe that has truck racing, you can't say shit. Racing 18 wheeler trucks? Snore. If you're from anywhere that endorses drifting, please just stop reading my writeups. And may God Himself help us if you sanction driving four cylinders in anything other than destruction derbies. . .
In The Beginning
For many a year, greasemonkeys have set out to tinker with their own rides. To this day there are many a hobbyist that put lift kits on their trucks along with bigger wheels and tires in an effort to raise the truck off the ground. This can be purely cosmetic or actually increase the ride height of the truck, normally for the use of off road driving. And boys being boys, things to tend to escalate into a series of one-up-man-ships. As the trucks got bigger and taller, people started to compete at county fairs or similar events to see who had the strongest or mud-boggingest truck.
Like many off roading enthusiasts, Bob Chandler put a lot of effort into building up his truck. He spent many a weekend with his wife and children driving his truck at off road events. The rest of the weekends were probably spent fixing the damn thing because 1) it was a Ford and 2) Bob frequently broke things thanks to his unforgiving driving. It was said that a lot of damage was caused by his "big foot" on the accelerator. Chandler had started an off road, four wheel drive center and in an effort to limit the damage to his truck he started beefing up the truck with bigger axles and 48 inch tires. He also added a rear wheel drive feature to the truck and it started to resemble what told would be called a monster truck.
Some people will have us believe that the first truck to run over cars in front of an audience was Awesome Kong, doing so at county fairs in the late 1970s. However, Bob Chandler has always maintained that his truck, Bigfoot, has always been the first monster truck in existence, the first monster truck to crush a car, the first monster truck to appear at a paid event, the first monster truck to crush cars at a live event, ad nauseam. Either way, Bigfoot started a dynasty so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Chandler's wife video taped him driving over a couple cars with his heavily modified truck. The tape wound up in a promoter's hands who insisted that Chandler perform at a live event. The big premier was in 1982, at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Now sporting 66 inch tires, Chandler drove Bigfoot on top of some junk cars. Maybe it was just because it was the early 80s and nothing interesting was happening, but the crowd went wild and actually left their seats to rush the stadium floor. Chandler later remarked that he had no idea what was going on and he was too scared to move his truck. So he just parked the truck on top of the cars, locked his doors and stayed in the cab until crowd left or was removed from the stadium floor.
The rest is history and as more people built monster trucks, the drivers began competing against one another. Popular competitions were hill climbs or drag races involving obstacles. Years later, a growing number of trucks appeared on the scene, competitions began to include single elimination tournaments and, more recently, the freestyle runs.
Back in the beginning, early monster trucks were just beefed up versions of regular pick up trucks. The engines were big blocks from the trucks' respective manufacturers. Tires were originally just larger truck tires, but then eventually they moved to tires designed for farm equipment. Likewise, the axles had to take a high level of punishment and the originals were swapped out for tractor or military truck axles. Safety equipment was unheard of, except for enterprising drivers who may have worn a helmet.
Engines: There's no replacement for displacement
Bigger engines meant more available power, so monster truck drivers would opt for big displacement. Some Chevy trucks ran all the way up to 572 cubic inches with a twin screw supercharger on top. Ford trucks ran a little smaller with variants of the 460 engine block; Bigfoot #1 had 640 cubic inches of displacement. A special note should be made for the truck Goliath that sported two 472 cubic inch Ford engines, plus superchargers. Holy. Shit. Mopar guys were in there too with 440 variants.
Nowadays, there is a governing body that regulates engine size to 575 cubic inches. Carburetted engines are out and fuel injected, supercharged engines are in for competition trucks--demonstration trucks may still use naturally aspirated, carburetted engines. For some extra ponies, trucks have switched to methanol which burns cooler and allows the trucks to operate for longer periods of time. Output usually ranges from about 1400 to 1500 horsepower and 1100 to 1300 foot-pounds of torque. Each engine must be fitted with a Remote Ignition Interrupter. This is operated by the Monster Truck Racing Association (MTRA) safety personnel. It is tested before each performance run of a monster truck and it will be used to immediately kill the engine of any truck that the MTRA personnel believes to be beyond the driver's control and/or posing a danger to any fans, drivers, crew members or other personnel. There is also a kill switch mounted within the driver's reach as well as a fluorescent yellow or orange colored ring, mounted at the center, rearmost part of the vehicle, that acts as a kill switch for personnel responding to a wreck.
There is no exhaust on a monster truck. The header pipes either point straight upwards, plus or minus 10 degrees or point rearward at a 45 degree down angle according to MTRA regulations. No cats, no mufflers. So what you have are a set of pipes that bellow flame and thunder. Beautiful.
The MTRA has also standardized the tires for use on monster trucks. All tires must be 66 inches tall, 43 or 44 inches wide and fit a 25 inch wheel. The tires used were originally designed for use on fertilizer spreaders and air filled to 10 psi or so. Each team, upon receiving new tires, actually shaves the tread into something with more high speed grip with the added bonus of losing a few pounds in the process. Even with the shaving, you're still dealing with about 900 pounds of wheel and tire.
Although never used in competition, Bigfoot #5 rides on tires 10 feet in diameter. You can actually stand inside wheel! Bob Chandler was going through a junkyard and saw these colossal tires wasting away. He immediately decided to do something with them, so Bigfoot #5 was specially designed to use them. For those of you still wondering where the hell they came from, they were stripped from a US Army land train that was stationed in Alaska during the 1950s. The train was designed to carry men and the massive weight of material so that we could ride out and blast those Ruskie bastards to kingdom come, should they decide to take over America's frozen wasteland. At its first show, Bigfoot #5 actually sported dual 10 foot tires (that's a total of eight) which earned it the record of being the tallest, widest and heaviest pick up in the world. When it traveled in parade, they would actually drive a small car between its tires as it drove down the road.
There used to be a number of tracked vehicles that ran at shows, but they are sadly all retired from service at this point.
Monster trucks need a tremendous amount of shock absorption so that they may more properly wow the masses. With the MTRA minimum regulation weight of 9,000 pounds, and jumps approaching 20 feet in the air, these trucks hit the ground with enormous force. A relatively small amount of energy is dissipated thanks to the large rubber tires, but the majority must be handled by the suspension. Originally, trucks used leaf spring suspensions, but those are far too weak for these forces. To compensate for that, drivers could modify and build their own leaf springs, but that weight added up fast, which actually made the problem worse. Eventually there was a move to coil springs and ultimately we arrived at the present day use of nitrogen filled gas shocks. This setup provides up to four feet of travel which does a good job of compensating for the bone crushing impact that the trucks suffer.
Monster trucks are four by four by fours, which means that they have four tires on the ground, four tires receiving power and four tires used in steering the vehicle. Power from the engine is fed to an automatic transmission, usually just two or three gears. From there, power goes to the transfer case so that the single output shaft of the transmission can power two driveshafts--one for each axle. This distribution of power helps a monster truck both take off on the loose clay soils of stadium floors and claw its way off of obstacles if it lands with one or more tires in the air. Note that if all four tires are in the air, you are most likely engaged in a form of demolition roof racing.
One of the most interesting facets of monster truck racing is the steering controls. The steering wheel controls the front wheel direction. The rear wheel steering is completely independent of that and normally operates via a toggle switch that the driver operates with his free hand. Independent steering allows the trucks to negotiate much tighter turns than a truck with two wheels steering. Of course, this means that the trucks must be traveling at lower speeds to cope with the tight corners, but the excellent example of this is indoor arenas. When monster truck shows take place at indoor arena, the minimum required floor space of the MTRA is 80' x 120' although they prefer 100' x 150' and up. This is not a large area for at least one monster truck, two cars, and a ramp to occupy. Similarly, high speed cannot be achieved and lower speed turns are an option. Effective use of the rear steering allows the trucks to still operate competitively in relatively small areas.
I will however spoil what I think is the best part of free style events. I'm not sure if you've ever seen a car do a doughnut, but the main idea is that a rear wheel drive car (usually from a dead stop) puts the steering wheel all the over to one side and steps on the gas, entering a very tight turn. If the car is sufficiently powerful, the back tires will break traction with the ground and begin to slide sideways, more or less, across the ground. The unpowered front wheel tires retain all of their grip and the car begins to pivot around them as it slings car and driver alike in a violent circle. That's what happens in a normal car.
In a monster truck, with 1500 horsepower and four wheel drive (and four wheel steering!) things happen differently. Because of their steering, monster trucks can damn near do a zero point turn. If the driver decides to show off, he'll get plenty of open space and begin a doughnut which involves turning the front and rear wheels in opposite directions (think about it, if the front and rear wheels both turned left, the truck would travel in a diagonal--it looks cool as hell, but that's not what we're after). So he opens up the throttle and the back end drops down faster than a White House intern as he starts pulling tight turns. Instead of the back end breaking loose, with all wheel drive, he can keep accelerating as he turns. Thanks to the unholy power of the supercharged big block, the driver can actually spin the truck so fast that it almost rotates in place. If he wants to wow the audience, he can put his foot all the way down and the truck will begin to lift up from its front inside tire until the entire body stands up and rolls over like a top. Ten thousand pounds of steel and 120 decibels of pain spinning itself up and over from self inflicted lateral G force. A more unbridled displayed of power there is not outside of the top tiers of professional drag racing. Ooh, goosebumps. . .
Keep on Truckin'
When monster trucks first took off, they were just highly modified production trucks. It is not overwhelmingly difficult to swap out axles for heavier duty versions or install suspension components to allow of more ground clearance and tire travel. Nor is it exceedingly difficult to swap in larger displacement engines and stroke and bore or supercharger an engine for extra power. At first, that was about all you needed to do to make a name for yourself, along with a set of big tires.
In the 90s, all of that changed. Monster trucks no longer carried the stock sheet metal bodies of yesteryear and stock frames didn't cut it either. The chassis was built from tubular steel and the body became a fiberglass shell. The fiberglass shells start at around $1,500 for a normal shape and go as high as the owner's imagination for very creative designs (see Batman or Jurassic Attack). Monster trucks are trucks only insofar as their fiberglass bodies look like a truck. There have always been some unique bodies out there, but nowadays there's even SUV bodies styles with neon lights underneath. No comment.
All in all, it's kind of disappointing to me to know that the frames were designed on a computer and I could kick through the side of a supposed invincible monster truck. I do live in The South, with our myriad trucks, but I've never owned one myself. And I sure as hell never wanted to lift a truck by eight inches and slap huge tires on the sides to race down to Kroger. But I still have to admire the original monster truck owners who took a production truck, tripled the horsepower, lifted it up on four foot tires and equipped it to drive over cars or through four feet of mud without failing. While modern day monster trucks can run faster and jump higher than their ancestors, it's still a little disenchanting.
In the past, especially when fewer trucks were available to compete, competitions could have involved hill climbs, drag races or tractor pull type events. As the trucks became better built and equipped, higher speeds could be reached and as such the focus of competition became races.
Only two trucks will race at a time. If the event takes place at an outdoor arena, the race may be run side by side. There is at least one obstacle that the monster trucks must negotiate during the race--usually the trademark cars. Hills or ramps may be thrown into the mix to add more difficulty to the race. However, in smaller venues, especially indoor arenas, the track runs around the perimeter of the arena in a rectangular fashion. The trucks start the race with half a track's worth of space between them and travel in the same direction. While there are usually fewer jumping obstacles in these races, there is the non trivial task of turning a 12 foot tall, five ton truck traveling at 25 miles per hour through a 180 degree turn.
The races are parts of a single elimination tournament. Of course, should a driver break his truck on the course and become unable to complete the race, he loses. If he breaks his car and hobbles to the finish line victoriously but cannot stage for the next race, he loses. Races are not hot lapped as some form of entertainment (quad runners, dirt bikes, BMX, etc) tends to fill time between the rounds in order for the trucks to cool down and repair.
One of the great things about the sport is the camaraderie that the drivers share. Even though the drivers compete fiercely in the races, they are all friends in the pits. When some driver limps off the field with a broken truck, it is common for one or more of the other drivers to lend a hand, assuming their own trucks are in fine form. Maintaining the $150,000 or $250,000 truck quickly adds up to cost more than the truck itself. However, this does not stop drivers from lending or giving parts to fix a competitor's truck even when they are slated to go head to head in the next round. That's the friendliest professional motorsport I've ever heard of.
As more and more trucks came out to race, an increasing number of trucks were sent home early after their elimination from the tournament. Fans wanted to see the trucks run for more than one ill fated run, so the Freestyle competition formally came about in 2000. Every truck that is in running order can use the entirety of the arena as a playground to impress the fans.
After the racing competition ends, the trucks are allowed back onto the field one at a time to perform for the fans. All the cars, ramps, lane markers and sponsor displays become fair game. For 60 seconds the trucks run around and speed, jump, wheelie, crash and flip their way into the judges' hearts. Unfortunately, this causes controversy for the sport. Some drivers will use the Freestyle competition to win back the crowd and earn points even after they are eliminated from the Racing competition. Dennis Anderson owns and operates the Grave Digger monster truck and is known for his reckless performances. If he doesn't win the race tournament, you can be damn sure he'll flip his truck in the Freestyle competition. Sometimes, he doesn't even wait that long and if the race is going badly for him, his truck has a remarkable tendency to roll over in the corners. But outside of Bigfoot he has the longest lasting and most recognizable name in the sport, so he must be doing something right.
Of course some people attach monster trucks with the social stigma that the trucks are just there for the bunch of beer swilling rednecks who like to show up and yell obscenities at glorified farm trucks. Which is bullshit, most of them are too drunk to yell. Of course, this same group of people are the dumbasses that pay mechanics $400 to replace an alternator on their car while the mechanics laugh all the way to the bank. And I'm laughing too, just on general principle. But I digress . . .
We've already explored how the racing side of monster truck competitions can be unbalanced by the reckless antics of driver who has sponsors with deep pockets. The are also the ongoing accusations that the races are as scripted as professional wrestling and therefore the results are not valid. Everyone remotely involved in the sport adamantly denies these accusations. But if you know how to script races involving 10,000+ pound flying chunks of steel, be sure to drop me line; I'll go 50/50 in the proceeds. Remember that you have to be able to fool electronic timing equipment that is accurate to the thousandth of a second.
Bob Chandler, of the Bigfoot fame, has tried repeatedly to assemble an international monster truck racing league in an effort to gain validation for the sport. There are world championship competitions for monster trucks, but the league he envisions does not exist. The long standing motorsport authorities do not want to honor monster trucks as a true motorsport, thanks in part to the previously mentioned accusations of the critics and antics of the reckless drivers.
The conclusion is whatever you come up with on your own. I think there is something awe inspiring about taking such an ungainly creation and making it speed over hills and sail through the air gracefully, on the basis that anything weighing in at over five tons is ungainly. These trucks are definitely a mechanical wonder to behold for any of us who have gasoline in our veins. If you've never been to a monster truck event, don't judge harshly until you've come back from one.
Coming soon: a mikebert writeup for monster truck show with even more information. Update: It's up and running, so check it out!.
Coming not so soon: I know a lot of the jargon here may be confusing, but there aren't even nodeshells to link to on a lot of the tech talk. We'll have to do something about that.