Cam McQueen earned a failing grade on a high school aptitude test when he said he wanted to be either a monster truck driver or a stuntman.
“The teacher said those weren't real jobs,” McQueen said, with a chuckle.
Turns out, McQueen had the last laugh.
The 32-year-old has made an adrenalin-filled career of doing both, and this week unveiled the first Canadian monster truck — a red-and-black behemoth named Northern Nightmare — with an ear-splitting spin around the floor of Rogers Centre.
“It’s a blast, to do those two things that I've always wanted to do. . . just living the dream,” McQueen said with a wide grin.
The Calgary native will drive Northern Nightmare, named via an online contest, in the Maple Leaf Monster Jam Tour that will roar through six Canadian cities in 2012.
“This is all-Canadian, every nut and bolt on there, going to have a Canadian driving it, Canadians working on it, and Canadian fans supporting us,” McQueen said of his new truck, painted black with splashes of red maple leaves. “It's a big day, huge day. It's the start of a lot of days of good things.”
McQueen, who lives in Kelowna, B.C., got an early start in motorsports, riding dirt bikes at age five and racing motocross by age 11. He graduated to Tuff Truck competitions during the intermissions of monster truck shows.
“I would go out in my little Toyota and beat the heck out of it,” he said.
The bona fide gearhead loved working on anything with a motor — old snowmobiles, dirt bikes, jet skis, and trucks — in high school. He studied mechanical engineering at SAIT in Calgary, but quickly figured out he much preferred driving to drawing on paper.
He started volunteering for monster truck teams. He landed a job as a stuntman (high school teacher be damned) in the MTV series Nitro Circus, a reality show that featured people performing various dangerous stunts.
He finally got his first opportunity to drive a monster truck in Vancouver in 2008 when another driver was injured.
No surprise, he was instantly hooked. What does he love about it?
“Everything,” said McQueen, who drives a four-door Chevy pickup in his everyday life. “As soon as I get strapped in, I still get goose bumps. I get chills, I strap in there and just kind of giggle to myself and pinch myself, make sure it's real.
“It's just adrenalin, you get in that thing, 1,500 horsepower strapped right to your butt and away you go. It’s pretty cool.”
The best monster trucks can reach top speeds of 110 kilometres per hour. In stadium events, the trucks perform at speeds between 30 and 50 km/h. McQueen will fly 35 to 40 feet off the ground, and 100 feet in distance.
The Canadian made Monster Jam history in 2010 in Jacksonville, Fla., when he completed the first ever back flip in a scored competition. Just one of the numerous clips of the historic flip on YouTube has over 2.7 million views.
“I'd been thinking about it a lot, a lot of drivers had been kind of toying with the idea, but never really had the setup,” McQueen said. “I saw an obstacle that I thought might work, and just kind of went for it. We winged it, and it worked, landed back on the wheels, it was amazing.
“It was the highlight of my career so far.”
But it's not all fun and games. Competing can take a huge physical toll on the body. McQueen said he might not know exactly how much of a beating his body has taken until the aches and pains settle in later in life.
“Typically Mondays and Tuesdays are pretty stiff after a show, get a stiff neck and that,” he said.
Drivers’ safety gets top priority.
McQueen climbs up into the cab of Northern Nightmare over tires that stand nearly six feet tall, through a small space in the floor. He straps himself into a custom-fitted seat via a five-point harness system — two shoulder straps, two waist straps, and a strap that comes up between his legs.
“Everything gets sucked down. There are ratchets on the sides so we cinch ourselves in as tight as we can so we can hardly breathe,” he said.
His helmet is strapped by a tether to a horseshoe-shaped neck restraint, so “my head can't flop around too much side to side.”
With his helmet on, and his head movement restricted, the view from inside the cab is limited. The closest ground he can see is 25 feet in front of the truck.
“It's tunnel vision, there's no peripheral other than what your eyes can do,” he said. “If you can imagine looking through binoculars, that's basically what we see out in front of us.
“When we're on the course, we're almost driving by feel, you look up ahead and you see an obstacle, and you kind of have to plan that and know where the truck is, because it's not like a vehicle that can turn and shoulder check and see that obstacle.”
There's a fire extinguisher inside that requires just the pull of a pin.
“It would choke me out and I'd be walking out in a cloud of white dust, but it's all for safety,” McQueen said.
Greg Duclos of Thornhill, Ont., won the online naming contest with Northern Nightmare, and was presented with a replica McQueen helmet.
“Not only am I living the dream, driving a monster truck, but to do it for my country, represent all of Canada in a truck you guys built... I can't tell you how stoked I am,” McQueen told a crowd of fans and media at the truck unveiling.
The 2012 Maple Leaf Monster Jam Tour will stop in London, Ont., Jan 14-15; Toronto, Jan. 21-22; Vancouver, Feb. 4; Edmonton, Feb. 10-11; Winnipeg, March 10-11; and Halifax, June 2-3.
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