Skip to main content
road rush

Monster trucks don't have doors. To get up to the cockpit, you climb up through the truck's steel frame tubes, like a roughneck scaling an oilrig.

It isn't easy - you twist, you curse and finally you arrive at the driver's seat, a bare metal shell surrounded by pipes, gauges and an ominous-looking lever that resembles a dynamite plunger from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

This will not be a typical drive: The cockpit is 2 ½ meters in the air, and there are clear panels in the floor that let you see where you're going when the truck rears up on its hind wheels in a giant wheelie - a manoeuvre that happens a lot, thanks to the 1,500-horsepower engine. The gas pedal has a hook that goes over your toes, so you can pull it back if the throttle jams - if not, the truck has enough power to launch itself four stories into the air.

VIDEO: Wearing a fireproof suit and a racing helmet, Peter Cheney takes a 1500-horsepower school bus-jumping truck for a spin

Just in case, there's a Hail Mary backup - an assistant will stand by the track with a remote kill switch that can shut off the truck if you're knocked unconscious. But if that doesn't work, all bets are off.

These were some of the lessons I absorbed as I prepared to drive the Black Stallion, a champion monster truck with a lurid paint job and a price tag somewhere north of $250,000.

"Don't crash," warned Mike Vaters, Black Stallion's builder and driver. "I don't have a spare truck."

When I decided to test drive a monster truck, I had no idea how hard it would be. I spent months calling teams like Gravedigger and Bigfoot, but none of them were interested in letting an amateur pilot their costly, high-powered show truck.

Then came Vaters, a Maryland-based monster truck competitor, and a good sport. We were on - if I showed up at the Montreal's Olympic Stadium on the appointed day with a fireproof suit and a racing helmet, I could drive the Black Stallion.

Now the time had arrived, and I was a little spooked. Olympic Stadium looked a scene from The Terminator: wrecked cars and decommissioned school buses were being heaped into huge metal piles, and hundreds of tons of special dirt had been trucked in. Earth-moving machines were sculpting all this into ramps that could launch a monster truck higher than the stadium's first section of stands.

I have driven everything from Formula cars to an NHL Zamboni, but the Black Stallion was intimidating. Up close, it exuded sheer mechanical menace, looming over me like an otherworldly juggernaut. The wheels came up to my chin, and there were eight shock absorbers, each the size and shape of a bazooka.

I climbed up into the cockpit and trussed myself into the six-part seatbelt system, which was equipped with ratcheting devices that tightened the belts down so hard that I could barely breathe. This was essential: If I got the Stallion high in the air and came down wrong, immobilization would be the key to survival. "You know that little paddle and ball toy?" Vaters asked. "You don't want to be the ball."

Earlier that day, I watched Vaters and his fellow competitors make some practice runs. The trucks laid down walls of terrifying sound, and flew off the jumps like battle tanks running a mogul course.

Vaters explained the physics of a monster truck jump. Ideally, you land at a shallow angle, with plenty of forward motion, like an Olympic ski jumper gently touching down on the outrun slope. But sometimes the trajectory goes bad - you get launched straight up, stop, then plunge back down from the height of a four-storey building.

"The only thing that can save you is the truck," Vaters says. "It bends. It breaks. But if your belts aren't tight, you'll die."

Now I was on my own. I pulled out the T-shaped fuel handle and flicked the start switch. The supercharged V-8 engine raged into life, thundering through its unmuffled exhaust stubs. I punched the gas pedal, and the Stallion exploded forward - this thing was fast!

I headed for a pile of dirt that had a school bus buried beneath it. Because I was sitting so high in the air, the cab pitched backward, then forward as I rolled over the hump, like a phone booth mounted on top of a swaying telephone pole.

Before my drive, Vaters had showed me the four-wheel steering system, which allows for special tricks. A little toggle switch allowed me to turn the back wheels. I gave it a try, and the Stallion suddenly darted sideways, like six-ton tennis player reaching for a ball. My life flashed before my eyes, but I stayed in control. I flicked the switch the other way and cranked the steering wheel - the Stallion pirouetted, its front and back wheels aimed in opposite directions. This would take some getting used to.

IN PICTURES: In a typical season, a monster truck competitor may break more than $200,000 worth of equipment. "Everyone loves watching it."

Now it was time for a jump. I was too scared to try a huge leap like the ones Vaters and his fellow competitors do in competition, but I wanted some air under the Stallion's wheels. I gunned it toward one of the humps, wondering how high I'd go. Vaters had told me the secret of controlling a monster truck's flight path was to use the rotational energy of the giant wheels. If you gun the throttle as you fly, it raises the truck's nose. If you tap the brakes, the nose goes down. Or was it the other way around?

Discretion was the better part of valour - I backed off the gas and took the jump slower than I initially planned. I did get into the air, but only a couple of feet. Even so, it was terrifying - as I touched down, the Stallion slewed like a drunken sailor, and I prayed that I wouldn't roll and destroy Vaters' truck.

Monster truck racing is not for the faint of heart. In a typical season, a monster truck competitor like Vaters may break more than $200,000 worth of equipment - blown motors, ripped-off axles, bent frames and crushed body shells are all standard when you launch a 12,000-pound truck several stories into the air at highway speed. The top teams in the sport, like Gravedigger and Bigfoot, have the biggest budgets, thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals, and can afford more crowd-pleasing crashes.

"They don't mind busting stuff," Vaters says. "Everyone loves watching it."

Monster trucks follow a few general themes. Macho names like Black Stallion, Rammunition and Uncle Slam are perennial favourites, but some drivers have also experimented with cartoon personae - like the Monster Mutt, which resembles a giant, floppy-eared dog. Weirdest of all is a lobster-shaped truck from Maine called the CrushStation - the driver sits inside the head, looking out through a pair of giant fibreglass claws that have a yellow rubber band wrapped around them.

These cartoon trucks have proven amazingly popular, largely because preteen children are a core element of the monster truck scene. "To succeed in monster truck, you've got yourself into the mind of a seven-year-old kid," says Trey Meyers, the driver of a truck named Iron Warrior.

As I tooled around the stadium in the Black Stallion, I could see his point. Bounding over dirt humps and crushing cars took me back to my childhood. As a grown-up, I generally don't think about doing wheelies over school buses. But when you're at the wheel of the Black Stallion, they are practically de rigueur. Why else would there be a windshield in the floor?

My time was up. I pulled off the track and flicked the kill switch - the V-8 fell silent and I realized that my ears would probably ring for the next several days.

IN PICTURES: In a typical season, a monster truck competitor may break more than $200,000 worth of equipment. "Everyone loves watching it."

VIDEO: Wearing a fireproof suit and a racing helmet, Peter Cheney takes a 1500-horsepower school bus-jumping truck for a spin