Expect lots of casualties, and not just the 3,000 cars, vans, buses, motor homes, ambulances and even airplanes that are crushed each year at Monster Jam® events, but also the supercharged and methanol-injected trucks themselves. Veteran driver Carl Van Horn knows, even before he straps himself into the 10,000 pound behemoth known as Grave Digger, that its hand-painted graveyard themed body is doomed.
“Each body is $11,000 to produce, and we'll destroy the thing in two minutes for the fans,” says Van Horn, though the chassis will live to see another day. “[We get] new bodies with each show. Sometimes we can get a body to last two weekends or three weekends.”
With its funereal black base, neon green flames, and Grim Reaper death stare, the truck's paint job is a fan favorite. “It definitely is a totally different character than any other truck, it has own unique paint scheme, one of the few still hand-painted,” says Van Horn.
The inevitable destruction is the main reason that fans should attend the Party in the Pits beforehand, when the trucks are still “shiny and new.” The sheer scale becomes apparent when a pint-sized kid stands next to a 66-inch tall tire supporting a 12-foot tall truck.
“[We'll be] taking photographs, signing autographs. The kids look up to us,” says Van Horn. “It's bigger than life to them, and you can see it on their faces at the pit party.”
The Grave Digger trucks (there are nine in all, so they can cover more events) have “the biggest fan support” and the team is “pumped up on adrenaline on a higher level than any other driver,” says Van Horn. “There's a big rivalry with Grave Diggers and other trucks, because we've been the most popular truck for so many years, everybody's trying to take us down."
Each truck is about 12 feet wide and 20 feet in length. The average truck goes through about five engines a year, each of them costing $50,000 to replace. In spite of its 10,000 pound weight, the trucks are built for speed and can race up to 100 miles per hour, flying up to 130 feet – a distance greater than 14 cars side by side – and up to 35 feet in the air. With stats like that, it's easy to see how a typical truck can cost $600,000 per year to build, staff, compete, transport and maintain.
We wonder, what's going through Van Horn's mind in those final moments before he enters the stadium. “It's usually, when I'm sitting there, most of the time Grave Digger goes out last, and I see all the other trucks go out, and when I see something really cool or death defying, I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to top it,” says Van Horn. “It may be hitting the obstacle at another angle, or faster, to make it more spectacular, and hope for the best and rely on driver instinct to pull it off.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Being last can also be hazardous, as there is often wreckage on the field by the time Grave Digger goes out. “Sometimes with Monster Jam's efforts to keep the show within a certain time frame, there could be two or three trucks rolled over in an awkward position, so they'll leave it out there, and that presents a new obstacle. I usually try to find out different ways to jump those, too.”
So, is there a “scariest moment” for Van Horn, who began competing in 2002? “Probably years ago at West Lebanon Speedway in New York where I was going for the win in the race, huge air and a lot of speed, in the air the truck got sideways, it tumbled forever it seemed like, and I was just along for the ride,” says Van Horn. “I didn't have time to be scared at the moment, that's the worst crash I've ever seen. The engine was four inches farther back.”
As for driving around town during the week, Van Horn leaves his fire resistant suit and racing helmet at home. “Actually, driving a Monster Jam truck has calmed me down from my ways of driving on the street. I respect. When I'm in my rental car I'm doing the speed limit; I know I'm going to get to take it out at Monster Jam.”
Party in the Pits is at noon January 24; and 2:30 p.m. January 23 and February 6. Monster Jam is 4 p.m. January 24; and 7 p.m. January 23 and February 6. NRG Stadium, 1 NRG Park. For information, call 800-745-3000 or visit monsterjam.com. $10 to $100.