Taming the Monster Trucks

What's it like to drive a pickup truck that weighs more than five tons, has tires that are 66 inches tall, and can fly (well, almost)? Ask Dan Runte, who drives Bigfoot, the world's original "monster" truck.

Runte's job is to crush cars, jump over them, pop "wheelies," and fire up thousands of fans. People flock to see him drive his Tonka truck through a Matchbox world.

There are between 200 and 300 monster trucks in the United States today. They roar through mud and crunch junked cars at fairs and jamborees across the country.

But did you know that monster trucks can fly? Last month, Bigfoot roared up a ramp and flew through the air over 24 cars lined up door-to-door. That set a new world's record of 144 feet, 10 inches. That's almost half a football field!

Call them 'Bigfeet'

Here's something else I bet you didn't know: There is more than one "Bigfoot." There are 15 of them, in fact, and No. 16 is being built. Only seven of them race, though. The others are "show trucks" that travel the world. Bigfoot has appeared in Wales and even in New Zealand. Monster trucks have fans everywhere.

Eli Mann of Bethel, Maine, is one of them. He's got Bigfoot posters, even Bigfoot engine parts hanging from the walls of his bedroom. His favorite part of Bigfoot is the sound it makes.

"You watch," Mann says, pointing to Runte getting ready to back Bigfoot out of its trailer. "He'll turn that thing on, and it'll rumble your chest cavity."

Rumble it did. Bigfoot thundered louder than a gym full of jackhammers. That much noise means power. Lots of it.

The 572 cubic-inch, 1,200-horsepower engine can make the 10,200-pound truck go more than 80 miles an hour. ("Cubic inches" tells how big the piston chambers are. It would take 572 cubic inches of liquid -2-1/2 gallons -to fill up Bigfoot's eight cylinders.)

Bigfoot burns racing fuel - methanol. Monster trucks use two or three gallons of fuel for every 250-foot run. That's about 50 gallons to the mile - not miles per gallon.

To get to the driver's seat, you have to climb up inside the body. The doors don't open. (In fact, the doors, bed, headlights - even the license plate - are all painted fiberglass. It's lighter, and easy to repair if it gets crunched.)

Driving Bigfoot is tricky. The front and rear wheels must be steered separately. The steering wheel directs only the front wheels. And the driver must keep his other hand on the gearshift. So how do you steer the rear wheels? There's a little switch on the gearshift handle that steers the back wheels. That way, you can shift and steer at the same time.

Before a monster-truck race, drivers walk the course and are briefed on the rules of the track. Once they've climbed into their trucks and are at the starting line, there's one more safety check. Drivers must take their hands off the controls while someone tests the "remote ignition interrupter." All monster trucks have them. The devices can turn off the truck's engine by remote control. That's so the truck's engine can be stopped quickly if there's an accident.

After the race, it's freestyle time. Drivers throw gravel, pop wheelies, crush cars, and make lots of noise.

You have to love driving monster trucks if that's what you do for a living, because you drive a lot. You may be on the road 200 days out of 365. You'll work about 36 weekends a year. And you'll probably be driving the tractor-trailer rig that hauls the monster truck from event to event, too.

How one man created a monster

Whose foot is Bigfoot named after? Bob Chandler's. Mr. Chandler was a construction worker who liked to drive four-wheel-drive vehicles on weekends. He kept having problems, though. He would break axles and other engine parts. When he asked a friend what he was doing wrong, his friend told him, "It's because of your big foot!" His friend thought he was driving too fast. The name stuck.

Soon, Chandler started an off-road driving business. He kept beefing up his truck, making it taller, more powerful - and with bigger tires.

One day in 1981, just for fun, Chandler hauled some junked cars into a cornfield and drove over them in his souped-up truck. When a promoter friend saw the video of the event, he knew it would be a crowd-pleaser. Bigfoot was born. It made its debut in front of a crowd of 82,000 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., on Oct. 8, 1982.

Breaking axles isn't as easy as it used to be. Bigfoot's axles are made in Germany. Or they may come from farm tractors, school buses, or forklifts. Eight full-time mechanics maintain the fleet.

To drive Bigfoot, you must be 25 years old and have a commercial driver's license. You must be in good physical shape and know about auto mechanics, electrical systems, and metal fabrication before you'll even be considered for the crew. And if you make it, there's still a two-year apprenticeship before you're on your own.

So what's the best part about driving a monster truck? "Probably the fans," Runte says. "Especially the kids."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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