Car Culture

Monster Jam University got me muddy and airborne

I fulfilled a life-long dream of doing donuts and jumps behind the wheel of a 1,500-horsepower monster truck.

Monster Jam University is in 12-time world champion driver Tom Meents' backyard in Paxton, Illinois.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Admit it: At some point, you've totally wanted to drive a monster truck. Catching air after launching off a huge jump, whipping donuts in the mud -- these are things I've dreamed of doing for years. Lucky for me, Monster Jam University exists.

Led by 12-time world champion Tom Meents, Monster Jam University is where potential pro drivers go to learn the tricks of the trade. I'm not just talking about doing jumps, wheelies or backflips, either -- students get training in truck safety and even media relations, so they know how to give a well-spoken, post-competition interview. 

Potential students must first pass a three-day audition process. Those that are selected return for four three-day training sessions, and only if they do well are they considered for placement in a Monster Jam tour. Some years, Monster Jam may only have a few openings, so just because a student passes with flying colors doesn't mean a job offer is guaranteed.

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All of this takes place in Meents' backyard -- literally. The Professor, as he's known, has carved out both a small arena course and larger stadium circuit behind his Paxton, Illinois, home. Students practice in the same trucks they'd be driving in Monster Jam, minus all the fancy body panels.

My one-day experience starts promptly at 8:00 a.m., where I'm fitted for my truck. The crew had a seat from a past female driver shipped in so my lady figure fits correctly, and they're able to move the pedals toward me so I don't have to stretch. One head and neck restraint, helmet and a fireproof suit, shoes and gloves later, I'm ready to hit the track in my 1,500-horsepower behemoth.

Conditions for my day of learning are... less than ideal. It's raining, so the dirt has turned into super-slick mud. The 66-inch-tall BKT tires may be 43 inches wide, but they hardly have any tread on them at all. While trying to just do a simple oval around a few old tires, it's apparent that the track is -- as my mom would say -- slicker than snot on a doorknob.

Turning one of these 17-feet-long trucks requires rear-wheel steering. It's operated by a switch on a joystick where my right hand rests. This means I only have my left hand to palm the steering wheel from lock to lock. Knowing that, I wish the steering wheel had a cue ball welded to the grip -- after just a few one-handed spins, my left bicep is really feeling it.

After getting a general feel for how this thing turns, it's time for a donut. Meents calls me on the radio and tells me to just turn both the front and rear wheels to their max angles and ease onto the gas. Once the truck starts rotating, I can floor it. That sounds easy enough, but as the truck spins faster and faster, I get totally discombobulated. I want to make it stop, but hitting the brakes is a bad idea. Meents is yelling in my ear to simply lift off the throttle, but the truck is so loud I can't hear him. Next thing I know, I'm up on two wheels for a few revolutions before the whole thing dumps over on its side, pushing a ton of mud into the cabin.

I think I'm going to throw up.

Monster Jam trucks are equipped with a two-speed Powerglide transmission that puts over 1,300 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels. The final-drive ratio of one of these giants is 22:1, which gives the trucks a ton of power off the line, but top speed suffers. Of course, these trucks are all about short bursts of speed, but I still have to slam it into second gear in a mere blink of an eye.

Upside down and in the mud after a fairly enthusiastic donut.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

All of that comes into play when it's time to jump. I have to build as much speed as possible and square up with the jump, which is tough to do when the course is so slick. Finally, I have to remember to lift off the gas just before landing so I don't, you know, blow the transmission.

I've jumped my own Baja race car plenty of times, albeit maybe four feet in the air. This time, I'm going big. I hit the jump and see nothing but sky for what feels like an eternity. The truck levels off and soon drops squarely onto all four wheels. Here is where the two bypass shocks with remote reservoirs at each corner really come in handy. Yes, the impact feels like a car crash, but with over 300 psi of nitrogen in the front shocks and 400 psi at the rear, it doesn't feel half as bad as I initially expected.

Jump completed, my day of monster truckin' has come to an end, and I'm left with a huge amount of respect for Monster Jam drivers. Much like how a ballerina makes dancing look easy, the drivers make tricks like wheelies, backflips and top-wheel stops seem natural. In reality, they take incredible skill and athleticism to pull off -- not to mention a strong stomach.

Do I make this truck look good or what?

Nick Miotke/Roadshow