In the right hands, a monster truck can look graceful. You see a truck launch off some improbable obstacle—say, a ramp built atop a school bus—soar 60 feet in the air and land with nary a thud, its phalanx of remote-reservoir shocks compressing through what appears to be a yard of travel. Monster trucks these days almost look forgiving, a far cry from the creaky leaf-sprung contraptions I worshiped as a kid. Well, appearances can be deceiving, as you’ll find out firsthand a couple seconds after you launch six tons of Bigfoot into the air. The HANS device strapped to your helmet is about to get real important.
Bigfoot? Yes, that Bigfoot. The one you might’ve delighted in as a kid, the preeminent monster truck of the 1980s. This is Bigfoot’s 40th anniversary, and the latest machine—wearing a Raptor-esque body and retro stripes—is the 21st iteration of the truck. Despite four decades of advances in monster truck design, the new truck still has a strong connection to the agricultural industry, wearing tires designed for a fertilizer spreader and ZF axles borrowed from front-wheel-drive European tractors. Unsprung weight was maybe not the prime consideration in the build. Deploying 1,730 extremely violent horsepower requires some robust components.
Team Bigfoot, to its everlasting credit, decided to let me drive this towering, expensive, Hellcat-quick mountain of truck. We’re at the dirt track at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the infield will soon be the setting for some car-crushing mayhem. (The best monster truck shows are the outdoor ones, where the drivers have room to unchain the beasts.) I can’t crush any cars—they need them for tonight—but a jump or two? Sure. Bigfoot’s driver, Dan Runte, gives me a tutorial to explain the procedure.
The cab of the truck is filled with a daunting array of knobs, toggles and levers, but the fundamentals are familiar. There’s a gas pedal, a brake pedal and a two-speed B&M ratchet shifter. And of course there’s a steering wheel, but that’s only responsible for half of your steering. The other 50 percent is controlled from a toggle switch to your right, which activates the rear-wheel steering. After completing a turn, the driver can push a button to manually re-center the rear axle. Or you can set it up to automatically center as soon as you let off the button. I request that mode. Steering different axles with each hand will be difficult enough, and there are other concerns.
Like the landing. “You’ve got to pay attention to where the rear tires are on the jump,” Runte says. “Stay on the throttle until the rear tires get airborne, because if you back off early it’ll do a nosedive.” Also: pay attention to the temperature gauge, because once it gets past about 210 degrees it goes straight to boilover. Push in the alcohol knob to lean it out before killing the ignition. And remember that the accelerator pedal is connected to a whole lot of power.”
With the engine off, I push through the arc of pedal travel to get a feel for it. Runte grins and says, “If you go that wide, you’re gonna be hauling the mail!” He’s extremely good-natured about handing his truck over to someone who might quickly prove massively unqualified for a Bigfoot test-drive. That’s why Runte holds the remote kill switch that’ll shut down the action if Bigfoot roams beyond my skill set.
I turn on the fuel, fire the ignition and the 575-cubic-inch blown V-8 crackles to life behind me. I take a couple passes back and forth to get a feel for the brakes, throttle and rear-wheel steering. Every control input results in comically exaggerated action. Squeeze the throttle even modestly and the truck squats back on its suspension and flings itself forward in an eruption of noise and dust. Hit the brakes and the nose dives like it’s about to do an endo. Cornering, at least at low speeds, is cake. With the rear axle cranking in countersteer, Bigfoot feels like it has the turning radius of a Yaris. I line up the jump, nail the gas and feel the truck briefly depart the shackles of the earth. It felt like a weak jump, but hey: I just jumped a monster truck. Cross that off the list.
I pull over to talk to Runte about my technique, or lack thereof. He points at the jump and says, “When I told you to hit that one, I meant from the other direction. From the steep side.” Ohh… I’d approached from the gentle side of the slope, because from the other direction it just looked like I’d be driving into a wall. But if that’s what Bigfoot’s ace driver thinks I should try, then let’s do it.
I head back out, clench jaw and buttocks and line up the jump. The front tires hit and I goose the throttle, peering down through the translucent floor to get a sense of when the rear tires go airborne. My every impulse is to back off the throttle, but I stay in it until Bigfoot, all 12,000 pounds of it, is pointed skyward. Now, this is the point where a pro would wait half a moment and then give it a big throttle blip, spinning those huge tires to keep the nose up. I just completely back off the gas and enjoy the ride, savoring the weightlessness as the truck scribes its arc above the Charlotte dirt. It’s not a huge jump, but this one’s respectable.
At least, half of it is. There’s a second where the truck is level and I think, “It would be good to land now,” but we’re still well airborne and the nose is losing altitude. Oh oh.
So, the HANS device: it connects your helmet to the seat, such that you can only move your head a few inches. And boy am I glad for that, because when the front tires hit the ground, the object in motion (my skull) tries to remain in motion until the HANS straps put the kibosh on Isaac Newton’s prank yoga move. I still feel like I’ve been rabbit-punched in the larynx. That was violent! I turn around and do it again.
Somehow I return Runte’s truck with the same number of wheels that it started with. He seems glad about that. I’m shaking from the adrenaline rush of what just happened. When I was a kid, I thought Bigfoot was possibly the coolest truck on the planet. Now I’m sure of it.