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Monster trucking family

When the father-and-son team of Michael Vaters Jr. and Sr. go out for a ride together, people notice.

That's what happens when what you're riding is a six-ton Monster Jam truck, complete with 60-inch tires and a steel cage where the driver's seat should be — a truck that seems to divide its time equally between being airborne and smashing other cars and trucks beneath its tonnage.

This weekend at the Baltimore Arena, the Vaterses will be joining about a half-dozen of their Monster Jam brethren for the sort of rip-snorting good time that can be realized only when massive machines go flying through the air, groaning and snorting in a sort of Transformers-like scenario. Dinosaurs may no longer rule the Earth, but these motorized beasts might be the next best thing.

Truly, the adjectives "cool" and "awesome" spring to mind. And the Vaterses, who live on a 100-acre farm in Hagerstown when they're not riding the Monster Jam circuit, admit it's a pretty impressive way to make a living.

"When you're strapped in, it feels like you're ready to go to the moon," says Michael Jr., 26, a veteran of the Motocross circuit who traded in his dirt bike for a Monster truck just two years ago. "You're in there tight as could be, you can barely breathe, you've got your steering wheel and your steer handle and your shifter and your gas pedal and brake pedal. Sometimes you get really high in the air, and you feel weightless for a while."

Agrees his dad, who's been doing this for some 30 years, "the best part is going out and just doing whatever you can to wow the crowd — almost roll it [over], do good saves, get it back up on its wheel. It just gets the crowd up on its feet."

Michael Vaters Sr. has been a monster truck man almost from the beginning. In fact, his first monster truck didn't hang out in arenas, but on the streets of Western Maryland

"I was pretty much a rebel," recalls Vaters Sr., 49. "Four-wheel drives, lifted trucks, big tires — I'd take them out on the streets, just out at night, cruising and stuff."

But then he started running afoul of state traffic ordinances.

"I had a street truck on the streets of Hagerstown," he says, "but the bumper-height laws got so strict that I either had to lower the truck or take it off the road. So I decided to take it off the road and build it into a Monster Truck. That was back in 1983."

That first truck, which Vaters named Black Stallion — it's not enough to have a cool truck on Monster Jam circles, you need a cool name, too — paved the way for more than three decades on the circuit. Over the past 30 years, Vaters has hand-crafted a succession of massive trucks, including one of the stars of the current Monster Jam, Overkill Evolution (which is such a star, it even has its own Facebook page).

In Baltimore this weekend, Vaters Sr. will be piloting Black Stallion, while Vaters Jr. will be strapped-in atop Overkill Evolution. Both are the proud products of Hagerstown-based Vaters' Monster Motorsports.

"We build everything," Vaters Sr. says with pride. "Everything's custom-built — fiberglass bodies, repairs, we do a tremendous amount of stuff in-house."

Including, apparently, raising the next generation of monster-truck drivers. Vaters Jr. started off as a Motocross racer — "I'd pretty much given up on him," his dad says wryly — but eventually decided the trucks were more his style.

"I was riding the dirt bike and driving the monster in the same show," Vaters Jr. says. "It was just too much on me, and I had to pick one or the other."

What was the deciding factor? Here's a hint: Ask Vaters Sr. if he's ever been hurt driving his Black Stallion, and he says not really. The modern fiberglass bodies, plus the reinforced roll cages designed to protect riders even when airborne or otherwise doing what normal trucks don't do, have made monster trucks pretty safe. "We've got such protection," he says. "We got seats that are just incredible, the way we're strapped in and the various harnesses and stuff."

Ask Vaters Jr. about being hurt in Motocross, and prepare to be horrified. "Oh yeah, I've spent some time in the hospital," he says. "I've collapsed both my lungs, fractured my shin, chipped a chest cavity, concussions, separated shoulder…"

Making Monster Jams safe hasn't made them any less spectacular. Or popular, as the thousands of rabid, screaming fans who show up to cheer on their favorite trucks can attest.

"We were in Reliant Stadium in Houston a couple weeks ago. It was a full house, they brought 60,000 people in. It's right up there with NASCAR now. I see Monster Jam being the top motor sport one day."

 

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

 

If you go

Monster Jam rolls into the Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., Feb. 28-March 2. Shows are set for 7:30 Feb. 28, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. March 1 and 2 p.m. March 2. Tickets are $20-$60. There are "Pit Parties" scheduled for 11 a.m.-12:45 p.m. March 1 and March 2 at additional cost. Information: baltimorearena.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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