Mike Vaters sounds tired as he recounts his life story, which is understandable given the circumstances, but a little sad, since it's pretty much the most awesome life story this side of a guy from Seal Team 6. "By the time I got my monster truck I was 19," Vaters says, telling how he tore apart a perfectly new 1982 Ford pickup truck and transformed it—TV in the dashboard, four-wheel steering—before the wondering eyes of his father, who ran the family farm near Hagerstown and worked the railroad. "Back then he thought I was crazy to throw all this money at a vehicle… but after a while he knew I wasn't gonna change my mind. He knew it wasn't a phase." And so as the truck—Vaters named it "Black Stallion"--got taller, bigger, less and less street legal, "finally he says OK, you need some tires, let's get them." Vaters' dad took him to an outlet that stocked tires for a factory-farm-sized fertilizer sprayer and shelled out $10,000 for the set for his 19-year-old son. This was in 1984. A couple months later "Black Stallion" joined "Big Foot" and the half-dozen other monster trucks on tour. On Friday Mike Vaters and his own son, Mike Jr. will bring not one but four monster trucks to the "Monster Jam" at the Baltimore (formerly known as First Mariner) Arena for
(Sunday Sunday!) Vaters is among the top ranks of the sport of Monster Trucking. He is a seven time USHRA Thunder Nationals champion, five time USHRA World Finalist, six time Monster Spectacular champion and he finished third in freestyle competition out of the 20 best trucks in the country at the televised 2005 Monster Jam World Finals in Las Vegas. He also helped the sport grow up from its humble, early '80s beginnings as an adjunct to the ten-dominant tractor pulls and mud-bog races. "It was more of a little country boy deal," he says. "Now it's definitely getting big, and is a good opportunity for corporate America… millions and millions of kids follow it now. It's a culture. You got to an elementary school and ask the class how many watch NASCAR, and maybe a couple of hands raise. You ask how many watch monster trucks, almost all hands raise." For readers who have never seen a monster truck (perhaps because you were born last Tuesday, or just woke up from a cocaine-and-disco-induced coma that began in 1978, or are legally blind) they are exactly like any ordinary pickup truck, mini-van, and surplus WWII Army tank you might pass on the street every day, except you need an eight-foot step ladder to get into the cab and they have 100 times the horsepower and 1,000 times the testosterone. A monster truck's only job is to run over piles of junked cars. Well, and also to perform "freestyle maneuvers." They are scored in this activity by judges, who determine the artfulness of the maneuvers much the same way an Olympic figure skating judge does with Gracie Gold. OK, three jobs: they also race head to head, and jump over cars. And jump over each other. So what's that? Five jobs? That is a move—jumping over the other guy's monster truck—that Mike Vaters innovated in 1999. Repeat: Mike Vaters's job is to climb into a 13-foot-high, 13,000-pound vehicle he welded together himself and use it to jump over another 13-foot-high vehicle while thousands of people video it with their cell phones. And then Vaters' job is to weld his vehicle back together the next morning. Hence the tiredness. He answered our questions gamely.
Why the name "Black Stallion?"
MV: I always like horses. The truck was all black originally. I like stallion. I like black. It just kind of came to me cruising through town.
How did you first get into the competition tour?
MV: Back then it was the USHRA [United States Hot Rod Association], now it's called Monster Jam. I sent my press package and they hired me on a couple shows… we toured around, did a lot of displays and things. Back then it was tractor pulls.
CP: You built a monster school bus called "Higher Education." Do you still run that?
MV: Yes. We'll have all four [of our monster vehicles] at Baltimore this weekend.
Do you do all your own fabrication work still?
MV: We do a big percentage of it in our shop. We do axle housings, frames, a lot of this is for budget reasons. I'm actually in the welding shop now repairing a rim we messed up on [Mike Jr.'s "Overkill] Evolution."
How big is your shop?
MV: The old shop was about 32 x 50… the new one is 80 x 50.
How many people on staff?
MV: You'd be surprised—only four or five.
Do all the monster teams build everything in-house or are there key suppliers for some monster parts?
MV: A lot of teams build their own everything. The corporate guys have a more a well oiled machine.
What were the big turning points in the sport over the past 30 years?
MV: When we started racing them side by side—the suspensions had to get a lot better—that was in the early-mid 1990s.
CP: You invented a special shock absorber with 36-inch travel, so the trucks can jump farther. Describe?
MV: I just kind of built one (shock) with longer travel—it had an external bypass so you could make adjustments for the shocks. What I did was I went out west to talk to some of the off road racers, and they were helpful. What it was, we started getting hurt in the trucks. We had people breaking their backs. Fortunately, I didn't ever get hurt.
You get a patent for that?
CP: In a typical year, how many weeks a year are you on the road.
You're going to be 50 this year, correct? Any birthday plans?
MV: Just trying to stay healthy. Keep our faith in God. Keep everybody healthy. Keep going down the road.