Mike Vaters has always been a gearhead. When he was in elementary school, he'd watch NASCAR races and dream of being a driver. And when other children were playing with trucks, wanted to take them apart. In middle school, he'd tinker with anything that had a motor -- a car, a truck, a lawn mower.
In high school he customized his 1982 Ford truck to look like the monster trucks he had seen on television. With its big wheels and jacked-up bumper, the Black Stallion was just the vehicle for cruising the streets of Hagerstown, Mike Vaters' hometown.
After high school, he began working full time on his family's farm. But he found the time to build a new and improved Black Stallion, one that weighed more than 10,000 pounds, had 1,200 horsepower and tires that measured 66 inches high and 43 inches deep. And he started competing in the Monster Truck Racing Association.
After eight years of trying to work the farm and compete in races, he decided to quit his job and devote himself full time to racing. Now at the age of 27, Mr. Vaters is one of the top-10 drivers in the MTRA, which puts on shows at such venues as big-city arenas and country fairs.
Mr. Vaters, his wife, Pamela, and their 4-year-old son, Mikey, live in Hagerstown. The Black Stallion stays in a garage on Mr. Vaters' father's farm.
Q: What made you decide to quit your job and pursue driving a monster truck full time? It seems like a risky thing to do.
A: I'd come home from work and there would always be something to do. It seems that you're always in there tearing up or replacing something on the truck. It got to be real time-consuming.
L Q: What's the upkeep and maintenance on something like this?
A: I'm always working on the transmission. And you have to change the oil after every race. There's always something to fiddle with. If you start ignoring the truck, you're just going to have trouble later on. It costs me about $50,000 a year to maintain the truck. We get in a lot of money, but we spend a lot of money. I might be doing good and making money and then I'll blow a motor. Those can cost about $10,000 to $15,000. I blew five motors last year. Then you can puncture a tire. Those cost about $2,500 apiece.
Q: So how do you make money?
A: When we go to shows, we sell a lot of tickets. And when we to a town, people want to come to see us. The big-name trucks are what people want to see. And of course, with some of the races there's a purse.
Q: How popular is monster truck racing?
A: It's the third-highest rated motor sport in the country. First is NASCAR, then there's drag racing. And we're kind of catching up to drag racing.
Q: When you compete, what do you do?
A: You do an exhibition, which is freestyle. You come out and hit the cars, do big wheelies and crush the cars. Then you can qualify. Then there's two lanes of cars [which the truckers drive over] to see who's the fastest. It's just like drag racing.
Q: What's the most thrilling part of racing?
A: Winning. Beating the big trucks like Bigfoot.
Q: Does driving the truck require a lot of concentration? You look at drivers on TV and it looks like they're just out there having a lot of fun.
A: We've got a lot on our minds. You have to watch the other drivers. Some courses we race on there are these walls and you have to keep away from them. And you have to keep yourself from rolling over.
Q: How dangerous is the sport?
A: For us, it's pretty safe. We have the MTRA. They have a lot of rules and regulations that we have to abide by. Like right now, you can't have a truck any lighter than 10,000 pounds. We have to cover the transmission, so if the motor blows up, you keep parts from flying. As for our driving, we're pretty safe. The only time I got hurt was when I hurt my back [bouncing around].
Q: What does your wife think of all this?
A: Oh, she likes it. She's a big fan of monster truck racing. Really, this is like a family business with my wife. We have a lot of novelties we sell -- T-shirts, hats, posters. She's in charge of that.
Q: What's next for you? How long do you think you can do this?
A: I'm building another truck. It's going to be a little bit different. It'll have a better suspension. It'll be lighter, too, so you can go faster. We're going to try to have it done by next winter. I just keep going. I don't even think about when I'll stop.