Jim Koehler is a veteran of the monster truck industry who started in the industry owning a monster truck dedicated to his father, who raced dragsters under the same name, to winning the 2003 Freestyle World Championship. His two-truck team also includes Chris Bergeron’s Brutus. “Mr. Excitement” is known for his wild freestyles and personality, and is constantly running Avenger and Brutus all over the nation as an independent. Koehler is currently working on a new chassis for Avenger, and was kind enough to take time out and speak with us. We thank him for his time.
Robert Haught – How has the summer been for you and your team?
Jim Koehler – It’s been probably one of the best we’ve had. We’ve had a few problems–blew an engine up in Brutus, and had a few problems with my truck, but for the most part we’ve been to the semis or finals in most places, and kicking some butt in freestyle, just having a blast. If there’s a Digger, Bigfoot, or Raminator, we’re still showing them that even though we have an old truck, we can hammer it pretty hard.
The shocks are working better than they ever have; the truck’s landing great. I’m ecstatic with the way things are going and I can’t wait to get the new truck done because it’s built a ton stronger and everything is better on it, so it will make everything that much nicer.
RH – What changes and ideas will you be implementing from the old truck to the new one?
JK – There’s a lot of new chassis stuff I did. A lot of stuff is similar just for parts, like the four link bars, drive shafts, and things like that being the same length. We’ll still run a 400 transmission, and the motor will be in the same place front-to-back. Everything will be a bit lower, axles are built stronger, and so is the chassis. We used a lot more 188 and 155-wall tubing to make it thicker, instead of 120.
The chassis itself is narrower but the cage is wider, so it fits the body like a glove. We’ll have less problems with the mounts and body coming loose. I’ll have more visibility in the seat for things like slap wheelies. We learned a lot before this chassis building two other trucks and saw where we made our mistakes. Even with this truck, we learned stuff that’ll be better on the next one. We make our own spindles now, knuckles, tons of parts of ours that are just bullet-proof. We’re trying to make the trucks so that they’ll last without breakage through the whole show, and have good parts on them so they’ll perform well.
RH – References have been made on some television broadcasts to the “exciting but short” aspect of some of your team’s runs this year in freestyle. Is this something that you have been trying to change lately?
JK – Well, Brutus has had problems with that more than me this year. I’ve had some shows where I’ve gone out there and tried to hit it too big too soon, but for me, I just try to do all my freestyles the same, just go, and hit it hard. The announcers have been saying that more about Brutus lately because lately my truck’s been making the whole freestyle run more; we’ve made it more dependable. Sometimes Chris hits the beginning stuff a little too hard, and we’ve been working with him, trying to get the throttle rhythm and little stuff down. He knows about it, but he gets out there and wants to have fun and wants to give it the power it has, and that hurts him sometimes because it takes him out early.
As a team it reflects on both of us, but he’s learning through the summer what he needs to do to make the freestyle last longer, so that come wintertime when we’re doing the TV stuff, he can be out there for more than 10 or 20 seconds; he can do a full 90 and make it happen.
I have to use my head a little more on some of the big hits, like Vegas. Instead of hitting the stack that flipped me, I should have turned, but once you’re committed, you have to stab the throttle and go. If I would have turned and done some more hits, then came back to that as time was ending, I would have had a much higher score and it would have been a better freestyle for me. I left that place happy, so it really didn’t matter, but it’s nice to win!
RH – That was a point I wanted to make, that people may think you are only out there to tear things up. During the summer it seemed that you and Chris were both focusing on smarter freestyle runs.
JK – Right. You have to freestyle smarter if you wanna make it live; the truck has to be tougher. We’re trying to get the best of both–as the trucks are getting tougher and you freestyle smarter, you can turn it up a notch and freestyle a little more crazy again.
We just go out there and drive to have fun, so we’re not really thinking about, “OK, I have to make 90 seconds,” or, “I better not break.” We’re going to do what gets us excited to do what we do, driving. If I’m not having fun, then why am I doing it? I’m not gonna go out there and make a bunch of lame hits just to last the 90 seconds. If the truck can handle it, the people get a good show; if not, then they get a short, but good show.
There is technique to hitting some of the bigger obstacles where the truck will land better, and we have the trucks dialed in so they’ll do better. Working with the shocks and some of that stuff may make it look like we toned it down, but the trucks are actually just taking the abuse better.
RH – What do you see in the future for Team Avenger and Brutus? Do you have short and long-term goals, say, for one year or five years down the road?
JK – Oh, it’s always long-term. We’re still trying to have fun, and to have two very dependable trucks that are top-notch. Both our trucks are pretty abused already; Chris’ isn’t as old as mine, but we built it lighter-duty than we built mine. Chris had the mud-drag mentality and wanted to be light and fast, so it made for a lot of rebuilding, and we learned a lot from that.
As far as the new trucks, our long-term goal is to try and get a four-truck team going, and have two of the most dependable, fastest trucks out there so that we can win races, and rock in freestyle instead of just freestyle being good.
It takes a long time to make all that stuff; we’re trying to make a lot of our own parts from scratch. Just doing the parts ourselves is a full-time job, let alone taking care of the trucks already running, the trailer, the hauler, and having a regular job. It’s tough, but that’s what we’re working on, to turn it into more of a Pablo Huffaker-style operation where it’s top-notch equipment and everything looks nice. That’s the long-term plan.
RH – You spoke of building your own parts in-house. Is the plan to build those for other teams too, or is it just for your team?
JK – No, the plan is definitely to sell it to other people. I do offer a spindle right now to other people, fiberglass stuff, I could do chassis but I’m not really taking any chassis orders until my new one is 100%.
I think what we’re gonna do is just build a bunch of chassis our style, and have the basic frame ready, so if someone says, “Hey, I want to buy one,” they can send us their body, we make the chassis fit the body, and send it down the road. We make our own knuckles; I designed them more for Clear Channel-style trucks, or Dan Patrick-built trucks, so that they can fit everyone’s truck instead of the way mine is.
We had to change our steering on our trucks to work with these knuckles so they work like everybody else’s, and they can be marketed to everyone else. If I can do all monster truck stuff and sell it to other people, then I can spend all my time in my shop doing monster truck stuff, work a half day on my truck and a half day on other peoples’ stuff and not have to work another job, that’d be sweet.
RH – That was another point I wanted to make. A lot of people think that you just do monster trucks for a living, and that isn’t true. You have a full-time job at a marina you work at in addition to all this. Does this wear on you a lot?
JK – Yeah, big-time, I mean, people don’t realize our hours, but Chris and I both work regular jobs, so at eight or nine o’clock in the morning, we’re at our regular jobs. Once we get out of the regular jobs, then about five or six o’clock, we go home and spend time with our families, put the kids in bed at nine or nine-thirty, then go out in the shop by ten, and you’re out there until four in the morning, you get three hours of sleep, then go back to work the next day.
It wears on you; it gets really bad sometimes. Then when you have a show that’s 24 hours away and you have to leave Thursday night after work late and drive 24 hours straight to get to the show because you don’t want to miss a lot of work, yeah, it wears on you pretty heavily.
RH – It just sounds like a grind, and you sound tired at times.
JK – Oh yeah, there’s times where it takes a lot to get Mr. Excitement excited I guess (laughs). It’s pretty weird to say that, but it gets tiring trying to do as much stuff as you can. The trucks are getting older, and to keep my truck doing what I do is more of a job now than it was three or four years ago.
Now, it’s every weekend we’re searching the chassis for cracks and breaks. It’s not that it isn’t built well, it’s just eight or nine years old, it’s fatigued, and can only take the abuse so long. I abuse it. I didn’t build it to drive around like a sissy, I built it to beat the heck out of it, and that’s what I’m gonna do with it.
RH – If Team Avenger and Brutus had a philosophy, what would it be?
Steve Koehler (in background) – Git-R-Done!
JK – Actually, that’s about it, it’s heavily used, but that’s about where we stand, you know, have fun with it. Do what you can and have fun. It’s just parts, nothing that can’t be fixed. As long as you’re not hurting your body, just let it fly, man, let it happen!