Hello and welcome to another edition of Starting Line! After a long hiatus, we’re glad to have some fresh thoughts for you, the reader in this column. The topic on most fans’ minds at the moment is the upcoming ninth Monster Jam World Finals, and this is a column previewing it, but with a twist—instead of making predictions or assumptions as most writers tend to, I wanted a different approach.
Below are the trucks and drivers that will be participating in the event, and a simple set of comments, observations, or interesting notes about each. My observations take into account both past and current performances, and I assume that every truck goes without breakage for consistency’s sake (“If the equipment holds up” is assumed). I feel that it’s relatively futile to predict the outcome of an event like this with so much parity and so many great drivers, so take a look at these observations, and hopefully you will enjoy a different perspective on the upcoming Vegas event:
Truck Name (Driver Name)-All photos are courtesy of Robert Haught unless otherwise noted.
Air Force Afterburner (Damon Bradshaw)-Bradshaw has great throttle rhythm from the events I’ve seen him at, especially in freestyle. He isn’t afraid of airing the truck out, and whether or not the new bonus and super bonus time is allowed in freestyle will make a difference in his score. He ran for a good four minutes in freestyle last year, and I’d expect the same from him again.
Avenger (Jim Koehler)-The only driver besides Tom Meents to compete in every Vegas event, Koehler is in Vegas for one thing—freestyle! Another special “Vegas-only” body is in the works from Team Scream’s stable, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be trashed out by the end of the night if Jim has anything to say about it. Koehler has had a few early flips in Vegas recently, but he has also turned in some stellar performances. If Koehler waits until a few minutes into his freestyle run to be hard on equipment, he could walk away a two-time champion and not many people would be surprised.
Batman (John Seasock)-Seasock had some “gimme” races on the way to his World Racing Championship last year, but he was consistent all night, and if the cards fall right, that’s all it takes. He has top-notch equipment and a great crew to go along with his previous experience in Sudden Impact, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Seasock make a return trip to the final four of racing. He’s put up solid freestyle runs all season and has had some nice scores in Vegas without trashing the truck in the past. With a company budget, though, he can go all-out. It will be interesting to see what he can do without early breakage this year in freestyle.
(photo by Dustin Hart)
Black Stallion (Mike Vaters)-Vaters’ mindset is more on freestyle than racing. After speaking with him in an interview for MonsterJamOnline.com, I learned that the truck is getting a lot of attention in preparation for the event. Vaters seems calm and determined after a two-year absence from the Finals. He has always put up solid runs with at least one spectacular moment (he nearly won at World Finals 3). I see a driver with confidence in his equipment that is also prepared for whatever obstacles may be on the course, which bodes well for the Black Stallion team.
Blue Thunder (Linsey Weenk)-Weenk started out the year very strong, and has had a lull in success lately, but this is a big opportunity for him. As Tony Farrell pointed out in another interview, Linsey no longer has to worry about being reigned in freestyle-wise, and is a top-shelf racer. Last year, he had one of the best freestyles that didn’t end up with a rollover. Representing the Ford camp will be big pressure, but Weenk has shown he’s up to it representing Checker-Shuck’s-Kragen in the past. His motivation to prove himself outside of Jimmy Creten’s camp could take him to the top this season
Bounty Hunter (Jim Creten)-Creten’s reputation for “never winning the big one” will be broken, and I see it happening sooner rather than later. He seems extra-motivated this year with the departure of Weenk and the addition of Kreg Christenson in his place. The move has been pretty good for both parties, but Creten’s made no mistake about the fact that he’d “given (Linsey) everything” and that the move didn’t sit well. That said, Creten has had a great season in racing (second to only Meents in televised round wins) and is one of the most efficient and technically sound freestylers in the sport. A rash of bad luck freestyle-wise the past two years has overshadowed the fact that Creten is every bit as much a player for another freestyle title as he is for his first racing victory.
Captain’s Curse (Alex Blackwell)-Blackwell is the man with the huge target on his back by virtue of being in the freestyle championship truck. This is really the first year that Blackwell has been given a chance to run with a bit less regard for equipment, and he was able to take a freestyle win in Minneapolis, among other places. I see Blackwell as a wild card here. If he handles the pressure and runs as hard as he has all season, he’ll finish high in both competitions. If not, he was a Vegas rookie, and in a weird way, everything and nothing is expected of him at once.
Destroyer (Dan Evans)-In all honesty, Evans has never had a good piece of equipment for Vegas racing, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to having one now. After a very successful European tour with similar equipment to what he currently has, Evans has been average, with some nice freestyles thrown in. He has always stepped his game up in this category for Vegas, however, and a reverse move after a few nice hits could have him scored wel
Donkey Kong (Frank Krmel)-Once Krmel got the opportunity to run, he’s been a top-shelf freestyler in Vegas. Most of the year, Frank has the tough task of running hard as a truck in the same trailer as Charlie Pauken, and it’s a delicate balance that nobody in the industry handles better. If Krmel runs in the first half of the freestyle order, he can set the tone for the entire night. He did so in Del Scorcho in Vegas, in addition to the December Minneapolis show where he debuted Donkey Kong. Krmel has shown himself able to handle the pressure of running under sponsorship, and he will have the OK to tear it up and go for broke in freestyle. Racing will be solid, and he could go deep in that portion also, but Krmel’s solid driving is a good match for Vegas freestyle.
El Toro Loco (Lupe Soza)-Soza has been to Vegas enough times to not be overwhelmed by anything, and is due for another breakout moment in freestyle. He is attempting to break his reputation as a “freestyle only” guy, but I still see him having a better shot at a title there than in racing. R.L. Arace, one of the best crew chiefs in the sport, is back with Soza for this year, and the truck will not be missing anything for the show as a result, leaving it to Soza only to see how high he can raise the bar. He’s had problems in the past with breakage, but if he keeps his head on straight, he’s guaranteed to give one spectacular moment to the fans at Sam Boyd
Escalade (George Balhan)-Balhan has been a headliner along with Monster Mutt Dalmation at a few small shows this season, and done very well. His confidence should be high heading into the event, and he is one of the drivers on everyone’s “It’s only a matter of time” list as far as championships go. Balhan is one of the most balanced drivers in the sport, and I see his opportunities for a title in racing and freestyle being equal. When Balhan gets a few breaks, he will be at or near the top.
Grave Digger (Dennis Anderson)-Bar none, Anderson has been the best freestyler driving a monster truck this season, winning the majority of events he’s participated in. He has simply been even more aggressive this year than any other, and it has paid off with several fantastic saves and big-air runs. I believe that seeing his son do so well so early has pushed him a bit. I see more of an edge to his runs now, more of a devil-may-care attitude to some of his jumps. It’s hard to believe, but this could be the first year Anderson gets a freestyle title since World Finals 1. His racing record is well-documented, and if he puts his Vegas racing together with his freestyle momentum from this season, I would not be surprised if we saw a two-title night from the Icon.
(photo from Andrew Ellingwood)
Iron Outlaw (Kreg Christenson)-Christenson has handled the switch to a high-profile operation quite successfully, and he has the “Vegas attitude”–go big or go home. One must be aggressive in Vegas whether it is racing or freestyle, and with the best equipment of his career under him, Christenson has to have more confidence than the average Vegas rookie. Christenson has run pretty much any track layout conceived, and his motivation to prove he belongs could propel him to a very strong rookie effort in Vegas.
King Krunch (David Smith)-Smith has got to be one of the most consistent performers Vegas has seen, whether it is racing or freestyle. If he has a few extra “wow moments” in the right spots, a freestyle title isn’t out of his grip, and as one of the most experienced drivers at Sam Boyd, it wouldn’t be his first time in the final four of racing either. He is always one of the guys that pushes the top guns to succeed, and is constantly on the edge of something big.
Maximum Destruction (Tom Meents)-Meents has a lot of momentum heading into Vegas after a rocky start to the year. His rough start could be partially attributed to a very short turnaround between the European tour and the first show in Minneapolis, but one of the hardest-working crews in the business has done him well this year. Meents and his chassis are the best fit for each other of any driver/truck combination in the industry, bar none. His title chances rest solely on whether or not his equipment holds up. With the assumption made that he has no problems, anything less than title number 8 in ’08 will be a disappointment.
Monster Mutt (Charlie Pauken)-One of if, not the best freestylers in the business is also capable of big things in racing, but Pauken admittedly is more focused on the second part of the show. If Pauken uses his head and gets a bounce or two, he is headed for a freestyle world title. Unless he rolls the truck early or it is completely undrivable, Pauken will keep on hammering away, and the fans will be treated to several “wow moments.” This is a freestyle run that will be worth the trip to Vegas alone.
Monster Mutt Dalmation (Chad Tingler)-Tingler hasn’t had much success in Vegas, but it isn’t for lack of talent or determination. Tingler is a Grave Digger driver during the season for a reason. If he makes his full time, expect some huge air in freestyle at the end of his run. An obstacle Tingler has to overcome is having to jump into an unfamiliar truck, which he’s done in Pastrana and Mutt in his two appearances in Vegas. His absolutely breathtaking hit on the rock pile in the 25thAnniversary Grave Digger encore and a past hit in Pastrana have shown he isn’t afraid to put it to the wood and see what happens later. In racing he will be hurt by the unfamiliarity of the truck he drives—Monster Mutt is notorious for being one of the worst trucks visibility-wise—but I wouldn’t be surprised if Tingler pulls an upset or two.
(photo from Kyle Carr)
Pastrana 199 (Cameron McQueen)-It may seem that this guy came out of nowhere, but Cameron knows his way around anything with a throttle. He’s tested trucks before at Digger’s Dungeon, and is constantly driving things around Travis Pastrana’s operation or helping him out. After having the opportunity to work with him personally, he has the mindset for success and an understanding of how the trucks work, and that could play to his advantage. Still, inexperience could hurt him, as he’s only driven a few events this year, and Vegas is not a place to begin the learning process.
(photo by Josh Rhodes)
Safe Auto Minimizer (Marc McDonald)-McDonald is nearing a world title, and is equally a threat in racing and freestyle. If he uses the time for freestyle well, he will be near the top, and racing-wise, he is in the top tier of the sport at Vegas. Watch out for McDonald; he’s the equivalent of a bracket-buster in March Madness!
Scarlet Bandit (Dawn Creten)-It seems everyone counts Dawn out for Vegas, but she’s been improving her performances there every year. Clean runs are the norm regardless of which competition she’s a part of, and she will again surprise people this year. She may not win a world title, but she will push a driver or two to the limit. She is a good bet to raise the bar early in freestyle.
Stone Crusher (Steve Sims)-This may be a surprise selection to those that haven’t seen him run recently, but Sims has been on his game this year. He rarely fails to finish his freestyle time. I was particularly impressed by his runs in Tampa and Atlanta this season—the smooth, big-air, flowing runs he had at those venues would be a good model for a winning run in Vegas if he finishes with a “wow moment.”
Superman (Chad Fortune)-Fortune has worked his way through the sport and has spectacular moments, but has never really done well in racing, and with a field as stacked as this one is, he may be lost in the shuffle there. Freestyle has always been solid from him, and filling the time has been his priority, evidenced by his interviews on the subject. It always seems to me that Fortune saves his best moves until after the freestyle time is already up. It’s a fine line between being too conservative and not being conservative enough, but Fortune will give a good accounting of himself at the very least.
Taz (Adam Anderson)-The debut of a new chassis designed specifically for “Double A” has been successful, and the fact that Adam is comfortable behind the wheel and not having to re-adjust to a new setup the week of the event will really help him this year. Always aggressive and always focused on proving himself, Adam will be a threat to whoever he pulls to the line against in racing, and I consider him a favorite in freestyle. His rise to the top tier of the sport has been well-documented, but his drive to have an identity other than “Dennis’ son” has been a big motivating factor for him also. Look for him to come out aggressive and sort the rest out later.
Team Suzuki (Bobby Parr)-Were it not for Bradshaw, Bobby Parr may well have been Rookie of the Year last season, and he has only improved this season. With R. L. Arace turning the wrenches, Parr has come out aggressive, with a good deal of success. His freestyle in St. Louis impressed me greatly—to come out as one of the first trucks in a star-studded field and hold the lead until the end is rare for anyone to accomplish. His rhythm is good in racing, but freestyle will be where he has more opportunity. He is a rookie to the stadium in freestyle only, but if he puts on a performance similar to St. Louis, he will surprise a lot of people.
Well, that’s the field for Vegas. Hopefully I was able to provide insight from a unique perspective, and get everyone excited for the big show! Enjoy, and I’d love to hear your comments on the site, the column, or monster trucks in general!