I'm the very last person you'd expect to see at a monster truck show. I didn't learn how to drive a car until I was 22 years old and seeing a fender bender or a tow-truck on the road can throw me into a full-on panic. And, in the two years that I lived in Cottage Grove, I thought the eerie howling noises I heard at night were some kind of spooky recurring wind storm. Turns out, I lived less than a mile from the Cottage Grove Speedway the whole time. But this weekend, you will find me at the Monster X Tour at Redmond's Deschutes County Fairgrounds, high on adrenaline and exhaust fumes, watching a bunch of 10,000-plus-pound vehicles of destruction wheelie, race, and freestyle their way into my heart.
Monster X Tour driver Bill Payne, whose Straight Up Racing shop and team have produced trucks with names like "Bone Crusher," "Bucked Up," and "California Kid," is a Washington native who grew up with a love for all things destructive and dangerous. The 33-year-old has been racing for the last 12 years, and yet still struggles to find words to describe the thrill he experiences behind the wheel of a monster truck.
"The driving part—there's no description," said Payne. "You get to ride the roller coaster, but you also get to tell the roller coaster where to go."
Payne is well known for his wild style on the track; most videos featuring him behind the wheel of his behemoth "Rockstar" show him performing mind-boggling vertical wheel stands and stomach-churning roll-overs. Two years ago, his skill in the racing, wheelie, and freestyle categories made him the most winningest driver; lately, though, competition has gotten tougher.
"Two years ago, I was on the top," said Payne. "Then these young guys started figuring out how to do all my moves. This kid is 18 or 19 years old, he's only been driving for six months, and he's kicking my butt! Kids have no fear—they get hurt and they bounce right back."
According to Payne, young people make up the fastest-growing demographic of monster truck racers and enthusiasts. To parents, he recommends sitting monster truck-curious kiddos down in front of the computer and gauging their reaction to a video. The screams, howls, and roars of a stadium filled with 1,500-horsepower engines will either exhilarate or terrify most children.
"Kids love to have the wow factor," said Payne. "They've been in cars—they know what riding in their dad's Ford pickup feels like— but they see that same pickup jumping way up in the air [and] they love it."
Most of today's monster trucks are barely trucks at all—the car-crushing Frankensteins are anywhere from 5-6 tons of custom-fabricated devastation. Rockstar's fiberglass Chevy Colorado truck frame is built over a custom chassis and transmission and houses a supercharged engine that runs on methanol. Its 12,800 pounds of annihilation bounce and soar atop 66-inch Terra tires usually found on agriculture machinery like fertilizer spreaders.
Besides being a world-class driver, Payne is also a skilled mechanic and fabricator. He describes with reverence "that sense of satisfaction you get from having a pile of nothing that becomes a creation that you're then jumping over cars and school busses 16 or 17 feet in the air."
But for Payne, one of the biggest rewards in his adrenaline-fueled profession is the reactions his high-flying tricks can elicit from the audience.
"When I go into the stadium, I'm driving as if I'm sitting in the crowd with people," said Payne. "[If] I'm having a good time, smiling ear-to-ear, I know that kid in the front row is having a great time, too."
On Friday night I'll be that kid in the front row, equal parts terror and excitement, forcing a smile across my face as I cheer the ruin Payne and his fellow drivers lay out before me.
Monster X Tour
Deschutes County Fairgrounds, Redmond
6 pm, Friday, March 20 & Saturday, March 21
$19 Adults; $10 Kids -12; Free, under 3.