Three months of competition has been building up to one venue. From the home of the Anaheim Angels, to the cold arena of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, they have come. North of the border, they have hit the dirt in Toronto, and multiple times stepped onto the field where the Super Bowl was decided in overtime.
The weekly grind to race and perform, then repair and replace, all these monster machines has come down to one event.
It’s late March, and one venue plays host to the biggest event Monster Jam holds every season. Nearly 50 trucks come in to hit the dirt at Sam Boyd Stadium, with 16 of them trying to earn the final spot in the main event. Over 50 more make the trip just to sit in front of the fans, sign autographs, and take in the sunshine out west. For many, just to get here it’s a gamble. But, when Monster Jam comes to Las Vegas for the World Finals, it is the biggest jackpot to win the entire season.
Once again, the field for the main event already had 31 of 32 spots filled, with a few multi-truck teams represented. Team Grave Digger earned four spots in the World Finals bracket. Last year’s racing and freestyle champions, Morgan Kane and Adam Anderson, returned to defend their crowns. In addition, the winner of Monster Jam’s Triple Threat East Series, Tyler Menninga, was ready to make his debut in a major stadium in a big way.
Entering the weekend, last year’s Triple Threat West champion, Cole Venard, was tabbed as the fourth driver to be at the wheel of Digger. However, just over a week ago, Monster Jam announced Venard was unable to compete. It appeared personal responsibilities caused him to not make this year’s event, but that didn’t mean Team Digger would not fill the seat with a less-than-capable driver.
In his place, Randy Brown got the nod to drive the fourth Digger in the fleet, with his last appearance of any sort coming back in 2007 when he gave a freestyle exhibition in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Despite all these capable drivers, missing the field this season is the team’s lead driver, Dennis Anderson. His injury suffered in January during a performance has kept him from driving all season, and doctors felt he was not ready to drive just yet. It’s the second time in his career that Anderson will miss the big show, as he missed the 2003 event due to a broken arm.
Meanwhile, arch-rival Max-D had two drivers that earned their spots in the field. Neil Elliott returned to the main show as a former FS1 Series champion, while Colton Eichelberger comes in as a former Triple Threat Series champion. But, Eichelberger is in a rather unique situation.
Team Max-D’s lead man, Tom Meents, for the first time in his career will not drive in this event. Earlier this season, Meents began suffering from back pain, and it got progressively worse. Doctors felt he needed to step away from driving for a while to let his injury heal. In his place, Eichelberger, who happens to be Meents’ stepson, stepped into his dad’s truck, and in four events this year won two freestyles.
With the lead man out, these two will have a tough task in taking down the strangle that the Digger team had on this event a year ago.
More past champions came to play, especially two-time champion Jim Koehler. Always known for bringing something special to the World Finals, “Mr. Excitement” played everyone a fool this year. Normally, the team has a display at one of the hotels in Las Vegas days before the event. Often, spies come out to see what the Avenger machine looks like, as Koehler historically has brought unique bodies to this show. This year, the S10 body was only slightly different on display, with the name having a unique flame design and more detailed skull look on the lime green paint.
But, when Thursday’s opening day came about, Koehler had everyone fooled. It turned out, the truck on display was getting moved. The reason, Koehler’s team all year knew for this event, they had something new ready to go. At the shop in Michigan, the team was at work preparing a brand-new chassis for competition, built by team driver Cory Rummel, ironically who campaigns a chassis near identical to Koehler’s new one.
The new chassis is longer, with a stronger cradle area, lower center of gravity, better suspension, and a louder sound with straight pipes. But, not one to break from tradition, the Avenger body once again was something different than what had been seen all year. The lime green paint instead was an emerald pearl, representing the original color of the truck back in 1997. The name, beaming white with hints of blue and yellow, and bright yellow flames across the sides, with some even spewing out of the skull.
Koehler’s new truck had not seen the track until Wednesday’s practice, meaning the inaugural run for this new truck was on the fastest, most technical and most challenging course all season.
But, Thursday’s night was not just about the main event. Thursday’s “Double Down” event represents qualifying to set the brackets for the racing program, Monster Jam’s own “March Madness” seeding in a sense. The 32nd spot in the field was to be earned, as another 16-truck field was going into it’s own racing bracket that had been renamed the “Double Down Showdown.”
New faces such as Zane Rettew in Stinger, Ami Houde in Zombie and even Krysten Anderson, the daughter of Dennis, in Grave Digger were seeing the track for the first time. Meanwhile, others like Kayla Blood in El Toro Loco, Cynthia Gauthier in the Monster Mutt Dalmation, and even Ryan Disharoon in Saigon Shaker were back to earn their way to the main show for the first time.
When the sun began to set on the stadium, the fans that paid for the extra action got a lot of fast passes, and even a bit of hard-hitting surprises.
One of the hardest hits came from Becky McDonough, who was experiencing her first official entry into the World Finals after spending the last five years competing in the Double Down Showdown. Her practice run ended up seeing her clip a car, and spin into the containers at the end of the track. Luckily, the chassis itself was stable, and she finished her run, and even made her two qualifying passes.
This year’s track saw a longer straightaway to help slow down for the corner, but also a tighter corner with less room for error.
It didn’t seem to bother anyone in qualifying, as the entire field when the dust settled was separated by just 1.5 seconds from first to 31st.
This year’s top qualifier came from the same team that stood at the top a year ago. In 2016, Damon Bradshaw put his Monster Energy Cadillac at the top of the heap with a blistering pass. This year, former Double Down Showdown champion and teammate, Coty Saucier, blistered the entire field with a 15.841-second pass. That was a mere 0.05 seconds faster than second-fast qualifier, Ryan Anderson in Son-Uva Digger.
Saucier and Anderson were the lone drivers to have a sub-16 second run, which is ensuring they will each be tough competition no matter who lines up beside them.
But, the main program on this night came in the Double Down Showdown, and what caught everyone off guard in a sense was who made it to the finals.
In the yellow lane, Tristan England brought in the new Earth Shaker dump truck to the finals, showing that the newest ride on the tour can handle the action.
In the green lane, young Eric Swanson stepped to the plate with his Obsessed machine, debuting an entirely new 1950’s Ford F100 body.
Fans were pulling for the California native, but knew England had a lot of talent in order to win the show.
At a fever pitch, England and Swanson nailed the throttle off the line into the chicane. Each stayed even right into Thunder Alley. But, that is when things went downhill for one.
Swanson came charging into the stadium, but the right-front BKT tire nailed the outside of the dirt obstacle, forcing the truck into a tumble, destroying the all-new body in the process. England made the ride to the finish line, setting off the fireworks and earning his first-ever trip to the World Finals big show in his first appearance.
“I just want to thank everyone that has come out tonight,” said England. “I have to thank my mom, my dad and my family here but especially all of you Monster Jam fans. I’ll come out here tomorrow and try my best with all the big boys, but we are laying it down in freestyle on Saturday and that EarthShaker body isn’t going to last long.”
Closing out the night, the remaining contenders in the Showdown came out and performed cyclones for the fans in attendance as part of the encore.
Now, the focus moves onto racing, and the 32-truck field is ready to tackle the action on night two of the World Finals. Action begins at 7 p.m. PT at Sam Boyd Stadium.