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Road warriors truck in monster cool jam

July 18, 2002

kevinc@herald-mail.com

For Tom Meents, freestyling is 90 seconds of heaven.

Because that's when the dusty arena is his alone as he sits behind the wheel of his mammoth vehicle, a few thousand pairs of eyes trained squarely on his antics.

That's when the fun begins, as he takes the vehicle through a series of tricks meant to make mouths hang open and to cause cheers to spring forth.

"One of my better ones is the cyclone donut," the 35-year-old native of Paxton, Ill., says. "You spin a donut and the truck just rolls like a top. And people don't think you can get something that big spinning that fast."

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A three-time Monster Jam World Champion, Meents drives a monster truck. He'll lead a parade of the giant vehicles roaring into town for a weekend engagement at Hagerstown Speedway.

A popular draw, the 2001 edition of the U.S. Hot Rod Monster Jam became infamous for causing traffic snarls along U.S. 40 into the speedway, resulting in some unhappy fans who missed portions of the show.

But Meents remembers last year's event for the enthusiastic, standing room only crowds.

"It was just so packed last year, both nights. I was just overwhelmed," he says. "It's just really cool to see that."

This year, a third day has been added, a direct result of last year's troubles. The matinee performance has been billed as a family event, with no alcohol to be served and the wedding of a Clarksville, Md., couple on the track at 12:30 p.m. As always, autograph sessions will occur before and after each show.

"We do as much as we can for the fans," who are 35 percent children, says Angie Frey, a marketing manager for show sponsor Clear Channel Entertainment. "Because we do realize a lot of kids are coming to the event."

Nationwide, fans have turned out in droves to see the big trucks, like Team Meents truck, which Meents bought from wrestling star Goldberg; Black Stallion, driven by Hagerstown's own Mike Vaters; crowd favorite Grave Digger, driven by Dennis Anderson; and other mega machines such as Team Marvel trucks Spiderman and Wolverine.

In 2001, more than 2.5 million people attended United States Hot Rod Assocation monster truck events, a 20 percent increase from the year before. And it's just getting bigger.

"We're just scratching the surface," says Vaters, 37, who is celebrating his 20th year as a driver. "The problem is when it gets real big, I'll be too old to do this."

The trade-off for drivers is a schedule that keeps them on the road much of the year, criss-crossing the country to visit outdoor venues in summer, indoor arenas when the weather turns nasty.

After wrecking Black Stallion last weekend, Vaters is at home to prepare his rig for this weekend's event, including a 5 to 8 p.m. appearance today at Valley Mall.

He enjoys the local fan support, where friends and family can see all he does, including his favorite freestyle maneuver, a trip across lined up sacrificial cars - in reverse.

Meents says the constant travel can wear at him. Still, the grind of being a road warrior disappears when he revs his engine and begins to crush junked cars into a pulp of twisted metal and shattered glass.

"I think it has a lot to do with the sheer size of the machines," Meents says of monster truck popularity.

"Racing is racing, obviously, but you're racing this mammoth machine and they really do go fast for the size they are," he says. "Sometimes you get your battery run down, but when you go somewhere and can really turn the crowd on. ... It's my way to get high, I guess you could say."

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