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Monster weekend

July 18, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

His helmet, toolboxes, battery chargers, a motorcycle, his pickup truck - these are some of the things Michael Vaters has accidentally run over or into with his monster truck, Black Stallion.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the Bell helmet did not get crushed by the 10,000-pound truck. But it did crack.

Tomorrow night, Saturday night and Sunday, Vaters and five other monster truck drivers will intentionally run over cars and race at Hagerstown Speedway, west of Hagerstown. Vaters, 43, who lives southwest of Hagerstown, returns to the annual event after missing the 2007 shows because of a conflict in his schedule.

In addition to Black Stallion, the show will feature Taz, El Toro Loco, Stone Crusher, Mopar Magic and perennial favorite Grave Digger. Adam Anderson, son of famed Grave Digger driver Dennis Anderson, drives Taz. Adam Anderson became the youngest world champion of the Monster Jam World Finals in March in Las Vegas when he won the freestyle competition, according to Live Nation. Grave Digger will be driven by Randy Brown this weekend.

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Local boy makes really good

Vaters is a seven-time U.S. Hot Rod Association Thunder National champion, in which trucks compete in several categories - races, wheelies, doughnuts and freestyle. He was crowned the Monster Spectacular Champion this year in Canada, according to TheMonsterBlog.com.

These days he's driving an updated, $200,000 Black Stallion, which debuted in January 2007. The motor sits a foot lower, which lowers the truck's center of gravity. This allows Vaters to get away with more extreme tricks without worrying as much about flipping the truck over. Accidentally flipping the truck over, that is.

In March, for instance, at the Monster Jam World Finals in Las Vegas, Black Stallion rolled over backward unintentionally. Vaters jumped a double bus stack, but flipped and ended up rolling into a double-decker bus.

The updated Black Stallion also has shocks with a 4-inch diameter rather than 3-inch so the truck can absorb impacts easier, such as landing from a jump.

A new safety feature is a wheel tether, a stainless-steel cable that tethers each wheel to the wheel hub so if a wheel flies off, it doesn't go far, Vaters said. Even if the tether breaks, the connection has slowed the tire down, he said.

Turning a profit

But there's another problem Vaters faces nowadays: climbing fuel prices.

Black Stallion runs on methanol, which costs approximately $3 a gallon. Vaters might use a half of Black Stallion's 20-gallon tank of methanol a night.

While methanol is cheaper than regular gas, Black Stallion burns methanol twice as fast as a normal truck burns gas. Vaters uses five to seven gallons just racing full throttle for 300 feet.

To transport Black Stallion to events, his crew uses a tractor trailer that burns enough diesel to cost $1 a mile.

Rising costs mean a squeeze on profits. Vaters must figure how to compete and put on a good show and make at least a little money.

"We're just trying to figure out how to break it up without going broke," Vaters said. If Black Stallion's body needs patching after a jump and the event isn't over, Vaters' crew might patch it with a lot of duct tape. They've used a bicycle tire tube for an emergency fix to create a seal between a tire and rim to slow an air leak.

Built tough

At his shop southwest of Hagerstown, Vaters and his crew are starting to build their own monster truck fiberglass bodies in-house. The crew does 90 percent of the truck building and work in-house, including all the transmission work. In addition to Black Stallion, Vaters owns another monster truck - Iron Warrior, which is driven by Trey Meyers of Brunswick, Md.

Vaters, who has been driving a monster truck for 26 years, hopes to continue into his late 50s or into his 60s if he can stay healthy.

The truck has lots of safety features, including a safety harness and head and neck restraints. These safety features make his signature move - a reverse jump - a bit tricky. As he accelerates backward for the reverse jump, he can't see where he's going because his head is held in place by the head and neck restraints.

Vaters said he probably won't do that trick, called the Saturday Night Special, at Hagerstown Speedway this weekend.

So, what will he do?

"Of course, when it comes to Hagerstown, we always try to beat Grave Digger," Vaters said.

Riding a monster truck

Michael Vaters says driving a monster truck is like "driving a two-story building around."

Recently, Vaters gave me and Herald-Mail videographer Dustin Lawyer a ride around his property in his monster truck, Black Stallion. No jumping - at least not with a passenger inside. But you can check out footage from inside the truck as well as Vaters jumping a 5-foot-high mulch pile at HMLoop.com.

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