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Monster truck driver aims to teach other drivers a lesson

July 20, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • The newest member of Michael Vaters family of monster trucks is Higher Education, shown here with crew members, from left, David Rhinecker, Jimmy Tracey Jr., Michael Thompson, Vaters and Jimmy Tracey Sr., plus Titus the mascot. Vaters will bring Higher Education and Black Stallion to Monster Jam at Hagerstown Speedway this weekend.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

It looks like a school bus.

It’s the color of a school bus.

But the wheels on this bus go crush, crush, crush.

It’s Higher Education — the latest vehicle designed and engineered by Hagerstown resident Michael Vaters, a long-time veteran in the world of monster truck entertainment.

Fans who love the thunderous roar of supercharged engines or the sight of 5.5-foot-high tires stampeding over wrecked cars, will have a chance to see Vaters’ newest creation when the flat-nosed, three-quarter-scale bus appears at the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam from Friday, July 22, through Sunday, July 24, at the Hagerstown Speedway.

Higher Education will be driven by long-time crew member and family friend, Jimmy Tracey Sr.

A second truck, Black Stallion, driven by Vaters, also will be featured in the show.

Other monster trucks that will be on hand include Spiderman, Monster Mutt Dalmatian, Ironman, Gravedigger and Gunslinger.

Vaters has been part of the monster truck industry for about 30 years, he said.

He can trace his interest back to the early 1980s, when he bought a black Ford F-250 pickup truck at a local dealership. At that time, lift kits weren’t available, he said, so he designed and built his own.

“I continued with modifications on the Ford, including larger tires and more lift until they outlawed lifted trucks in Maryland,” he said. “I was forced to make a decision to either lower the street truck or make it bigger and get into monster truck competition, which, at that time, was becoming an organized sport.”

He chose monster trucks.

Since then, Vaters has turned a hobby into a full-time job. “And that’s putting it mildly,” Vaters said. “We work every day, including holidays and weekends, and haven’t had a vacation in a long time. We put in long days getting ready for a show and sometimes drive all night to get to the next show.”

But it’s a labor of love, he said.

“We try to do the best job we can for our fans,” he said. “We do whatever it takes to get out there and put on a good show.”

Vaters said his business has grown to include a team of family and friends, including his long-time pal, Jimmy Tracey Sr., who is crew chief and driver for Higher Education; his stepson, David Rhinecker, who works full time in the shop and on the road as a general mechanic and crew member; and his son Mikey Jr., who helps in the shop and also performs freestyle motocross at the summer shows.

His wife, Denise, runs the office and does everything from contracting the trucks and bookkeeping to promotional work and managing Vader’s website. She also is the event director at shows produced during the summer, takes care of novelty sales “and whatever else needs to be done,” he said.

On average, Vaters’ team competes in about 75 to 80 shows each year.

“Many events at a venue will have one to four shows in a weekend,” he noted. “In 2010, we competed in 77 separate shows at 50 different venues and were on display to promote upcoming shows 43 times.”

The first quarter of 2011, Vaters said his group ran in the Monster Jam Series, which took them to Western venues.

“We were out on the road for nine weeks straight without coming back to our home shop here in Hagerstown,” he said. “That presented a problem for where to go to make repairs between shows. But the monster truck industry is different from most motor sports in that everyone helps everyone else out. We were able to borrow time in some of our competitors’ shops out west to make needed repairs.”

While monster trucks are believed to have had their start in the United States, Vaters said they’ve now gone global.

“We’ve competed in Canada and Mexico, in addition to the U.S.,” he said. “Monster Jam has a European tour now, as well.”

And regardless of where they are, “we always seem to have spectators happy that we came to their town to compete,” he said.

Vaters believes monster trucks have grown in popularity because it’s a motor sport that’s family-oriented.

“We get a wide demographic who follow us and are fans of the trucks,” he said. “Older people attend for nostalgic reasons because they went to shows when they were kids. And kids love the destruction and ability of a monster truck to roll and break off body parts then be turned right side up and fire up and pull off the track. They also like the noise, power and acrobatics of the trucks in exhibition.”

Vaters said you never know what’s going to happen when a monster truck comes out onto the track, which makes it exciting for audiences.

In comparison to other sports, Vaters said monster truck entertainment is very accessible to fans.

“They can get up close to the truck, get their picture taken with it and the driver and get an autograph,” he said. “It’s also affordable.”

Vaters said his newest addition to his trucks, Higher Education, debuted earlier this year.

“The first couple of shows with the bus indicated that it is going to be wildly popular,” he said. “When you see it sail through the air, jumping off of a stack of cars, it just doesn’t seem possible. It’s such an oddity for a bus to be doing that kind of thing.”

Vaters also has another truck, Iron Warrior, which isn’t booked for the upcoming Speedway show.

In addition, he has two jet-powered four-wheelers, the Kamikaze and Psycho, which he uses at events as a side act.

“People really like the noise, fire and thrust power of the jet engines as they shoot flames 25 feet out the back of the four-wheeler,” he said.



If you go ...
WHAT: Monster Jam
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, July 22, and Saturday, July 23; 2 p.m. Sunday, July 24. Pit party 4 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Hagerstown Speedway, 15112 National Pike, west of Hagerstown.
COST: $15; $5 for ages 2 to 12 in advance; or $18 on the day of the show. $20 advance reserved tickets, $23 day of show.
CONTACT: Purchase tickets at www.speedwayshopping.com.
MORE: All events will be held rain or shine. Sunday is family day; no alcohol will be served.

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