Driving a Monster Truck. Abu Dhabi. Taming Blue Thunder

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Soon I’m being handed a fireproof suit and matching gloves to pull over my street clothes, a neck brace to protect the muscles from the potentially violent acceleration, and a helmet. Bari and Chad, along with Monster Mutt driver Dustin Brown have come to watch us suit up from behind the protective tape barrier. Security when working with supercharged brutes as gigantic as these is crucial, so much so that the entire lower grandstands will remain empty for the duration of the evening’s show for fear that one of the trucks will land amongst the seats. The grandstand easily lies 50 feet away from the track, but the organisers are taking no chances.

Sweltering nicely in our fireproof suits in the 40-degree heat, we’re introduced to Dan Evans, a Monster Jam veteran who’s been competing consistently since 1994 (his wife Lorrie is his crew chief) and will be in action the following evening. There’s little the Michigan-born fan favourite doesn’t know about monster truck competitions, and his experience is a big confidence booster today. Over his left shoulder some 40 feet away is Blue Thunder, the 2008 Ford F-150 Extended Cab modified truck in which Dan will compete throughout 2013 and our drive experience vehicle for the day. Although Blue Thunder has been around for more than a decade, significant upgrades and developments to the powertrain mean this particular model is only four months old, and has completed just over a dozen events as opposed to its rival’s couple of hundred. The butterfly wings start fluttering again, which I try to ignore as I’m called for my turn.

It’s only when Dan and I are standing next to Blue Thunder that the first big issue springs to mind: how on earth do I get in? There are no doors since the fibreglass bodyshell is designed to withstand enormous pressure should the truck land upside down, stability that a panels gaps would irreparably damage. Jumping through the window NASCAR style is also out, since – even with a generously sized ladder – the gap is far too small for even the lithest individual to squeeze through.

Still smiling at my confusion, Dan points to the gap between the bodyshell and the Dan Patrick chassis, and tells me to clamber up the cage Spider Man style while he holds my helmet. Fortunately safey concerns mean crankandpiston photographer Arun is too far away to capture my inept attempts to clamber into the cabin with grace.

Inside I find – as well as the roll cage support arms – a custom moulded bucket seat, an ignition box from which the 500 CI Merlin engine is started, a Coan two-speed automatic transmission box (including neutral), a beautifully minimalist (and surprisingly dainty) steering wheel, and two pedals. And that’s it. In order to optimise weight distribution, the seat is mounted directly in the centre of the cabin – as Dan mentions, “it’s like Formula 1 on steroids” – and with the sheer amount of safety paraphernalia about me, there’s remarkably little space to see out through the Perspex windscreen. There’s enough to see where you’re going and where you’re about to, but that’s about it. While I re-glove and re-helmet, Dan fastens my five-point safety harness just enough to stop circulation to my lower frame: with 1500hp at the mercy of my right foot, I’m certainly not complaining.

A gentlemen in a high visibility jacket soon walks in front of Blue Thunder, and raises both hands, a signal enquiring whether the driver is ready to roll. If I am, as Dan explains, I should signal back with both hands. I do. High vis then twirls his right wrist signalling that I should start the supercharged Merlin up. That involves flicking five switches on the main ignition box, and one final one with a bulb mounted in it. When that fires, I’m to pull the remarkably nimble gearlever into first, get the truck moving, turn the first corner, select second gear by shifting the lever up one notch in the box, and leave it there for the duration of the run. So, to confirm: hands; wrist; twirl; switches; first gear; second; enjoy. And right here is when Dan climbs out.

The enormity of what I’m about to do has just hit me. Under my right foot is the throttle for the monster truck I am about to take for a spin. No pressure.

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