Champaign Monster Nationals 2005
Assembly Hall: the smallest track size venue for monster trucks in the world yet the most anticipated winter show of 2005. Last year's Monster Nationals had the huge crowd on their feet and gasping in shock more times than any show in 2004. If you don't remember last year, you obviously were not there and even these pictures will not do it justice:
Dave Harkey, Mark Hall, Doug Noelke, Andy Hoffman and Dale Benear pushed their trucks and their bodies to the limit and beyond resulting in the arguably the greatest monster truck event ever seen in Champaign and on that type of track design. This year, all the makings of another amazing event were in place. Same trucks, same drivers and the same intensity that only the close quarters of Assembly Hall in Champaign, Illinois can offer.
A three hour drive north from Edwardsville is a long time to let the
mind wander and think. At the forefront of my thoughts and nerves was presenting Mark Hall
with his WMTRL Top Ten plaque. Now, usually this is no big deal. I've had to do this three
other times at the St. Louis Monster Jam with Creten, Meents and Anderson. But that was
all in the backstage area...not in front of nearly 10,000 people!
George Eisenhart, owner of the Monster Nationals series, granted me the permission, and more importantly, the opportunity to give Mark his award and promote the WMTRL during the pre-show festivities! As much as I feared getting out there and completely blowing the situation, I could not refuse the chance.
I arrived in Champaign during the middle of the Pit Party and spent a long time in the autograph lines for every driver as the place was PACKED on the floor. I met up with George and double checked everything with him and we were set to go. I got to meet up with JB Roberts from Ohio who had made the trip to U of I to visit some college friends and then take in the monster action. JB has been to many Monster Nationals events but none at Assembly Hall. When he saw the coverage from last year, he knew not to miss this one. Before the pit party was over, I needed to find myself a volunteer photographer to shoot pictures of the trophy presentation. I wandered into the bowels of the Assembly Hall and to the loading docks where I found the Big Dawg hauler. After some persuading, I handed my camera off to Brenda Noelke and I can't thank her enough for her help.
After the arena was cleared of the fans at the end of the pit party, I spent time talking with Brian Braunschweig (aka SunkDuck for us Monster Mayhem people) who was working track crew on the night, showed Mark Hall just what he was in for in a few hours, and then chilled out back in the Big Dawg hauler trying to calm my nerves a bit. I ran over what I was going to say many many times but knew I'd mess it up anyways. George radioed to Brian to tell me that he was ready out on the floor so I headed up the tunnel and held my breathe and crossed my fingers.
George introduced me to the crowd and exactly who the heck I was then I took over the mic, welcomed everybody and called Mark Hall out to the floor to join us. I ran down Mark's stats of winning 16 events out of 22 times to the Finals in 42 tries as well as some other WMTRL stats.
I fumbled over some words a bit at the beginning but wrapped it up nicely and gave Mark his plaque as he said some words of thanks on the mic. We shook hands for photos, the crowd applauded and just like that it was over. Relief, yes, but a realization that it was not bad at all and I look forward to a next time to improve on what was said and how I handled myself. Talking on that live mic for over two hours and keeping the fans interested like George or any announcer does is certainly not as easy as they make it seem.
I walked back into the tunnel area with Mark and Brenda and everyone split up to head our own ways. All the drivers and crews were getting ready for the new elaborate introductions and I needed to go find my seat before it all started.
Dale's son, Dustin, accompanied his Dad in his mini-rammunition power wheels truck
Big Dawg--Doug Noelke
Doug ran out for the intros along with his two real "big dogs", Misty and Maggie, who had checkered flags wrapped around their necks.
With the intros out of the way it was finally time to kick back, relax and get to the car crushin'!
Should be pretty obvious what the objective here is. Each truck would get one crack at it on the set of their choice and the crowd would pick the winner. One thing to note about the track in general is that the cars were moved a bit farther back towards the start line area to give more shut down room. This in turn limited the space for maneuvering the trucks back there and also cut down on the ability to use those precious extra few feet to gain speed in such a small space.
Big Dawg-- Doug chose the far (blue) set of cars for his wheelie and certainly had an advantage with one of the fresh sets to hit. He hit the gas hard and popped Big Dawg straight up off the first car and tried to get the rolling wheelie going but the rear wheels were not all the way on top of the car and slid back off causing the front end to immediately come down onto the cars. Still a good wheel stand hit from Big Dawg. Score: 6.
Rammunition-- As you saw in the intro, Benear had the sky rocket shot last year and coming into this year, the expectations for him were very high. Benear just tends to be one of those guys that will always rise to the occasion and he did so here again. Benear got a strong run at the cars and leaped up into the air not as vertical as Big Dawg but he cleared the rear wheels over the first car, planted them in the second car and walked the truck over another two cars before the front end fell back down to the concrete. Great opening leap from Rammunition. Score: 8.
Bigfoot-- Dave Harkey needed a trip to the ambulance after his huge leap and very hard nose dive hit last year and he would certainly like to avoid that this time but still get some big air. Harkey attacked the cars hard and pulled a near perfect wheelie clearing the first car, sticking the rear wheels into the second and third car and bouncing off the set. Cannot do it much better than that, near perfect form. Score: 9.
Nitemare-- Andy Hoffman has the lone Chevy in the bunch and these Champaign fans, even though its the hometown of the Dodge boys, are always pro-Chevy and Hoffman always seems to give them reason to stick on his side. Andy rolled up to the cars slowly and then punched it trying to get some big vertical lift under Nitemare. The truck tilted off to the right side in the air as Hoffman stretched the jump out for the front wheels to reach the fifth car. Solid jump from Nitemare. Dang finish pole flags screwed up the focus on the camera. Score: 5.
Raminator-- Mark Hall has been reaching for the sky at every 2005 Monster Nationals event. Every weekend Mark has put some insane air under the Raminator and we were in store for more. Hall used as much speed as he could to approach the cars and then punched the throttle launching Raminator way up into the air clearing the rear wheels with no problem and spiked the rear end into the fourth car and bounced off the set to a huge ovation. Fantastic jump and easily gets my vote and got the crowd vote after a close decision between Hall and Harkey. Score: 10.
After some motorcross trials riding demonstrations, it was straight into monster truck freestyle. Unlike last year, there would be no jumping of the cars from the left side due to the pushed back car arrangement. Otherwise, it was free reign of the track as each truck got to run until they were good and ready to stop. The running order in freestyle would not be the same as the wheelie contest. Each Monster Nationals event the order switches so each truck has the chance to run 1st, last and every spot in between.
Big Dawg-- Noelke would again be up first and be the guy to set the pace for the rest of the field. Noelke will certainly use the platform to set the bar very high for the other drivers. Doug started over on the far set looking for some big air to kick off the run but the truck did not cooperate and sank into the first car and leaned off to the left of the cars. Noelke recovered and hustled around to the near set and leaped across the cars with a real nice jump. Noelke found the open concrete and spun a blistering set of donuts that lit up the ground and the crowd. He kept the momentum going and attacked the far set with a rolling leap across the cars then came back to the near set and unloaded his best jump of the night planting the rear end into the third car. Doug was not done yet and went back to the open floor and ripped off another kamikaze set of donuts spinning across the floor several times and stopped within inches of Bigfoot. Excellent run for Big Dawg and definitely set the bar high especially with the donuts. Score: 8.
Nitemare-- Hoffman started his run with a nice jump on the near set of cars that again screwed up my camera thanks to those flags. Blasted auto-focus. He came around again to that same set and did not take time to line the jump up straight and instead leaped at a diagonal across the cars and clipped the edge of the blue set on the landing. Good innovation on the jump. Hoffman hit the blue set now going the right way with good force and got his best air of the night so far. Innovation is key in this type of environment and one of Andy's signature moves of late has been the reverse jump. He lined it up on the blue set and shot the tailgate into the air clearing half the set and bouncing off with a rather rough landing. Perfect reverse jump by Hoffman but he wanted one last thing and went for a donut right up in front of me. He whipped the truck around one time very fast but that was it. Solid run from Nitemare but not enough to take the lead. Score: 5.
Bigfoot-- Harkey started his freestyle much the same way he did in the wheelie contest with a near vertical dead straight hit on the cars really sending the front end up in the air nicely and landing it in the middle of the row. Harkey went for another hit on the same set and tried the rolling wheelie but the front end would not stay in the air long enough. He nailed a great long jump on the near set almost clearing the entire row just clipping the last car with the back tires. Harkey wanted the donuts next after ripping off an insane set last year I thought we'd see some of the same thing. But the tires would not cut loose and after three tries Dave gave up on it. Harkey rebounded from that mishap with a huge, towering jump off the near set leaving Bigfoot seemingly motionless in the air before slamming back down to Earth and off the cars. He went for the donuts one more time but skidded into the far set and ended the run. Great air from Bigfoot but the failed donuts hurt the momentum. Score: 7.
Raminator-- After winning the Wheelie Contest, the road to a complete sweep was underway for Mark Hall. He won freestyle last year with a wild and out of control performance and would need to duplicate it here to surpass Big Dawg. Hall went for the blue set first and shot across with a decent jump but the truck seemed to die out mid-jump. Hall slowly turned towards the middle of the floor and went for the donuts. He whipped the truck around very fast one time but again the truck just was not all there and certainly looked to be struggling with any type of move. He went to hit the blue cars again but got no where. Raminator came to a stop on top of the cars with a broken pinion in the rear end and the home town jinx of sorts would knock Hall out for the rest of the night. Score: 2.
Rammunition-- Last year Benear did not do well in freestyle, finishing last among the five trucks. This time he goes last and has to not only top Big Dawg but now represent his entire team with the downfall of Raminator. Never give Dale a challenge unless you plan on having him destroy it. Benear went for the blue cars first and attacked them aggressively and definitely not lined up correctly as the truck immediately tilted off to the right side and only had one wheel touching and that was on the concrete! He looked to be in some serious trouble but managed to get the truck to lean back over the right way and pulled it back down. Wild way to kick off the run and he was ready for more. Back to the blue set and this time a huge long distance flight across the cars being the first guy to clear them all on the night! He hit two back to back really nice jumps on the white set and had no signs of slowing down yet. He followed up with another big flight over the blue cars and then it was donut time. He found the groove quickly and lit up the track with a powerful display of donuts spinning Rammunition down the floor and almost into the wall. He spun out of it and charged right back to the cars. Two more shots over the white cars and Benear parked the truck to soak up the applause. Excellent, fast paced and full of energy run that was going to cause a big split in the freestyle judging. George Eisenhart had to do the voting three times before there was finally a clear winner and it went to Rammunition! Score: 10.
Was very tough to pick a winner between Noelke and Benear. Big Dawg had the better sets of donuts but did not get the kind of air that Rammunition did. The momentum Benear held was also slightly better than Noelke and therefore he gets the freestyle win from me too. Close competition from all the drivers. Before the event headed into intermission, the was one big, loud and hot act to go. Mike West brought the American Thunder Jet Jeep to light up Assembly Hall. West scorched up the floor with some incredible flames and gave folks at the ends of the stadium and big face full of dust and smoke in return.
After intermission, we were given a performance by Transaurus, Megasaurus' twin dino-robot car eater. Transaurus munched up a car but then gave some fans and me a very big scare...
After the lights were back on and Trans was done munching on the car, the drivers turned the big lug around as to go out the tunnel but never lowered the dino back into the transporter. Now normally just sitting there would not be such a big problem except the front row of seats was about 10 feet away! Transaurus' mouth and arms were almost within reach of these people, some of whom were freaked out of their minds and others that were laughing. I, on the other hand, was extremely terrified to think that the stupid dinosaur's fire functions may still be active and one small slip up could be a God-awful tragedy! That thing sat there for over 5 minutes while I trembled in my seat and so did everyone sitting in front of it. Thankfully nothing happened and everyone managed to get a chuckle out of it on that side of the arena.
I see nothing funny about the situation though and everyone involved needs to be aware of obvious and deadly repercussions of as leaving fans so vulnerable. Even if the fire system was "off" does not mean something can't go wrong.
Each monster truck would get one shot over the cars to determine their time and place in the racing bracket. With Raminator out, there would be no Bye run for the #1 Qualifier, instead they would be up against the #4 truck. Big Dawg was out first and had a decent leap over the cars, was slowed down a bit with a soft bounce on top of the cars. Nitemare struggled a bit more though as the white set threw the truck into the middle of the sets. Bigfoot had a quick run as Harkey stayed very low over the cars and did not get much air at all. Benear in Rammunition was last to go and smoked the course to the #1 spot as he cleared the cars again. With the brackets set, it was right into racing.
Big Dawg vs. Bigfoot-- In their match up last year it was Noelke taking the low road while Harkey was looking like a rocket in a huge wheel stand followed by a sickening pogo off the nose on the concrete knocking Harkey for a loop. This time the lanes have been switched, but will the outcome? They inched to the line and were locked on the light. Slight hole shot to Harkey as he hit the cars and again stayed very low keeping the tires on the cars and hustled across the line first while Noelke was getting too much air for the victory in the far lane. Winner: Bigfoot.
Nitemare vs. Rammunition-- Benear has been very strong in racing all year long on the Monster Nationals tour while Nitemare has been hit and miss in the win column. Benear was loaded for a fight and drilled the green out of the hole and blasted into the air but was aimed more towards the right of the cars and in the other lane Hoffman did not get a straight shot off the line either and was headed to the left of his set. Both of those factors meant trouble! The trucks were both diving into the middle of the track and I could almost see it coming...Benear sailed over the finish line and his right rear tire hit the door of Nitemare! Rammunition bounced off the front tire of Nitemare and back to the ground with the win while Hoffman was left with a huge oval tire mark that looked more like some rubbing action on the Nascar track. Hoffman and Benear were fine after their minor collision and the tire mark seemed to be the only real damage done. A wild race that this building always seems to produce. Winner: Rammunition.
Bigfoot vs. Rammunition-- The main event has arrived! Harkey has been consistent in everything so far and staying low has been a strong point to winning. Benear has come through for the Dodge boys and has used every cubic inch of power in the engine and every inch of floor space on his landings to get into the Finals. The crowd was in favor of Rammunition by just a bit as they edged up to the line. The tree went green and both trucks roared off the line in unison and nailed the cars as hard as possible. Harkey went away from the stay low strategy and was leaping into the air along side Benear. Just as they looked to be dead even in the air, Benear exploded past Harkey mid-flight and shot across the finish line first and landed way beyond the fifth car, he could've clear at least one more. Awesome aerial war between Bigfoot and Rammunition. Winner: Rammunition.
Benear celebrated his huge win with another leap over the cars and topped it off with a quick donut before acknowledging the pumped up crowd.
As the drivers headed up through the masses to the autograph session, I jumped onto the floor to get a close up look at the Nitemare damage. Indeed it was merely surface damage as the door was not even dented in, just a had a new color to it!
Crews began tearing down the trucks to be ready to shove off as soon as possible. Big Dawg was tired down in a hurry as Dale Gerding and Brenda Noelke made short work of the tires and then raced across the building and tore Bigfoot down in a matter of minutes as well.
I was not about to get in the way so I took my cue to exit. HUGE Thanks to George Eisenhart of Monster Nationals for the platform given to the WMTRL and I to present Mark Hall with his award. We'd really love the opportunity to do it in Champaign again and perhaps at other events if needed. Thanks to Brenda Noelke for her camera work as without her there would not have been any pictures of the moment. Great job by the entire Monster Nationals team and by each truck & driver to put on another memorable Champaign Assembly Hall show. When the Monster Nats roll through your town, be sure not to miss a moment of the excitement like you've see here!