Milwaukee Thunder Nationals
Friday Night

My first stop on 2004 winter season would be the same place as in 2002, the U.S Cellular Arena in Milwaukee Wisconsin. I can't say that was a memorable experience with security hassles at that event, nor was it a super show minus the donuts put down by Paul Stender, but I headed back up north as this year's event fell on the last weekend that I was still home in Chicago on break from school and I wanted some monster truck action!
But the real big selling point on making the trip to Milwaukee was that thanks to Mike McFarlin at CCE, I was granted a pass that would get me around the high strung security guards with my camera. Plus, Steve Maver and his Dad would be working the show as USHRA techs so they also arranged access for us. Sweet indeed! Big Thanks to Steve for supplying some pictures as well as he's got a much better camera than me and was able to nail a bunch of shots I missed. Enough of that mumbo-jumbo, its time to meet the monsters!

Truck/Driver Lineup:

Black Stallion--Michael Vaters

Rap Attack--Dave Rappach

Full Boar--Ed Eckert

Rolling Thunder--Jim Bendzick

Godzilla--Steve Hearly

Its been quite awhile since I've seen Rap Attack and I've never had the opportunity to see Rolling Thunder run so I was very anxious to see the trucks hit the track. It was the normal Thunder Nationals setup of 5 cars in each lane, no vans added for this event. Wheelie, Donut and Freestyle would all be included rounded out with side-by-side racing. First up, the Wheelie contest!

Wheelie Contest

Full Boar-- The last time I saw Ed get the first crack at some fresh cars he stood the truck straight up and down and fell right over backwards on his roof in Peoria:

Ed might have had that in the back of his mind as he lined up for his jump but I don't think it was fear, it was motivation. Ed mashed Full Boar at the cars and stood the truck straight up and down and for a split second I swore the truck was going over backwards again! Ed planted the rear of the truck hard into the first car and was able to bring it back down on all 4s safely. Awesome way to open the night! Score: 10. Of course I totally blew the shot but Steve pulled through with two beautiful shots of the jump.

Godzilla-- A very tough act to follow for Steve Hearly in Godzilla but I know he was up to it. Steve has stepped up his game big time and will be making a run for the Thunder Nationals title in 2004. Hearly lined up to the other fresh set of cars and rolled up slow before stomping down on the gas and sending Godzilla vertical as well. Nearly straight up and down with Hearly still on the throttle and walked Godzilla across half the stack. Another excellent jump. Score: 8.

Rolling Thunder-- Jim Bendzick rolled Rolling Thunder onto the track for his shot at the cars. He chose the lane Godzilla had just went after and took a different approach to the cars. Jim carried some speed with him to the cars and rocketed into the air with a great leap. Not as vertical as the other two trucks but he did get some good distance off the jump. I'm diggin' Rolling Thunder so far! Score: 7.

Rap Attack-- Dave Rappach has bounced from small Thunder Nats shows up to big 16 truck Monster Jam shows and everywhere in between. This weekend he was out to dominate the tight concrete race course. Rappach took the right lane for his jump and used the roll to the cars then hit it approach. It did not work as well as Dave would've like and he got more of a long jump rather than a wheelstand. Not a bad jump by any means though. Score: 5.

Black Stallion-- Mike Vaters was back to make a run at the 2004 Thunder Nationals championship and even before he's hit the track, the competition has raised the bar for him. Vaters is always up for a challenge and lined up in the left lane for his jump. Vaters mashed Black Stallion and pulled the truck up into a perfect rolling wheelstand, carrying the front tires all the way across the 5 cars. Excellent jump and it earned him the crowd vote win, but I'm going to give it to Full Boar because he clearly stood it up the best. Score: 9.

In between competitions we had to suffer through some really awful Quad Wars between team Milwaukee and team California. The only entertaining part was the captain for Cali rippin' on the WI fans and telling them how the Philadelphia Eagles were going to destroy the Packers on Sunday since I'm an Eagles fan. It put the crowd into a fury and I took pleasure in rooting for Cali. But I would not dare put you viewers through any more Quad Wars talk so its back to the monsters!

Donut Contest

Godzilla-- With the open concrete area mostly covered in coke syrup for the quad riders, cutting the monster tires loose was not going to be a simple task. Hearly had difficulty at first getting any kind of rotation but on his third try, the tires cut loose and Godzilla was spinnin'! Hearly ripped off a great set of donuts and nearly wacked into the cars at the end. Score: 8.

Full Boar-- I've never seen Ed pull donuts with Full Boar on concrete before, plenty on dirt but not on the floor so I did not know how the truck would react. Ed wasted no time letting me know and everyone else just how good Full Boar could pull some donuts. He found a slick area of the floor and ripped off an incredible display of donuts, spinning around at least 7 or 8 times with the tires smokin'! He held the steering wheel out the window to top it all off. Score: 10

Rap Attack-- Dave Rappach was up next and he went about trying to pull donuts a little bit different. He tried to incorporate momentum into his donuts by getting the truck up to speed then cutting the steering loose to get some spin going. The plan worked at first but with no locker in the back, two or three tires would get going and then the others would rise off the ground killing the donut. Rappach gave it a few tries and smoked the tires nicely for his efforts but no real complete donuts. Score: 4.

Rolling Thunder-- I was impressed with Bendzick's wheelie efforts, but would the donut competition bring about the same results? Bendzick lurked about the track trying and trying to get a donut going but just never could. He came closer to rolling the truck over than he did to a donut. It looked as if the air pressure in the tires was just way too high and Rolling Thunder wanted to bounce no matter what. Score: 2.

Black Stallion-- After 20+ years in monster truck racing, Vaters knows how to pull donuts. But would the floor let him? Answer: nope. Black Stallion suffered the same fate as Rolling Thunder and nearly turned it over a few times and never came close to getting a complete revolution. No sweep for the night this time. Score: 2.


On the Thunder Nats course there's nothing extra for the monsters to work with so its basically a race against the 60second clock to see who can get off the most jumps the quickest. The 60second time limit is totally lame and needs to be removed. Would it really kill them to cut 5 minutes off intermission to give each monster extra time to run?! Thats what people want to see anyways! Just frustrates me. Anyways...Most of the hits in Freestyle ended up in the left lane as with the setup, that was the easiest and quickest lane for the trucks to get to and get lined up straight with.

Full Boar-- Ed started with a good jump on the left lane clearing almost all five cars, then proceeded to tear up the concrete again with more donuts. A definite plus for this freestyle competition; adding something else besides just jumps. Ed followed up with two more leaps out of the left lane and in a blink of an eye the 60sec are gone. Score: 7.

Godzilla-- Steve Hearly stormed Godzilla onto the track and attacked the cars as if they were King Ghidorah. An awesome rolling wheelstand off the left lane opened his run and Steve was hard on the gas to get the truck back around to get another quick crack at the cars. He headed to the left set again and blasted Godzilla straight up and down with a Gi-Normous (yes I just made a word) wheelstand and carried it across half the set before sliding off into the middle. HUGE! But Hearly didn't miss a beat and immediately got to open space and tore off some quick donuts and then was right back to the attack on Mothera...errr...the cars. This time a crossed up-sideways hit on the right lane which produced an alright jump. Hearly wasn't going to end on that note and circled back for a last hit on the left lane and launched Godzilla way up in the air clearing the entire set of cars with another giant leap! Excellent run! Score: 10.

Rolling Thunder-- The focus of Jim's freestyle was obviously going to be on the cars with having no luck in getting a donut going. His first jump out of the left lane was another great one, dragging the rear wheels across 4 of the 5 cars and thundering down on the concrete. Jim put the peddle down and circled back to the set as fast as he could for another great hit, this time getting big air under all four wheels and coming near to clearing the five cars. Having tackled the left side enough, he switched and went for the right lane and a got good leap but the big air seems to be coming from that left side. His final jump on the left row was one with good distance to close out the run. Score: 6.

Rap Attack-- With not having great performances in either the wheelie or donut contests, Rappach was going to have to step it up a bit to knock off the trucks before him as they were laying down some big jumps and solid runs. Rappach began with a good jump on the right lane but didn't get much height as with the massive shock travel in the back, the rear axle tends to stay much lower to the ground. His second jump now in the left side was almost identical to his previous one. So if going forwards isn't working, what can you do? Go backwards! Rappach lined Rap Attack up in the right lane for a reverse jump and the crowd was rustling with anticipation. Rappach nailed the gas and sent Rap Attack flying over the junkers in reverse with a great leap and nearly cleared all five cars. Good way to mix up the run and the crowd was digging it. Score: 6.

Black Stallion-- The Godfather of the Thunder Nationals and one of the craziest guys ever when it comes to freestyle, Mike Vaters in Black Stallion was the final truck to run. He started in the left lane with a huge vertical wheelstand getting all four off the ground and some great distance as well. Just when I figured this was going to be a really awesome run, Vaters was lined up ready for his finale! He crawled across the left lane cars the opposite direction and prepared for a reverse jump of his own to try and top Rappach. Vaters got as much space in-between him and cars as possible and mashed Stallion in reverse, hit the cars and went soaring into the air totally clearing all the cars and landing very very hard on the concrete. Excellent reverse jump once again from Mike Vaters. Unfortunately, a two jump freestyle isn't going to win it in my books, it did for the crowd judges, but not here. Score: 5.

*Yawn* Intermission *Yawn*

Racing Round 1

Rap Attack vs. Full Boar--

After freestyle, the two lanes were clearly different. The left lane was still like an iron wall as the first car, an old Towne Car, just was not crushing down while in the other lane, the first car was well mashed down and provided a nice ramp to launched the trucks straight to the finish. The trucks lined up and when the light went green Rap Attack went up and Full Boar went nowhere. Rappach had an easy run across the line as Eckert never got up the cars. The transmission blew out in Full Boar resulting in the loss. Winner: Rap Attack.

Godzilla vs. Rolling Thunder--

Both of these trucks/drivers have run hard all night in their efforts to knock off the big guns and now must get by each other to make it to the next round. Bendzick left just ahead of Hearly and both trucks slammed into the cars with a ton of force, grabbing some big air in both lanes. Rolling Thunder pulled a moonshot of a jump and completely cleared the cars with the truck pointed vertical the whole way across. Hearly had a big jump of his own in the right lane but still stayed much lower than Bendzick. The best race of the night and probably the most air of the night with the jump by Rolling Thunder. But the huge jump came at a price and that was handing the win to Godzilla. Winner: Godzilla.

Racing Round 2

Black Stallion vs. Rolling Thunder--

Rolling Thunder would re-emerge as the Fast Loser from Round 1 and would get stuck against Black Stallion and be put right back in the skyward launching left lane. Bendzick wasn't about to back down to the former Thunder Nationals champion and was ready to pull the upset. They both left about the same but it was the lanes that decided this race as Stallion hardly got any air, just all speed, while Rolling Thunder was once again reaching for the stars with another huge jump. Quite the aerial display from Jim Bendzick on the night but it was a downfall in racing. Winner: Black Stallion.

Godzilla vs. Rap Attack--

Both were winners in Round 1 but only one truck could get the right lane and that went to Godzilla. The advantage was now quite clear but could Rappach be the first to win out of the bad lane? Rappach drilled him on the line and launched off the cars with his biggest jump of the night putting some serious air space under Rap Attack. Meanwhile, Hearly kept it low and fast over in the right lane and snuck across the finish line underneath the skyward Rap Attack. Winner: Godzilla. But his win now came with a price as even with staying lower to the ground, Godzilla suffered some major damage. The frame broke in two places on the front drivers side and it would keep Godzilla out of the Finals.

Racing Finals!

Black Stallion vs. Rap Attack--

A little luck for both trucks have brought them to meet in the Finals. Stallion lucked out with the good lane in his only race plus having a Round 1 Bye, while Rap Attack ran hard both times but gets by on the break rule. The mind games started to set it too. Vaters and Rappach took more than their sweet time to make sure the truck was lined up just how they wanted. Rappach was in the bad lane again but positioned the truck more to the right side to try and cut down on the height on the jump. The trucks were finally set and the crowd was ready for a winner. The light hit green and they both tore off the line in a hurry with Rap Attack hitting the cars first and sailing across nice and low, but Black Stallion managed to stay more level and still closer to the ground and snuck underneath Rap Attack for the win. A very close and hard fought race but Vaters pulled it out. Winner: Black Stallion.

On the landing something broke on the rear axle of Rap Attack and caused the wheels to turn inward on both sides. Looked like just a tie rod from my view but it was well beyond that. Rappach thought a bolt had just broke off but turns out parts were damaged inside the axle and planetary assembly that would keep Rappach busy welding into the night and much the next day.

As the show let out Steve came over to where we were sitting and we chatted for a bit before he had to go attend to some track cleanup. My Dad and I headed out to the autograph table area and waited for the line to die out as I had to talk with Dave Rappach about Saturday Night (yes, Saturday! I'm just getting to it).
I know you're thinking to yourself "Now where are all the stories and drama that come along with every coverage on MidwestMonsters?" Well that will surely change as after heading 2 hours back to Chicago, I turned around early Saturday and went right back to Milwaukee! It was a kind of last minute deal but I would be helping Dave Rappach out with Rap Attack on Saturday and I just couldn't pass it up.
The monster truck action Friday night was great, one of the better Thunder Nationals I've been to. But what lurks around the corner for Saturday night? Drivers break through, trucks just simply break and by the night's end, I was the one about to break. It's all just one click away!

Saturday Night Thunder Nationals!