The winter monster
truck racing season is all about indoor events. Big domes and stadiums for some, but the
rest are pretty much hockey rink size. Assembly Hall on the University of Illinois campus
goes even one step further. It is not in the square or rectangle shape like most
buildings, it is a circle. Not Superdome sized either, try soda can size.
I was a bit skeptical in 2003, going there my first time and seeing just how tiny the venue was. But the show was outstanding and the Monster Nationals continued to impress me. 2004 would bring a new set of monsters back for a 1 night only battle...a battle that quickly turned Assembly Hall into an all out war zone!
Nitemare--Andy Hoffman. After a four year absence from the Monster Nationals, Nitemare is back. The lone Chevy in the field would have the backing of the heavily biased Chevy crowd much like War Wagon always did. Hoffman had a strong showing in Springfield on the big out door track when I saw him last, but can he adjust back to the small setting?
Big Dawg--Doug Noelke. Big Dawg joined the Monster Nationals circuit late last summer and didn't hesitate to start racking up victories including a clean sweep of the night at the outdoor Champaign event. But we've moved indoors and lost a lot of space, will Noelke remain the big dawg in town?
Bigfoot--Dave Harkey. Eric Tack was the full time Bigfoot driver on the Monster Nationals circuit in prior years but in his stepping down, someone had to step up. Harkey is no stranger to the Monster Nationals as he filled in for Tack at several events over the years and did very well in the XBOX bodied Bigfoot. In my only other two times seeing Harkey race, he won both times, can he go 3 for 3?
RAMmunition--Dale Benear. At this show last year, Benear performed pretty well and went head to head with Mark Hall in the racing finals. He also was very strong at the outdoor event in July and continued to build momentum throughout the summer. Benear is not one to overlook and you better keep your eye on RAMmunition.
RAMinator--Mark Hall. The reigning Monster Nationals Champion and hometown hero, Mark Hall, won this event last year against brother-in-law Dale Benear but got blown out at the July event by RAMmunition. Hometown pressure, family pressure and 4 other monsters that want to snatch away everything RAMinator currently has.
Belly up to the
keyboard because its time for the event story! The date was February 7th and the weather
flat out sucked all across Illinois. It was cold and rainy down in Edwardsville and
snowing like crazy up in Champaign. The weather caused the drive to take much longer than
it should have but I made it time for the pit party. Steve Maver would also be attending
this event but he made a stop at the Peoria Monster Jam earlier in the day for a show and
then would drive over to Champaign. Two shows in one day, I must be an influence. Anyways,
I pushed and shoved my way around the packed pit party and talked with each driver and
spent time chatting with Brenda Noelke & Dale Gerding while they flipped through a
bunch of my pictures. I ended up being the last person to leave the pit party as on my way
out I spotted June Hall and had to catch up with her for a bit. I eventually made my way
out of the building and headed over to McDonalds to meet up with Steve. We sat in there
and chatted for about an hour and Steve showed me some digital shots from the Peoria show,
which he said, really wasn't worth the trip. Champaign would be his first indoor Monster
Nationals event and was hoping for a better performance than at Peoria.
Showtime was approaching so we headed our separate ways back to the arena. My nice close to the door parking spot was gone and I would be stuck a 1/4 mile away parking in a half foot of snow. I made my way inside and found out my seat was front row right on the starting line and also right next to the Big Dawg pit area. Pretty good spot minus the big sonotube half blocking my view but I worked around it. Steve would be across the arena from me right on the finish line so we had both angles covered. Enough yellow text and no action, its time for the Monster Nationals!!
RAMmunition vs. RAMinator
The first event of the night would have the TeamRAM and hometown boys battling each other in the donut contest. To give the trucks some added room to work with, the fifth car from each row would not put in place until afterwards. With the already tight space, removing two cars did help a lot. Dale Benear would get the first go at it and started slow trying to get the tires into a groove. After a lot of slip-sliding around the floor the truck hooked up and RAMmunition went spinning in a fast and tight set of donuts. He didn't travel too far with the spin and it left a thick black circle on the floor that looked kind of like a donut. Oh now I get why they call it that!...ok I'll stop the jokes. A great opening to the show and the near capacity crowd was hot already.
Mark Hall rumbled RAMinator onto the floor next to try and out due RAMmunition. It looked at first that Hall was not going to get a donut going as he was taking much longer than Benear did to get any kind of revolution started. He finally got it to hook in and stuck his foot to the floor. RAMinator spun like wild into some wicked fast donuts, sending the truck spiraling out of control right towards the wall and just when I thought he was going to smack the seats, the RII was used to cut RAMinator off. A ballistic set of donuts that spun RAMinator from one side of the bowl to the other and had George Eisenhart running for his life and even Steve who was 9 row up taking cover. The crowd went nuts for RAMinator and even though it sounded like they were favoring him more, it was called a tie. Hall gets it in my view.
Big Dawg vs. Bigfoot
The two Dodge trucks went at it, now it was time for the Fords to match up. Doug Noelke hit the track first and lined up for the blue set of cars. Noelke creped Big Dawg up to the cars and then stabbed the gas trying to get the truck to stand on end. But the truck slipped to the side in the air and the back tires never got a good launch, spinning the first car out backwards. A 45degree angle jump that was pretty good but not what Doug hoped for.
Harkey was probably on the sidelines taking mental notes on what just happened to Big Dawg and looked to improve. He lined Bigfoot up in the red lane and attacked the fresh cars aggressively and stood Bigfoot nearly straight up on the first car and kept in the gas, walking Bigfoot across the first three cars before smacking down on the rest. Excellent wheel stand for Bigfoot and the contest win.
Quad racing and the American Thunder Jet Jeep were the two fillers for the show. The Quad racing was pretty good but had a nasty wreck as 5 rides got tangled up in the tight turn around the blue set in front of Big Dawg. One quad went sailing into Big Dawg's tire but both truck and driver were fine. Mike West in the jeep ignited Assembly Hall up and burned around the circle in a impressive display of skill, keeping the jeep under control around the narrow floor space. And who isn't a sucker for 15 feet of flames shooting out the back of something!
No 60 second time limit, no rules and no room for error. All five trucks would get a crack at the cars to go nuts and show the crowd all they had. The trucks would be allowed to take on the cars from pretty much every angle as long as they kept it safe.
RAMmunition-- Benear gunned RAMmunition out of the pit area and went right for the back side of the red set and started with a good jump. He was having some trouble navigating the truck on the other side and getting it lined up for the cars correctly. He struggled to do so on his next two jumps resulting in not very much air at all. Benear got himself squared up for a hit on the red set but the truck just wouldn't get up in the air like Dale wanted. He parked the truck obviously disappointed with the run and having struggled in freestyle the past two years. Score: 3.
Big Dawg-- Doug Noelke won the outdoor freestyle in Champaign last July against two of these same trucks, but the conditions have changed greatly. Noelke started the same way Benear did with a nice hit on the red set getting some good air. He was also having problems maneuvering around behind the blue set of cars but not as much as RAMmunition and was able to pull off some decent jumps. Noelke continued to beat up on the blue set of cars, now from the back side, getting two excellent jumps. First one more of a vertical wheel stand and the next a sweet leap with all four tires in the air and nearly cleared the cars. A solid run for Big Dawg. Score: 5.
Nitemare-- The Chevy fans were jacked as this would be Hoffman's first time on the track and I was pumped because I knew the crazy, banzai style runs Hoffman has done before in Monster Nationals and was hoping he'd lay one down tonight. His first hit on the blue row set the pace for the run as he burst out of the pits and slammed into the cars, almost clearing them. He brought Nitemare back around this time for the red cars and had a pretty good jump. But he backed up the jump by hitting the ground and immediately cutting loose with a wicked donut, spinning the truck across the arena floor. There's the Nitemare I remember! Hoffman lined up the blue set but did not hit them very hard and instead crawled across them....setting up a reverse jump! But in doing so, it sounded as if the transmission was slipping and I began to wonder if he'd even get one off. The crowd was already going wacko as Andy had the truck in place. He hit the gas but Nitemare hardly nudged the cars. Andy rolled the truck forward again, threw it back into reverse and slammed his foot to the floor! Nitemare exploded the first car and didn't touch anything else until crashing to the concrete way on the other side of the floor. A massive reverse jump that dare I say would have Mike Vaters scratching his head. The near sell out crowd about blew the roof off the place after that jump. Score: 7.
Bigfoot-- Very tough act to follow for Dave Harkey. Not only the huge reverse jump, but the pro-Chevy crowd was already booing the Fords and Dodges, ouch! But Harkey wasn't about to make them shut their mouths, more like let their jaws drop. Harkey followed suit with Big Dawg and RAMmunition and attacked the back of the red set first with a decent jump. Harkey swung around and lined up for the blue cars and launched Bigfoot in the best jump over the blue set by far. He brought Bigfoot back around and did nearly the same thing again on the blue side, two excellent jumps. The blue set is being annihilated, taking almost all the hits from each truck. Harkey blasted Bigfoot over the red set with a good long jump and was about ready to cap off the run. Harkey got to the center of the floor and ripped off an incredible donut display, leaving rubber all over the concrete. Harkey let out of the gas and the truck continued to spin around 3 more times before coming to a halt. Awesome run that pleased Chevy, Ford & Dodge fans alike and especially pleased George Eisenhart who asked Dave some donuts in freestyle. You ask and you shall receive! Score: 8
RAMinator-- Speed and just plain being reckless is what won the freestyle here last year for Mark Hall and he picked right up where 2003 left off. He charged RAMinator at the blue set and skied the truck waaaaaaayyyy up and over the cars with a great jump to open the run. Hall was not taking time to slow down and line up his jumps and was just attacking the cars the quickest way possible. He jumped the blue set again and I swear before all four tires hit the ground, Hall already had the truck spinning into another awesome set of donuts. The momentum kept flowing for RAMinator and Hall attacked the red set with a crazy leap sending the truck sideways towards the wall which sent some people scattering but Mark brought it around fine. He took on the red set again, much more straight and this time much more air. Back over to the blue set with a jump that was way off the mark but looked pretty cool as RAMinator nearly rolled as the last car got caught under the truck and it had rocked way up on two wheels. Hall hit the red set and came across them sideways and parked on top, saluting the crowd to end his run. Great run and deserving the Freestyle Win in my view. Score: 10. He improvised and used the track space better than anyone and in a no holds barred way. The crowd voted Nitemare the winner and taking nothing away from Andy's great run, but the heavy Chevy bias played the key role there.
No breakage to report from freestyle which means all trucks will be in racing. Nitemare will take the BYE run in Round 1 from being voted the Freestyle winner. The blue lane to me looked to be the good lane for racing. It was beat down and took the majority of hits in freestyle. While the red lane looked like it was going to favor big air as it wasn't touched nearly as much. That shall be the last time I ever judge lane conditions...
Racing Round 1
Bigfoot vs. RAMmunition--
I'm not quite sure how to even go about calling this race. Harkey and Benear threw down one of the biggest aerial displays of horsepower in monster truck history, no doubt. Having seen thousands of monster truck races in hundreds of different venues and tracks, NONE have ever made me literally sit there and say "what did I just see?" I will let the pictures speak for the race and will try to fill in the blanks as best as humanly possible.
The side by side rocket launching jumps by Bigfoot and RAMmunition were two of the biggest ever for this style of track. Harkey was near vertical the entire jump and leaped across the cars at an angle, shooting the truck towards the wall. He cleared the cars without struggle and stopped within inches of the wall to pick up the win. Meanwhile, Dale Benear was...hell, I don't even know what you'd call it. The truck hit the cars with a titanic amount of force sending it all the way vertical and then some. I thought the truck was going to flip over backwards in the middle of the jump. My camera was aimed at the finish line so the truck is on its way down in that shot. RAMmunition's rear tires landed extremely hard and sent the truck's nose crashing to the ground in a sick looking pogo landing. The crowd went frickin' wild. I felt like I was back at World Finalz III when Gunslinger went sailing into the Vegas sky over the Highjump. Even then I don't think those 60,000 people made more noise than the 15,000 inside Assembly Hall. We all knew we just saw something that doesn't happen often. But there were some of us that, like me, just sat there...wondering...puzzled...dumbfounded. My jaw hung open as I looked across the arena and saw Steve Maver with his hands on his head, shocked as well. Honest to God it took me several minutes to even take my eyes off the track. People are always asking about a "shocking moment" or what was one of the wildest monster truck moments ever, well, write my vote in now for Dale Benear, RAMmunition, February 7th, 2004. Folks, this was only the first race!
Dawg vs. RAMinator--
These two have traded wins all over the country in the past 2 years battling on long tracks and on several 5 car drags like what beckons them here. Experience here goes to Hall but does experience out weigh hole shot and a lead foot? The light hit green and Noelke wasted Hall on the line! Big Dawg stayed low and fast over in the blue lane while RAMinator lept high to try and catch him but it wasn't going to happen. Big Dawg stuns the hometown favorite by a half truck length. Winner: Big Dawg.
Racing Round 2
Dawg vs. Bigfoot--
The two winners from Round 1 would square off next. Noelke was pleased with his run in the red lane and chose there again, sticking Harkey over in the nasty blue lane. Both drivers drilled the light and left side by side, hard to the cars. But Noelke let up on the gas right at the cars then got back in to the throttle keeping Big Dawg low and very fast to the finish. Meanwhile...oh my. Harkey was full tilt to the cars and never thought about lifting. The result was another incredible moon shot of a jump that carried the rear tires in the air across 4 cars and then spiked them in the last car causing the rear end to bounce up even before the front end landed. This chain reaction sent Bigfoot's front wheels SLAMMING to the ground with the sickest of thuds. That is some ridiculous air coming out of the blue lane. Winner: Big Dawg.
After that extremely harsh landing, Dave Harkey was very shaken up. He did not move from Bigfoot until after the next race when it was noticed he was hurt. Paramedics came down to the truck to try and assist but were called off. Harkey remained in the truck not moving too much until the show concluded and then was helped to the back area to be checked out. I did not hear anything else on his condition and haven't heard since so I'm presuming he came out fine but it was a scary scene for a bit.
RAMinator vs. Nitemare--
Mark Hall gets boo'd again coming to the line! Chevy fans are ruthless, my God! Nitemare has been on the track twice and has been a winner twice. Hall won the donuts and should've won Freestyle but he was caught napping in Round 1. Hoffman took his opportunity and stuck Hall in the bad lane but did Hall learn something after watching his teamate and even himself get way too much air? Hoffman was quicker on the light again and was just ahead as they hit the cars. RAMinator was not going as hard as RAMmunition or Bigfoot were and it showed as Hall stayed much lower to the cars in the blue lane. Hoffman didn't let up and got the biggest air so far over in the red lane. This was a very tight race but that slight hole shot for Nitemare is what got the win. Winner: Nitemare.
Nitemare vs. Big Dawg--
Did you pick these two to be in the Finals? I had bet on Big Dawg but honestly didn't even consider Nitemare, my apologies Chevy fans. I thought he would be out matched and out thought with being away from Monster Nationals for 4 years. But here he is matched up with the truck that has booted the Dodge boys from Assembly Hall and made it Big Dawg's yard. Who would own the town tonight!? Noelke had lane choice and stayed in the red lane, moving Hoffman to unfamiliar territory. The light hit Green and Noelke hit the gas first getting Big Dawg out to a slight lead before the cars. He did not let out and neither did Hoffman but Big Dawg still managed to stay low to the cars while Nitemare was flying high with a big leap to catch up but all the Chevy fans in the world weren't going to power Nitemare passed da Dawg! Big Dawg takes it by a half truck and goes two for two in Champaign! Winner: Big Dawg.
After his victory, Noelke put on an encore Freestyle with a few jumps around the cars. After winning the July event, there was a whole bunch of new Big Dawg fans and they just grew quite a bit stronger this night.
One helluva night of monster truck racing action in Champaign! Congrats to Doug Noelke for the racing victory and to all the drivers for doing an awesome job all night. Steve Maver and I quickly, and without hesitation, labeled this show Best Indoor Event ever that we'd been to and that is covering some major mileage right there. I wouldn't be surprised if this ranks near the top for my Best Show of 2004 at the end of the year. I told you to go to a Monster Nationals show, didn't I? You will not be disappointed.
Big thanks to George Eisenhart, the entire Big Dawg crew as always, Steve Maver, TeamRAM and to Larry Swim who I spotted in the arena and talked with for a minute. Monster Nationals will head outdoors at the Champaign County Fairgrounds again this July 29th! So plan on getting yourself there. Will I be there? Welllll...that's up in the air at the moment. Because guess what happens to fall on that same day: Valparaiso. The July Valpo event returns and its one night only. This is not going to be a fun choice.
Thanks for stopping by
and I hope you enjoyed the coverage!