Halfway between the big city of Chicago and the sprawling corn fields of Indiana, sits the Porter County Fairgrounds in Valparaiso. A town that over the past 5 years has seen some of the best monster truck lineups, events and tracks that has turned Valpo into a name known the world over in monster trucks. With the summer racing season beginning to wind down, only one place was left to be conquered. On July 28th, the monsters rolled into the Valpo and the fight for supremacy began...
The first journey though was just the painful trip to the event. Chicago traffic sucks. If you think it's bad wherever you are, you haven't seen crap until you try going down I-294 South at 5:00pm. Andrew Pellegrine and my Dad met me at work where I was ditching out early and we hoped to make the normal 2-hour trip in good time. WRONG! It took over 3 hours to get to the track! We made it with about half hour to spare thankfully. We met up with Dave Harwood before the event and he informed me that I had screwed up and went to the wrong night at Grayslake. Which indeed I had as him and Larry tore the place down on Wednesday and I was not there, hopefully some redemption this night.
Dave got us three in the gate and because the event was SOLD OUT we hand to bunk up with Bobby Paul around the announcer table down in front. The show was delayed a little bit to let all the people flow in as well to get all the trucks running as some were still in pieces from the previous night. I killed time talking with Sherry Harwood and then tweaking some camera settings, as this would be the first night time shooting with the new gear and more experimentation. As the sun set and darkness fell, the monsters began to roar!
Monster Patrol--Kirk Dabney
Blessed Hellride--Bennett Clark*
Kid Rock/Kevin Harvick #29--Amber Walker
Scorpion King--Larry Swim*
Wild Thang--Dave Harwood
Chicago Outlaw--Rick Busca
Boogey Van--Charlie Miller*
*Valparaiso would be the final resting place for two names/bodies: Blessed Hellride and Scorpion King. Bennett Clark's truck now runs a Kid Rock/Harvick body. Larry Swim's truck has been beat up and running ragged for the past several months and it was now really showing. This was the last show for the Scorpion King name and his truck now runs as a Bearfoot. Boogey Van would be freestyle only as it was not ready for racing.
Track setup was a major let down compared to past years at Valpo. The wide-open space was now limited to only half the area and half of that space was reserved for a giant FMX ramp. Which left the monsters and the tuff trucks running on limited space and running really close to the stands. For the monsters, it was a roller hill at the start and then a short flat drag to a set of five cars. Qualifying would kick off the action to set the field. Unfortunately, it did not go very smooth.
First problem was the dust. Dust everywhere. Plumes of dirt would billow into the air and over the crowd every time a truck went by. A water truck only hit the track twice during the show and it really didn't help too much. The wind blowing into our faces wasn't much of a joy either. Chicago Outlaw was the first to go and Busca ran the course very hard and very fast with a run that stood up for over half the field.
I tried using my flash on a couple shots but they turned out like this:
Am I shooting dust particles or the truck? As you can see, I wasn't kidding about the dust problem. A couple of the trucks were having problems on their run including Amber in the Harvick/Kid Rock truck. A slow pass and the truck did not sound right. Paul Shafer had a very good run in Qualifying, as did Dabney in Monster Patrol. Dave Harwood in Wild Thang was very quick as well. Dabney took the top spot with his new truck while Chicago Outlaw was sitting pretty at #2 when Qualifying ended.
Racing Round 1
Blessed Hellride vs. Harvick #29-- Neither truck performed very well in qualifying but hopefully the bugs had been worked out. A giant hole shot went to Bennett Clark and he had nearly a truck length lead as they crossed the roller. Amber's truck was struggling badly and Bennett cruised down the track to the win. Winner: Blessed Hellride.
Wild Thang vs. Monster Patrol-- Somehow two of the faster trucks in qualifying get stuck paired up in round one. Harwood drilled the light and had a sizeable lead on Dabney over the first hill. But Wild Thang nosed over and bogged as they hit the flat land allowing Dabney to get back in it. Monster Patrol took the lead and the win with Wild Thang unable to rebound. Winner: Monster Patrol.
Evolution vs. Scorpion King-- Winkleman's new truck was looking sharp while Swim's truck had three tires in the grave. Hole shots have been lop sided in the first two races and the trend continued as Winkleman put a hurting on Swim off the line. Evolution had the lead over the hill and poured it on as they went for the final set. Swim was making up ground and if the track was ten feet longer, he may have caught Winkleman. Very fast showing for Evolution and a good run for Scorpion King with a giant leap at the end to try and take it. Only problem was....a redlight. Evolution left too early which resulted in that giant hole shot. As a result, the winner is now Scorpion King.
Chicago Outlaw vs. Frankenstein-- Once again, two of the faster trucks in Qualifying are stuck paired together. They left fairly even off the line with a slight advantage for Shafer. He rolled the first hill nicely but then got a bit off track entering the flat land. Busca was hard on the gas to keep Outlaw thundering down the course. Shafer regained control and pulled ahead as they hit the cars and flew to victory. Chicago Outlaw was nipping at his rear axle though less than a length behind. Winner: Frankenstein.
After Round 1 concluded, several things happened. Tuff trucks hit the course and usually I don't pay much attention to them but I had to because of how close they were to us. But I also perked up when I heard that Scott Chisholm was driving one of the trucks. As some of you may recall, Scott was a hotshot rookie driver for Calvin Carrington and then moved into a Carolina Crusher for Shafer Motorsports. I don't recall which tuff truck he was racing nor did I take any pictures. Wish I could've caught up to him to see what was up but wow I guess I failed on all three aspects there didn't I?
Freestyle Motorcross followed next and I used them as a test for my big lens and flash combination. I was shocked at the quality of pictures I was getting from nearly 100 feet away.
Before the monsters came back out, a little sorting of the brackets had to take place. A dejected Larry Swim came out and spoke to the crowd regarding his truck and how it'd been through hell and back and that last jump put that 4th wheel in the grave. The front axle was hanging by a thread basically and would snap if he hit a jump. Therefore, Scorpion King ends its "legacy" on a rather sour note. Evolution would now return for Round 2 as would Wild Thang and Chicago Outlaw to have a consolation race.
Racing Round 2
Wild Thang vs. Chicago Outlaw-- Two very strong running trucks that got bad breaks in Round 1 are now paired up for bragging rights. Hole shot went to Busca in the Outlaw and he held it over the roller and never let up. Harwood was hot on his tail and powered through no mans land. Busca was not lined up for the cars and was heading towards Wild Thang's lane and slid off the cars allowing Harwood to clear the cars to a win. Busca rode down the side of the cars and was still within a truck length. Winner: Wild Thang
Evolution vs. Monster Patrol-- I would make an argument for Evolution being the favorite in this race as Winklman was clearly quicker and smoother in Round 1 than Dabney was. But Dabney would make up for that quickly with a giant hole shot off the line and carried the front end over the roller hill. Winklman wasn't backing off and tried to reel in Monster Patrol but the big hole shot did him in and Dabney cleared the cars putting him into the Finals. Winner: Monster Patrol.
Blessed Hellride vs. Frankenstein-- Our first battle of the winged trucks and it wasn't going to be the last either as Frankenstein put a hurtin' on Blessed Hellride right off the start. Shafer's truck was sounding very good as he blistered the track with a fast run leaving the laboring truck of Clark falling behind. Winner: Frankenstein.
More FMX and more tuff trucks then into the Finals!
Frankenstein vs. Monster Patrol--
An all 'monster patrol' truck final with shades of last year's Valpo where Dave
Harwood stormed out in the front engined Monster Patrol and beat Dabney's Monster Patrol.
Both trucks have been fast down the track but Dabney has had troubles controlling the new
truck off that roller hill. Both drivers got good launches out of the gate with no hole
shot either way. Each truck rolled the hilled perfect and seemed in good shape as they hit
no mans land. Dabney though has trouble again and Monster Patrol hooked hard to the left
heading right towards the fences, totally missing the final set of cars. Shafer never
looked back and cleared the cars to victory.
Dabney tried to make up for his poor performance by cutting a donut at the end of the track.
Before the monsters headed into freestyle there was some more FMX of course, but there was also something totally different. Before the show I had talked to Amber and she mentioned something about a magic trick. I was like "well, ok?" Here's how it went. Bobby Cox came out and said something about doing a trick and the track crew brought out this big black coffin/box thing. The box was pushed out by a little triangular cart with a big open bottom to it which was covered by a black tarp. You can probably guess where this is going already. After some dialogue, Bobby Cox chickened out and didn't want to do it. So Amber stepped up to the plate. She got in the box and Shafer was to run it over with Frankenstein. Amber got in and Frankenstein fired up and stormed towards the coffin with Amber inside! Oh NO! She'll be crushed!!
The box was destroyed and obviously Amber was nowhere to be found. Frankenstein shut off and out popped who else but Amber herself!
Can't blame them for trying something different. Was just a little too obvious for some of us.
Monster Truck Freestyle
For freestyle the drivers were going to have to be creative and yet
careful at the same time. Only addition to the track was a car-van-car pyramid in the
middle of the track just past the two sets of cars. With such a tight track so close to
ramps and walls and people, momentum was probably not going to happen, instead, drivers
would have to hit big from jump to jump and rely less on speed.
Kid Rock/Harvick truck was out, Scorpion King was out and new driver Charlie Miller would jump behind the repaired Boogey Van to go for a spin.
Chicago Outlaw-- Busca is always the first guy out and he knows he needs to set the bar high every time because of it. He charged out of the pits and hit the back of the cars on the far set hard with a nice jump to open the run. Busca flew down the ramp side of the set and turned the big truck around for a hit on the near set. This time he got Outlaw really up to speed and launched the heavyweight beast way up in the air, clearing the cars and landing on the ramp. Busca went back to the near set with another sweet jump and I chose to use the flash to see how the dust was and obviously it was still nasty. Busca had enough of the cars and lined up down the middle of the track for the pyramid. He smashed down the first car for a little bit of a ramp then backed up.....backed way up! All the way to the roller hills! He mashed the gas and roared Chicago Outlaw to the stack and with no fear slammed into the car and launched off the top of the van sailing up into the air and crashed down with a thundering force compressing all the tires. Huge jump! Good run from Chicago Outlaw as always. Score: 6
Evolution-- Winkleman had a good showing for racing but tends to hold back some in freestyle. This time though he didn't even have a chance to hold back. Evolution hit the cars once with a very small jump and it was obvious something was wrong. Paul limped the truck off to the side and would need a tow off. Score: 1
Boogey Van-- Never seen nor heard of Charlie Miller so did not have an idea of what was to come. Miller took on the cars a few times with some good air, nothing too extreme. Took his time feeling out the truck as a rookie should do. Should get some seat time and hopefully progresses his skills. Score: 3.
Blessed Hellride-- Bennett had good runs the previous two days up in Grayslake but the mechanical bugs have bitten again. This time it was the rear steering. Bennett hobbled over the cars once then rolled back and forth down the track trying to get it out of the "crab-walking" position but wasn't having any luck. He decided to just mash the gas and ended up cutting a couple good donuts. But that was it. Score: 2.
Wild Thang-- Freestyle needed a boost and Dave Harwood was the guy to do it. Harwood blasted over the near set of cars with a big leap to kick off the run. He wasted no time heading to the pyramid and launched over it and then nosed the front of the skull down pretty hard into the ground and tried to pull up a slap wheelie but just couldn't get it. He came back with a jump on the other set of cars and then it was right back to the pyramid. Another nice jump off the van followed by another wicked hard nosedive. Dave came close to the wheelie and went right back for another shot at it. This time he kept the front end higher up in the air, the rear wheels cleared the van, the truck landed flat and Harwood stomped on the gas and danced Wild Thang into a slap wheelie back and forth from two wheels to one. Mission accomplished. Score: 7.
Frankenstein & Monster Patrol-- The two finalists would be the final trucks out and would do duel freestyle. I thought that was kind of nuts considering the limited space but they did a great job of spacing each other out. Dabney kicked off the runs with some big air over the near set of cars, nearly rolling the truck on the landing as it bounced hard to the left. Shafer was right behind him and sailed over the same set as well. Dabney headed to the other end of the track and ripped off an awesome set of donuts sending dust everywhere as if we didn't have enough of it already. Meanwhile, as Dabney was still spinning, Shafer came barreling down the center of the track and flew off the pyramid and yanked up a small slap wheelie. As Shafer cleared the track, Dabney came back at the cars and didn't hit them quite square and the landing resulted in a big nosedive kicking Monster Patrol all over the place. Shafer was headed down the other lane of cars and flew over the far set. He cut to the middle of the track again and took on the pyramid. Dabney was at the near set and lining up a reverse jump! He got a big run at the cars and launched Monster Patrol into the air with a titanic reverse leap clearing all the cars and landing past the on ramp! Huge jump! Shafer cut loose with some donuts of his own at the other end while Dabney was ready to launch over the cars in reverse again. Not as big as his first jump but still good. I had the flash on as you can see, nasty dust again. Frankenstein looked to be done after his last donuts but Dabney was kicking it into high gear. He unleashed another powerful set of donuts followed by a mammoth leap on the near cars to finish out the run. Awesome tandem freestyle performance. Score: 10
The Fallout: The breakage really caught up to the Shafer fleet in Valpo as after over 2 weeks of non-stop shows it was bound to happen. Not a great way for the Blessed Hellride body to end its run nor the way for Scorpion King to end its run either. But both have had much better nights than this one. Can't say enough about Rick Busca in Chicago Outlaw. His third Valpo event and easily his best. Number 2 in qualifying, good performance in racing and then one of the best freestyles on the night and hands down biggest air off the van. If he ever gets a new truck built, look out. Unknowing at the time but this event was the last monster truck race for Dave Harwood in Wild Thang. He performed a couple weeks later at Sycamore Speedway for a short freestyle, his last event. Dave has been forced into retirement due to injuries.
After packing up and trying to shake some of the dust loose from our cameras and bags we headed to the long autograph line. I chatted along the way with pretty much every driver and got pictures signed. Dave Harwood was really feeling the effects of those nosedives off the pyramid and was in some pretty bad pain behind the table. I handed out a few cards and we decided to get on our way back. The trip home took an excruciating 3 HOURS because of nightly lane closures on the highway and massive amounts of traffic. I wanted to just get out and walk home.
Special thanks to Dave & Sherry Harwood, Bobby Paul and everyone with Shafer Motorsports. Thanks for stopping by once again!