Even before he turned 10, Chris Bergeron would pass wrenches and other tools to his dad, who worked on cars at their Clinton Township home.
It wasn't long before he knew how to pull and install engines on his own, and that came in handy in high school, when he bought a '69 Corvette and gave its 350-cubic-inch engine new rings and bearings, and then again when he bought a '79 Chevy pickup truck and built a 454-cubic-inch engine for it.
He went on to modify that truck's suspension so that it would easily clear the 44-inch-tall tires he had for it, and it was his newfound passion for trucks -- big ones -- that led him 13 years ago to build the Monster Truck he calls Brutus. Ever since, he's been ripping it up with Monster Jam, a live motorsports event that boasts racing and freestyle competitions just about every weekend. The tour comes to Ford Field in Detroit on Saturday.
On Saturday, after suiting up in fire-resistant clothing, attaching a HANS device to support his head and neck, climbing into his 12-foot-tall truck with 3D dog graphics and strapping into an aluminum seat, Bergeron will pull a cable that will start the flow of through the engine and take his spot on the floor for the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam.
"I love doing this," said Bergeron, who lives in Columbus, Mich. "When you're a gearhead, the sound of any engine will get you pumped up. It's in your blood."
What brings the high-horsepower Brutus to life?
It has a 575-cubic-inch blown and injected Chevy engine, which Jim Koehler and I built, and it runs on methanol instead of gasoline. ... The transmission is a two-speed Powerglide and the rear end is out of a school bus.
The truck stands 12 feet tall, is 13 feet wide and weighs 11,000 pounds. The tires are 66 inches tall and 43 inches wide, and they weigh about 800 pounds each. There are two nitrogen shocks on each corner of the truck, and I have 26 inches of suspension travel, but some days, I wish I had 60 inches of suspension travel, because I'm jumping an 11,000-pound vehicle in the air, and when I land, it's going to hurt!
When I first started, it was a big deal to have to jump a van, but now I jump school buses, and we have jumped planes, helicopters, boats and a railcar.
What can fans expect to see at Ford Field?
We'll start with an introduction and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and then go into qualifying, and there are usually 16 trucks or so qualifying. Then we go head-to-head racing, for which one truck starts on one side of the arena and the other truck starts on the other side of the arena, and then go clockwise. When we're done with that, we do freestyle, for which we can do anything on any angle, and it just has to be better -- a lot better -- than what the next driver is doing.
The secret is to find the jump that nobody has seen and has the "wow" factor. There might be 30 obstacles out there, but there's a hundred different ways to hit them.
What do you say to people who think anyone could handle being behind the wheel?
It takes about three years to feel comfortable in the truck because you have to learn how it's going to react when you accelerate, how it's going to react when you jump and how it's going to react when you land. You also have to be able to constantly shift the two-speed transmission. ...
I still get nervous about whether I'm going to do a good job and about whether the truck is going to hold up.
What's involved in maintaining your truck between events?
We have to go through the truck and the engine and tighten every nut and bolt after every event because of the vibration and shock the truck goes through. We also change the oil after every event, and check the oil filter to make sure there is no bearing material from the engine in it.
When we have accidents, we might have to fix parts of the body, or even the engine, rear end or cage. The cage is made of chrome moly (a high-strength steel), and when that gets bent up, we repair it right away because we don't want to compromise safety. Honestly, we could work on the truck 24 hours a day, seven days a week and still not be caught up.
Can you hear the crowds cheering you on?
Yes, we can hear it, and it really gets our adrenaline going. We thrive on it and there's nothing like seeing people on their feet and hearing people chant your name or the name of your truck. If the truck gets torn up and we have to spend the entire week putting it back together before the next event, it's worth it if the fans were screaming. There's a lot of glory in it, and it's one of the greatest things in the world.
More Details: Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam
7 p.m. Sat.
2000 Brush, Detroit
$10-$55; $2 more day of event. $10 for a pit pass, which includes access 2-5 p.m.