Cam McQueen has what is arguably one of the coolest job titles around: monster truck driver. The 33-year-old Calgary native, who has been riding and racing anything with a motor since he was a kid, launched his professional monster truck career in 2008. Over the course of three-plus years, McQueen—who has appeared in the MTV reality show Nitro Circus and FuelTV’s Thrillbillies—has won Monster Jam’s Rising Star Award, a monster truck racing title in New Orleans, and in 2010 he made Monster Jam history by landing the first-ever back flip in competition. McQueen spoke to Canadian Business staff writer Jeff Beer just before heading to Las Vegas for the 2012 Monster Jam World Finals.
AGE HE FIRST RODE A DIRT BIKE: 5
AGE HE FIRST RACED MOTOCROSS: 11
NUMBER OF SPONSORS: 34
YOUTUBE VIEWS OF HIS FIRST-EVER MONSTER TRUCK BACKFLIP: 3.08 million
I hear you built your first monster truck in high school.
Yeah, it was a 1958 Willys pickup that I bought from a farmer. I then proceeded to tear it apart and put a bunch of new parts in to make it as big as I could and still drive it on the street.
Were you a self-taught mechanic, or was it big in your family?
My dad was always into cars and had hot rods when he was younger. My brother was also into restoring and rebuilding old trucks and Jeeps. He was about six years older than me, so I always watched him and it got me interested. He’d let me help out and give me little projects. I was also racing motorcycles and doing the motocross circuit here. We couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to fix our bikes, so we had to know how to do it ourselves.
What was it like getting into your first big monster truck event in 2008?
It was a little scary, to be honest. I had tested a couple years prior out in North Carolina, but at the time there wasn’t a spot for me. In 2008, I got a call that a driver had been injured, and they asked me to fill in for the Monster Jam event in Vancouver. It wasn’t as if I’d been practising over the last couple of years, so I had to figure everything out on the fly. Just strap in and make it work.
Describe the difference between driving a monster truck and an everyday pickup.
For starters, we’ve got a 10,000-lb. truck that sits about 12 feet wide and 12 feet tall. We’re in a custom-built, steel-framed protective roll cage, a custom-built seat and bars on either side of your helmet to prevent your head from slapping around too much. There’s also a neck restraint device clipped to your helmet and held back by your seat belt, and a really small windshield; imagine duct-taping your head to the headrest in your car and looking through a pair of binoculars as you drive, and that’s a pretty good idea of what it’s like. We also have four-wheel steering; our back tires can turn independent of the front, operated by a separate joystick.
What is the toughest part about learning to drive monster trucks?
There’s no opportunity to practise. Because these trucks are so big and expensive to repair, the only time we get to drive them is in competition, so you have to pick it up very quickly.
Given the lack of practice time, how do you mentally prepare for an event?
I watch a lot of videos of years past. Everything from DVDs to YouTube clips—not just of my own runs but those of other trucks. Watching to see the tricks, how the truck reacted, what kind of obstacles there were, to basically break down how past champs have won. Once I’m in town for the event, I spend as much time as possible walking the track and evaluating the jumps. Then I go back and look at more videos to find similar jumps and obstacles to try to visualize my runs.
What’s your pre-event routine?
I like to go out and walk the track again. Then I’ll go get my gear on and just sit in my truck for a while. I just stare out the windshield and play through my head what my plan is. Then, strap in, put the helmet on, say a little prayer and get ready for what’s about to happen.
What are the main competitions in a monster truck event?
There are really two main disciplines: head-to-head racing and freestyle. Back when Bigfoot and Gravedigger were around, it was just about crushing cars, but nowadays we’re jumping cars, sometimes launching 100 feet in length and 30 feet in the air. In the racing event, we can get up to 70 mph, which can be pretty scary because you’re bouncing around and vibrating all over the place, and the tires we use, originally built for agriculture purposes, are only rated for 30 miles an hour.
When did you first get the idea to do a backflip in competition?
At the time I was driving the Nitro Circus truck, one of [motocross legend] Travis Pastrana’s brands. And the whole Nitro Circus crew was always about the backflip. He was an innovator that way in motocross. So here I am with his brand name on the side of my truck—it was a given that I should try it out. It was just a matter of finding the right obstacle, and I found it in Jacksonville in 2010. It was actually the broadside of a jump and I had to hit it at an angle it wasn’t necessarily built for. It was a great feeling to actually land it.
You’re now driving the first Canadian-made monster truck, Northern Nightmare. How did that come about?
We started building it last summer, and the first competition was this past January. The whole idea behind it is to support and acknowledge the Canadian Monster Jam fans. I’m a really proud Canadian, and being able to travel around the world driving these trucks has been amazing, and I love telling people about where I’m from. Driving a Canadian-made truck as a Canadian is a pretty cool feeling.
How long do you plan to stay behind the wheel?
It’s like living a childhood dream every weekend, so I’m going to do it for as long as they let me. In the meantime, I’m also continuing my stunt work and working on the Nitro Circus stuff. We’re also working on another TV show that I’ll be doing some hosting on, with a bigger focus on Canada.
Do you ever worry about the physical toll of this kind of work?
A lot of the injuries for monster truck drivers are internal and don’t reveal themselves for years. Call me back in 10 years, and I’ll tell you what hurts. We’re very well protected in the trucks, and every precaution is taken, but when you’re jumping in the air and sometimes landing upside down—well, you could probably compare that to getting in a car wreck every weekend.