Monster Trucks begin invasion of Cedar Point

PHOTO BY MARYANN KROMER Brothers Adam (left) and Ryan Anderson speak to reporters in front of Grave Digger. The pair also are to appear in person this weekend for Cedar Point's Thunder Alley Monster Jam.

SANDUSKY — Thursday, an unusual, oversize vehicle could be seen lumbering along a bumpy section of ground at Cedar Point Amusement Park. Was that a school bus it was crunching into the mud?

It was.

Today and Sunday, Cedar Point opens a special attraction, set to run through June 30.

Monster Jam Thunder Alley features five of “the biggest and baddest” Monster Jam trucks to give fans an up-close, immersive experience.

Thursday, the park hosted a media day for photos, video and interviews with Monster Jam drivers and designers. Specially built vehicles can take guests for a ride on an obstacle course in a designated area just off the midway.

“Everything you see is from scratch,” said Tony Clark, Cedar Point’s director of communications. He said Monster Jam Thunder Alley is a new attraction from Feld Entertainment. It is to move on to two other parks after its stint in Sandusky.

Thunder Alley includes a play area where children can race mini-Monster Jam replicas on a sandy obstacle course in the play area. For a fee, they can craft their own miniature Monster trucks.

Older fans can explore an interactive display of mechanical elements utilized in real vehicles. Driver BJ Johnson, who helped plan and construct Thunder Alley, said everything was pulled directly from race trucks and adapted for the Monster Jam Garage.

Visitors can crank the gears of a real transmission, observe the workings of a 1,500-horsepower engine, operate a huge shock absorber that cushions the blows of a rugged course and turn the gigantic tires on the axle of a race truck.

“It’s actually the real tires, the real housing and everything that would be in a race truck,” Johnson pointed out. “You can actually see the gears. In our truck we have a really low gear ratio, because the tires are so tall. That way, we can perform the crazy stunts we’re doing.”

Turning a “steering” wheel 20 times turns the center driveshaft six times and turns the wheels one time. The 20:6:1 gear ratio allows the operator to move about 3,000 pounds. Johnson said the displays are designed for people to play with and see the inner workings. The same idea applies to the clear plastic shock absorber.

“We have nitrogen in one can and oil in the other. That way, when we jump and land, the (compressed) nitrogen gas acts like a spring,” Johnson explained.

Retired race trucks have been placed in Thunder Alley and out in the main concourse at Cedar Point. Assisted by park employees, guests can climb a few stairs and sit in the driver’s seat of Grave Digger, El Toro Loco, Megalodon, Max-D and Zombie for photos and a personal Monster truck experience.

A ride in a Monster truck also is possible, thanks to Johnson’s designs and handiwork. Over a six-week period, he and his team built 10-passenger versions of Grave Digger and Megalodon. Riders strap into a four-point harness in each front-facing seat.

The two front seats are next to the driver. Drivers can take questions from passengers as the vehicles make their way along a freestyle-inspired obstacle course, complete with moguls and doughnuts. Clark said he expects the course to be open in a variety of weather.

No ear plugs are needed, but Johnson said there is a height restriction for riders. He said although the freestyle ride trucks have smaller engines, they are “the closest version to a race truck in the industry.” The vehicles underwent a week of testing on the course to ensure their safety on the track.

“They’re good to go. We changed the track about 20 times to make it easy for everybody else,” Johnson said.

Also, the Thunder Alley team trained some hand-picked Cedar Point employees to help with the attraction. Johnson said the CP workers also briefed his crew on some of the park policies and operations for “the two different worlds we’re combining here.”

In one of his interviews, Johnson said stunt driving is physically taxing, so drivers work out to stay in shape. He also encourages young fans to exercise their brains and pay attention at school. He tells them he uses math every day for designing, building, adapting and repairing vehicles.

Johnson has been driving Monster Trucks for 19 years and continues to do mechanical work on them. His usual ride is the Gas Monkey Garage featured on the Discovery Channel. He said he usually films for television programs once a month in Florida, and his wife often travels with him.

“We have 58 race trucks. We race all over the world,” Johnson said.

Two other Monster Jam team members gave comments and insights for this article. Brandy Valdez of El Paso, Texas, is a mechanic and driver for the freestyle ride trucks. She started her career as a motorcycle stunt driver and continues to do that work for films and shows.

Ryan Anderson is a sprout from the Grave Digger family. He said his dad created the original Grave Digger and raced it for 35 years. Now, Ryan has his own truck, Son-uva Digger. His older brother, Adam Anderson, has taken over as the lead driver for Grave Digger.

“I am one of the guys that gets to crash these crazy things,” Ryan said.

He noted the fans look forward to the crashes, as well as the moment when the driver crawls out unharmed. Ryan said the trucks are built to withstand odd maneuvers and multiple wrecks.

The Grave Digger on display at Cedar Point has been out of service for a while, but it did see plenty of time on the track. Ryan said “super-fans” know its history with Monster Jam.

“This is the truck that really put Grave Digger on the map,” he said.

At the World Finals last weekend in Orlando, Florida, Ryan said Son-uva Digger had to stay there for repairs “after what I did to it.” Ryan and Adam had to move on to Ohio to be available this weekend to talk with fans, sign autographs, and pose for photos.

Ryan said he loves meeting with young fans for “pit parties” at shows and events. Being the father of a 4-year-old son has changed his perspective on life and on the advice he gives to children. Those who ask about being a driver are told to learn all they can at every level.

“Listen to Mom and Dad, make your way through school as high as you can go. Any chance you can, get in the shop, or in the garage, and do any kind of mechanical work, whether it be on a lawnmower or a bicycle, or your father’s car or truck,” Ryan tells them.

He also said a special school to train students in the automotive fields is based in Lima. People from the school helped set up the freestyle course at Cedar Point. Ryan believes Thunder Alley provides an educational opportunity for the public, who may not be aware of all the elements involved in his sport.

Valdez echoes Ryan Anderson’s sentiments, and she also emphasizes the value of teamwork on the job, as well as networking with sponsors and the media. Having worked on the trucks in the shop, she is proud of what the group has accomplished.

“I have a lot of appreciation for the mechanics and the brains that it took to make this work, along with our marketing, licensing and all,” Valdez said.

Ryan Anderson also acknowledged the team members who transform arenas and stadiums into Monster Truck raceways.

“A lot of times, when we’re doing those venues, they have live turf,” Ryan said, “… and we have a very short time period when we’re allowed to cover that.”

Replacing or repairing a field with live turf can be expensive. The crew must haul in sheets of decking material to build “a giant cutting board” atop the turf. Ryan said they lay out multiple layers of turf cover, followed by about 600 dump truckloads of dirt.

“That all has to be manicured out, flattened, build our ramps, build our jumps, do the show and take it all out as quick as possible,” Ryan said. “Seventy-two hours is our normal time that we’re allowed to cover the ground.”

The course at Cedar Point did not need turf protection, but it must last for six weeks of daily use, as opposed to a 12-hour show in an arena or stadium. It stands to take a beating.

“It’s going to be non-stop all day, every day,” Ryan said.

Valdez said five freestyle drivers will work 12-hour shifts during Thunder Alley at Cedar Point. They will need frequent breaks from the heat in the cab, compounded by hot weather on many days. Even so, she is excited about the venture.

“This is a very different collaboration with Monster Jam than has ever been seen before. We are very honored to be partnered with Cedar Fair with bringing this to children and adults alike,” Valdez said.

For more information on Monster Jam Thunder Alley or to purchase a Monster Jam Freestyle Ride Experience VIP package, visit cedarpoint.com.