OCALA, Fla. – Kaid Jaret Olson-Weston is strapped into a 1,270-kilogram half-scale monster truck, humming playfully as he waits for the green light.
KJ, as he is known to his fans, sits patiently as he and his coach go over the safety features in his truck.
The roll cage is lowered. KJ starts the engine and jumps over humps of dirt before crushing a beat-up car. He spins the truck – and its 90-kilogram tires – clockwise, then backwards, leaving behind a cloud of dust in its tracks at his training centre in Ocala, Fla.
Despite these feats, KJ can barely see over the steering wheel. At eight years old, he is the youngest monster truck driver.
“I’d never seen anybody that young,” said Rev Prochnow, who started the American Monster Truck Association 20 years ago.
KJ, a somewhat shy kid with a passion for “everything else you can name with a motor in it” performs across the U.S. at about 60 different shows every year, from large arenas to small fairs. He signs hundreds of autographs at each show, but still considers himself an average kid.
“I do really good in school and am able to drive this, which people think it might be hard but it’s actually pretty easy,” he said.
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Monster truck driving is growing in popularity and that’s why it’s catching the attention of young drivers like KJ.
“All the big names recognize that this is it, this is coming,” said Tod Olson-Weston, KJ’s coach and father, who is starting to train eight other young drivers through his company Uncle Tod’s Motorsports.
KJ drives half-scale trucks, which are about half the size and a quarter of the weight of a regular monster truck.
“There is a distinction between what he’s doing and what we do,” said Marty Garza, spokesman for the Monster Truck Racing Association, which does not allow drivers under the age of 18 to perform in full-fledged monster truck events. KJ’s has a 200-horsepower truck compared to the larger monster trucks which have 1,500 or 2,000 horsepower.
“It would be like calling a go-kart a race car,” Garza said.
The MTRA, which has a 25-year history of developing safety standards for the industry, does acknowledge that the smaller trucks are very well built in terms of the safety for the driver. And although KJ doesn’t say much while he’s driving, his coach is in constant communication with him through a headset worn beneath his helmet.
“We can appreciate what he’s doing and he’s the ultimate fan,” Garza said. “As long as he’s in a controlled environment and all the safety precautions are taken to make sure that no one is in any sort of danger, we don’t have a problem with it.”
There has been opposition from other organizations, though.
The Monster Truck Challenge said in an email that having drivers this young is “not something we want to be associated with.” And Monster Jam, the world’s largest monster truck tour with more than 350 events in North America and Europe annually, said that although “KJ has a unique skill” it “does not intend to pursue youth mini-monster truck performances/competitions for its events.”
“Put all that aside, you look at it and say he knows how to control it. He knows how to handle it. He’s safe around the people. He’s mature,” Tod Olson-Weston said of his son. “His passion for monster truck driving is clearly there.”
KJ’s Monster Bear truck was customized to fit his size and has all the safety features required in a monster truck: A five-point safety harness. Neck restraints to keep his head from moving too far. Custom built seat. Pedals can slide to position. A fire-suppressant system and a Kid KJ helmet. There is also the Remote Ignition Interrupt System, which can stop the truck on a radio command.
KJ’s younger brother and mother also drive monster trucks, so the sport is a family business – and a costly one. Each half-scale truck costs between $50,000 and $100,000. (The larger monster trucks which costs between $150,000 and $250,000.)
“My family loves monster trucks,” Tod Olson-Weston said. “And I am right there with them.”
As for KJ, he is looking forward to being able to drive a truck that is “a lot bigger.”
“I’m probably going to be even more fearless,” he said.