Monster truck driver Nicole Johnson talks rock crawling, four wheeling and positive publicity

Nicole Johnson was already a seasoned four-wheeler and champion rock-crawler, so perhaps it wasn't surprising that after a chance meeting with a monster-truck legend -- Dennis Anderson, creator and driver of "Grave Digger" -- the Las Vegas native wound up in the driver's seat of "Scooby Doo," a 10,000 pound, 1500 horsepower truck.

In advance of the Monster Jam racing series opening this Friday, February 8 at the Pepsi Center, Johnson took time out from a busy morning in Vegas -- she was opening her gun shop for the day, to be precise -- to talk about the path to monster-truck stardom and the importance of working hard and keeping a clean public image.

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Westword: What's your schedule look like throughout the year -- when you're doing Monster Jam and then, well, doing the rest of your life?

Nicole Johnson: It gets a little fun and crazy the first quarter of each year. We go on tour right after New Year's and then we wrap up our tour at the end of March at World Finals in Las Vegas. It's my hometown, so it's a really fun show to be at. I pretty much leave Vegas every Thursday and then I fly home Sunday or Monday, depending on what the schedule looks like. So I'm gone every weekend for that three-month period.

The rest of the time I come home, do laundry. We've got two kids and two businesses and so it's like, there's no day off. It's just go, go, go as fast has we can run. The rest of the year I do some four-wheeling, and again, run the business and hang out with the kids.

Do you have to train or practice with your monster truck throughout the rest of the year when you're not on this tour?

Not really? Practice is really hard to do, because it's expensive to set up or create the environment that we have at the shows. There's safety concerns. It becomes an extremely expensive undertaking, so pretty much our only time to practice is to have another show.

Sometimes there are sporadic shows in the summer months and Monster Jam does go to Europe and Mexico. So we'll have different shows to stay brushed up on our skills. But primarily it's just, here you go! (Laughs) You've just got to jump right back into it.

How did you get into Monster Jam, and the motorsports arena of monster-truck racing?

My husband and I have had a rock-crawling team and have done four-wheeling for several years. Rock-crawling competition is just driving over some crazy terrain -- sometimes we have great vertical climbs or crazy side hills. It's like jeeping, basically, but on extreme terrain. A course designer will set up a series of cones that you have to try to navigate through; it's about finessing your vehicle through these obstacles.

We've done that for several years; that's my background. I've been four-wheeling forever. I've built up a decent resume and portfolio and gotten some good media doing rock crawling. Then a couple of years ago, I met Dennis Anderson, the creator of "Grave Digger," and his son Ryan at an automotive trade show in Las Vegas. When I introduced myself, Ryan -- who drives "Son Uva Digger" -- said, "Hey, you're that rock-crawling chick, aren't you?" And I said, "No way! Wow, you've heard of me?"

They said, "Hey, you should drive a monster truck." A couple of weeks later, I found myself test-driving "Grave Digger" in North Carolina. And I got the job, I guess you can say. It was really a combination of building up a decent portfolio with my off-road racing and rock-crawling background and being at the right place at the right time to have that introduction and be able to get my foot in the door.

I wasn't necessarily looking for it; all the stars and planets aligned, and here I am in a monster truck.

Is there a big difference in driving a monster truck, versus what you're doing with rock-crawling and four-wheeling?

You know, the rock crawler is built to be lightweight and nimble. But the components, mechanically, are very similar. They do a lot of the same things -- it's just on a larger scale. You just have to get over the fact that it's 10,000 pounds, 1500 horsepower and twelve feet tall. A lot of the concept behind how the vehicle works is very similar -- I've been at some crazy angles before and I've jumped my rock crawler before.

Sometimes, all you see is sky when you're driving up a crazy incline. Or maybe all you see is ground when you're dropping off a big cliff. It's really similar to a monster truck. (Laughs.) You just learn to drive by feel and at crazy angles, and so there's a lot of things that cross over and are a benefit. They feel similar. I don't claim to be perfect at it, but it gave me great platform. I'm kind of picking it up nicely.

How long have you been driving for Monster Jam?

This is my third season -- 2011 was my first season. I was in Denver my first season, where I went undefeated in racing the whole time I was out there. So hopefully I can do it again. I don't know -- the guys are getting faster. (Laughs.)

Since you only do this tour for part of the year, do you still feel like there's a community around monster-truck racing that you're a part of?

It's a really big community. I drive "Scooby Doo," which is owned by Monster Jam, Feld Entertainment. They own several of the vehicles that are involved in Monster Jam, so the community, to me, is huge. There are hundreds of people who work for this organization and we're a big family. There are quite a few other independent or what we call "privateer" monster-truck drivers who do come out to Monster Jam. But everyone is really friendly. I'd say that amongst drivers and crew members, we're family.

The fans, too, are just diehards. They welcome us wherever we are. So it's definitely a community feel. What would you say to younger people who might want to get into monster-truck racing?

I'm asked that a lot: I get a lot of e-mails saying, "Hey, I really want to drive a monster truck. Where do I start?" Everybody is a little different; I tour with Carl Van Horn, who will be in Denver with me. He started as a mechanic. So there are guys who come up through the ranks. He started as a mechanic and was around it for a while -- then you might get the opportunity to be in the driver's seat some day.

For me, because I came from another motorsport discipline, it was a crossover thing. It's not going to work for everybody, but if you are already involved with racing, I say keep doing that. Work hard to market yourself and always remember that everyone is watching you. It's a very public world now with social media and cell-phone cameras.

I think for me, what helped was to put my name out there in a positive light. It opened the door when opportunity was there. So remembering how you're always representing your sponsors and how you're representing yourself and being consistent. For us -- with my husband and my rock-crawling team -- when we're rock-crawling, it's about keeping it clean and family-oriented. Making sure we always looked presentable; even if it was on a shoestring budget, we still look like we had our act together. That goes really far, especially if you're crossing over to a different discipline. Being a good representative for your sport is important, because you'll get recognized that way.

Little girls are always asking me how I do this. And I really think whatever you want to do -- it doesn't have to be a monster-truck driver -- the same principles will apply. With any job you're in, you're only going to get a promotion if you're doing the best job you can and you're representing yourself in a respectable manner. Putting your head down, working hard and doing the best you can is going to get you wherever you need to go, no matter the job or accomplishment you're seeking.

Work hard, get the respect of your peers and the rest will come naturally, I think.

See Johnson race "Scooby Doo" at Monster Jam at the Pepsi Center, opening this Friday, February 8 and running through Sunday, February 10. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam website.

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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies