Nicole Johnson of Summerlin is a professional driver. She doesn’t drive a limousine or a cab. Her job is a tad more high-profile.
Johnson drives a monster truck. Its 66-inch tires are as tall as she is.
“It’s so big, my butt is 8 feet off the ground,” she said.
Her vehicle for Monster Jam events, Scooby-Doo, packs a loud, 1,500-horsepower engine and is known for crushing cars and handling other feats of terror.
Accidents? Rollovers? They’re all part of the job.
“Have I ever wrecked? Of course, almost every weekend,” she said. “Last year … had the gnarliest wreck of 2013. It was in New Orleans. Everybody likes to see carnage, for lack of a better word, so we’re always pushing the limits.”
She is one of only a handful of women (out of approximately 140 drivers) on the circuit and has been involved with it for the past four years. The first quarter of the season sees her leaving town every Thursday for weekend events across America. She’s back home by Sunday evening, in time to return to her day job as manager of the family’s gun shop, Marxman Precision Arms Ltd., 6965 Speedway Blvd. The first quarter runs from the beginning of January to about March. The rest of the year, she may appear in six events.
In 2011, Johnson was given the Monster Jam Rising Star Driver Award.
“Male drivers are able to connect to the other male fans of all ages, so with women driving Monster Jam trucks, it is bringing a whole new demographic to Monster Jam,” said Keith Speller, director of operations for Feld Motor Sports, which operates Monster Jam. “… It’s exciting to see women dominate and succeed in a traditionally male-dominated sport. I think that’s what draws women and children to Monster Jam.”
Johnson and her husband, Frank, have been Las Vegas residents since 1996. They have always been four-wheel enthusiasts. He used to be the president of the Southern Nevada Land Cruisers. In 2004, he started competing in rock-crawling events. They involve tackling a tough course with off-kilter obstacles and maneuvering around cones. Soon after, Nicole caught the fever and began competing as well. She became a top contender in the Western U.S. World Extreme Rock Crawling Championship Series. She has also driven in short-course racing in the Lucas Oil Off Road Series.
Her introduction to monster trucks was in 2010, when the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show was in town. The couple were at the Las Vegas Convention Center and ran into Dennis Anderson, creator and driver of Grave Digger, who was with his son, Ryan, also a driver.
“When I ran into Dennis, I was a little starstruck,” Nicole said. “We started talking and … Ryan said, ‘Hey, you’re that rock-crawler chick, aren’t you?’ “
With recognition like that, it wasn’t long before Nicole was invited to North Carolina to meet with other people from Monster Jam. There, she had a chance to test drive the Grave Digger. She was offered a job and began in January 2011.
“It’s a whole different perspective,” she said of being behind the wheel. “You can only see 15 feet past the nose of the truck. That was the toughest part, (learning) how do you know if you’re driving over the car yet. You kind of drive by feel sometimes.”
While Scooby-Doo has power steering, it takes two hands to drive it. Her left hand is on the steering wheel, which directs the front wheels. Her right hand is on a toggle-type apparatus, which controls the back tires to swing around, much like a forklift.
“If I turn the (handle) to the right, it turns the tires to the left,” she said.
The truck weighs 10,000 pounds and is 12 feet tall and 18 feet long. Its value is roughly $250,000 , despite having an engine that overheats after about five minutes of use.
Nicole said she has never been injured. In the cab is a safety cage of steel. She straps into a harness system and neckbrace worthy of any fighter jet cockpit to ensure she is never thrown. When she crawls out and removes her helmet, the crowd goes wild after learning she is a woman.
Her message to fans is goal-oriented: With hard work and doing the right things, you can attain anything you want in life.
Frank said he has no concerns about his wife having that much horsepower at her fingertips.
“It’s all good,” he said. “Back in the day, I was the one doing it, and she was the one hanging out on the sidelines. Now, the roles are reversed.”
He said she’s never offered to let him drive Scooby-Doo but that insurance might have something to do with that.
“It’s like, you bust it, you pay for it, buddy,” he joked.
How do her two teenage sons, Palani and Kainoa, feel about her running over stacks of vehicles in a show of strength?
“They’re immune to the extreme nature of what I do, immune to me rolling,” she said. “They don’t even bat an eye if I roll or if I crash. I wasn’t sure if they were proud of me or not because they’re kind of low-key about it all. I kind of wanted to ask them … sometimes I’ll catch them telling their friends, so I go, ‘OK, they’re proud of their mom.’ But every once in a while, I have to remind them that I’m the coolest mom on the planet.”
The Monster Jam 2014 World Finals are planned for March 20-22 at Sam Boyd Stadium, 7000 E. Russell Road. Friday/Saturday combo tickets are $92. For tickets, visit UNLVtickets.com or call 702-739-3267. Tickets are available at the Sam Boyd Stadium box office only the day of the show.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2949.