It’s the one question we’d always wanted to ask a monster-truck driver.
So when we got the chance to interview Tony Ochs, who drives the Soldier Fortune Black Ops monster truck for the motorsport event Monster Jam, we weren’t about to squander that opportunity.
The query elicited a hearty laugh from the personable Ochs, who wasn’t accustomed to such probing questions. (Apparently, there’s a deplorable lack of curiosity among other journalists …)
“Nope, no cupholder,” he explained, still chuckling, before adding without missing a beat: “But if it did have one, I could put a can of soda pop in the cupholder and there wouldn’t be a drop left in the can when I got done.”
Ochs and seven other monster-truck drivers are in Salt Lake City this weekend for the Monster Jam Triple Threat Series event at Vivint Smart Home Arena. It features eight athletes and 24 vehicles, battling one another in six different competitions of speed, racing and freestyle stunt driving.
“It’s the most spectacular family-friendly sport in the world,” Ochs said in a recent interview from his home in Lucinda, Pennsylvania. “Unscripted and unforgettable, it’s 1,500-horsepower monster trucks jumping, doing doughnuts and wheelies, and crushing cars. It’s loud and spectacular — you can feel the power of these trucks in your chest — and it’s fun for ages 2 to 85.”
The “Triple Threat” part of the title refers to the three types of vehicles involved in the competition. In addition to the monster-truck events, there will also be races involving ATVs as well as side-by-side utility vehicles.
“We’ll get out of our monster trucks, put on ATV racing gear and go out and race those,” Ochs said. “Then we’ll get back into our monster truck gear and jump into a side-by-side for speedster racing. Then it’s back into our monster jam truck for freestyle — that’s what the fans love. We go out there and do whatever we have to do to make the fans get out of their seats and scream.”
The three Salt Lake City events — one each on Friday and Saturday evenings, with a matinee Saturday afternoon — are the season opener for the Triple Threat series. The points championship season will go through April, with the Monster Jam World Finals set for the second weekend of May, in Orlando, Florida.
One of the unusual things about the Monster Jam Triple Threat Series is that the fans at each venue are the judges, according to Ochs. Audience members use their smartphones to give each vehicle’s run a score from zero to 10, with the most total points winning.
Ochs admits this does give an advantage to the crowd favorites. For example, he says fans — especially the little kids — love the Gravedigger monster truck; it’s been the face of Monster Jam for 35 years.
“So the rest of us have to run twice as hard to get scored the same,” he jokingly complained.
Still, Ochs has own following in his Soldier Fortune Black Ops monster truck. It’s a military tribute truck, and the Army veteran says he dedicates every race to the men and women of the military.
“We’re not back-to-back World War champions for nothing,” he said. “We’ve got the greatest fighting force in the world.”
Ochs, who initially learned about machinery maintenance growing up on a corn and hay farm, comes by his military-themed vehicle honestly. He served 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Apache helicopter crew chief, with four combat deployments.
After his service in the military was completed, Ochs joined up with Marvel Universe Live!, acting as a motorcycle crew chief for the traveling action arena show. But he’d long wanted to try his hand a driving a monster truck and just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Feld Entertainment, which owns both Marvel Universe Live! and Monster Jam (in addition to Disney on Ice and a number of other touring productions), was developing the new Soldier Fortune Black Ops truck and needed a driver. Ochs says they knew of his military background and experience with mechanics and off-road machinery.
“So they took me out into the middle of a cornfield in Illinois, and I test-drove this 12,000-pound Monster Jam truck,” he said. “It was a heck of a ride, and it’s been one heck of a ride ever since.”
Ochs, whose nickname is “Ants” (“My older brother couldn’t say ‘Anthony,’ so they just called me ‘Ants,’” he explains), is just starting his fourth year driving monster trucks. And cupholder or no, handling these big rigs isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a lot more than merely sitting in a vehicle, turning a steering wheel and mashing on on accelerator and brake pedal, according to Ochs.
“When I run a two-minute or 75-second freestyle, it feels like I just sprinted a mile,” he said. “I get out of that Monster Jam truck breathing so heavy, it’s like I literally just got through sprinting … or doing three hours of power-lifting. You really have to be physically fit.”
Ochs says safety is of utmost importance at a Monster Jam event. Any part that could possibly break off of a vehicles is tethered with wire rope or steel cables, just in case. And remote-ignition interrupters are also used in the event the throttle gets stuck.
“We also block off approximately the first 10 rows of seating as a safety buffer,” he said. “Monster Jam gives up a lot of tickets and money to cover up the first 10 or 15 rows of seating.”
Ochs recommends audience members bring ear protection — earplugs and earmuffs will also be sold at the event. The sounds from both the trucks and the crowds are deafening, according to the 32-year-old driver.
“Even though those 1,500-horsepower monster trucks are so loud, I can still hear the crowd when I’m in there,” he said. “I wear earplugs and earmuffs, and I can still hear them when they get to cheering.”
Tickets to Monster Jam are $20 to $78, available through ticketmaster.com or at 800-745-3000.
Ochs recommends buying a pre-show pit pass for an additional $15, which offers an up-close look at the track and vehicles as well as meet-and-greet photo/autograph opportunities with the drivers.
Ochs says a good time is guaranteed.
“It’s always fun,” he said. “The No. 1 goal is the fans having fun, out of their seats and screaming. You ought to see these kids’ faces when they see a monster truck flip end-over-end, or roll over and end up doing doughnuts on the sidewalls of its tires. It’s spectacular.”