After a three-month, never ending season, the Monster Jam tour has hit their biggest stop of the season. Every year, fans from across the United States, Canada, Europe and other countries make the trip out to the Strip for the mecca that is known as the World Finals. This year, an expanded three-day event means racing and freestyle get separated into two separate days of competition.
But, the lead-in event is a double-header in itself. Thursday night, it was all about qualifying for the racing bracket, plus the popular Young Guns Shootout to determine the final entry into the 32-truck field.
The night started off very well as teams were double-checking their setups. The main competitors got one practice run before swapping lanes to start their qualifying sessions. Each truck would get two passes, one in each lane, with the top time of each counting as the official time. Right away, it was clear that the top contenders were the top stars of all year, as Dennis Anderson, Tom Meents and the surprise Donald Epidendio all had times in the low 16-second range.
However, with the fastest track constantly claiming victims with the difficult turns and speeds, everyone knew that eventually something was going to bite. What the fans and crews didn't expect was how spooky and evil one of those wrecks would be.
On his first qualifying pass, Epidendio went soaring down the left lane in his 1970 Chevrolet, Titan. But, as he crossed the midway point of the straightaway, almost to where the finish line was located, things went horrible in an instant. The truck wouldn't slow down; in fact, it didn't even seem to go off acceleration. Epidendio was along for the ride as he would slam head-first right into the dumpster barrier at the end of the track. Fans were silent, hoping that he would be alright. After a few moments, he would exit the truck, and wave to the crowd.
Unfortunately, his truck was torn up severely. The entire front end was caved in, including bent shocks, a broken front end, bent four-links, steering rams, and four badly damaged rims.
Epidendio and his team immediately went hard at work to try and get the truck fixed for Friday's racing bracket, however because of the severity of the damage, and plus the high risk of more not being seen, it is unclear whether he would be able to make it back for the racing portion of the weekend.
Meanwhile, qualifying continued, and to no one's surprise, it was an Anderson at the top of the charts.
Dennis put his new Grave Digger in the No. 1 spot with a time just over 16 seconds. That would be quite a feat as Anderson has his own streak of luck to continue. The last two times Anderson has debuted a new Digger chassis (2004 and 2006), he's gone on to win the championship. It seems he's already at that point this year, but Vegas has a way of surprising everyone.
The other half of the night's action was to determine the final entry into the main event. A 14-truck field for the Young Guns Shootout came down to a team truck, and an independent who grew up around the sport.
In the right lane for the finals, it was Coty Saucier in the Monster Energy Cadillac, who for years was crew chief to team Monster driver Damon Bradshaw. Now, he had a chance to enter into the main event, making it the first time two identical trucks would compete in the same show. In the left lane, newcomer Mike Vaters Jr. in the impressive Overkill Evolution. Having been around the sport thanks to his dad, Black Stallion driver Mike Vaters, it was clear he was ready and willing to take on the challenge.
At the start, Saucier had the advantage, blasting down the lane with a half-truck lead entering the corner. Vaters made up the difference with a tight turn, and both went for the finish.
In the end, the winner was the second-generation driver, and Overkill Evolution would make an impact in the biggest way possible, securing the Shootout win, and the final spot in the main event. It was one of the most humbling and prestigious wins of the young career of Vaters, who debuted driving full-time this year. Many people didn't believe he'd make it to this level, but he did believe in himself. Some even thought he wouldn't make it to Vegas, but he proved them wrong.
And even on that night, some didn't think he would make it to the finals, much less win. But the teams in the pits believed he could do it, and he showed the talent in three runs that he definitely deserves to be in the show.
To finish out the night, the entire field of Young Guns drivers came back onto the track, and with fireworks in the air every one ripped off a big set of donuts, while Vaters stood atop the big hill in the middle of the track. Then, at the far end, it was Chuck Werner in El Toro Loco plus Whit Tarlton in Monster Mutt lining up at the dumpster wall. Both went full throttle and pulled off side-by-side backflips, setting off the night-ending fireworks.
Two more days of action follow as tonight it is the 32-truck bracket to determine this year's World Racing champion in Monster Jam. The Titan team is hard at work trying desperately to get the truck fixed for tonight's action, but even Donald is skeptical about making it and possibly is looking to instead make it back for freestyle tomorrow night. Even if he does make it back, because he didn't record a qualifying time, he will square off with Anderson to start the quest to a championship.
All the action from Sam Boyd Stadium kicks off tonight at 7 p.m. PT to determine the 2014 champion in racing. Then, overnight, track crews will be hard at work converting the track to an all-freestyle floor for Saturday night's festivities.
All About Horsepower will have full coverage of both nights, and follow Monster Jam on Twitter (@MonsterJam) for live results.