Driving a monster truck had always been a childhood dream for Joe Urie.
The 2015 Bolivar High School graduate said he grew up watching the stars of the sport on television, analyzing their technique and imagining the stunts he’d attempt if he ever got a chance to sit behind the wheel. In his early 20s, that chance came to him.
Urie started this year as a professional driver on Monster Jam tour.
“I just watched the way they’d do a run and I’d say, ‘Man, if they’d hit that jump harder or hit that a different way, they could get so much more air,’” he said.
In middle school, he played football but said an ankle injury later kept him off the field.
He ran track from seventh grade to his senior year, competing in the pole vault event, where athletes spring themselves more than 10 feet in the air to top a high bar before landing on a padded mat.
Bolivar track coach Daniel Bayless said he remembered Urie as a fearless flyer.
“He was never afraid to run full speed and throw his body over the bar,” Bayless said. “He was a big hulk, and most of the time it was a violent blastoff more than a smooth take off, but he would make it work. It never mattered what competition we were in. If I asked Joe to do something, he would throw all he had into it.”
At the time, neither would have guessed what new heights Urie’s coachable nature and cool attitude in the air would help him reach.
It started after graduation, Urie said. Some friends of the family worked with Monster Jam, the live event tour sanctioned under the United States Hot Rod Association.
“Their mom was actually the lady who shot out of the cannon at halftime,” he said.
Urie attended events with the group and said he was approached through mutual connections about becoming a driver.
“I was like, ‘Of course,’” he said.
Urie said he was invited to pilot a truck on a test track in Illinois last spring. It was his first time sitting in a monster truck.
The 12,000-pound vehicles seat just one, he said, with an engine that puts 1,500 horsepower into its 66-inch tires and a toggle that steers the rear axle.
“You have to drive with one hand only, so your other hand is on the rear steer switch,” he said. “You turn and hit that at the same time.”
Urie said the crew in Illinois outfitted him head to toe in fireproof gear, strapped him into the driver’s seat and turned him loose.
“They were like, ‘All right, fire it up and do a lap,’” he said. “I didn’t even know how to start the thing.”
With the truck under his command, Urie said he floored the pedal and raced full bore into the first ramp.
“They don’t really tell you what they’re wanting, they just want to see what you’ve got,” he said. “So I just said, ‘I’m going to drive this truck as hard as I can. You can’t mess up if you do that.’”
Urie said he hit the ramp, and the massive vehicle left the ground and launched into the air.
“It took my breath away,” he said. “It lands like it was nothing. I came out of that truck and said, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to make this my career. I want to do this for the rest of my life.’”
The first step was Monster Jam University in Paxton, Illinois.
Urie said he took classes there on and off for about five months, mixing classroom work with experience in the field. Instructors went over his driving footage to recommend squaring up before hitting jumps and helping him nail down exactly when and how hard to accelerate.
At the same time, he said, he was also undergoing interview training to help hone in on the interpersonal skills needed to interact with fans and members of the media.
At the end of the experience, Urie said he was offered a contract to race with the Monster Jam tour.
The open truck waiting for him on the tour was a fan-designed zombie themed machine, complete with crooked teeth on the grill, sunken, yellowed eyes on the hood and two menacing arms reaching forward from the sides.
Life on the tour circuit sees Urie away most weekends, performing in venues in major cities and home in Bolivar during the week.
Urie will drive Friday through Sunday, Jan. 17-19, in Kansas City. It’s a chance for several members of his family who haven’t watched a show to come out and see him in the arena, he said.
From navigating busy cities to crowded stadiums, he said his time on the road couldn’t be more different from life in his quiet hometown.
“You’re driving in front of 20,000 people,” he said. “It takes your breath away because you just look at the massive amount of people watching you.”
But a big part of the job is being a public personality, he said. Monster Jam schedules fan interaction events, and posing for photos with young kids and their families has become a favorite pre-show activity.
“It’s something I wasn’t really expecting. I was just expecting to drive the truck,” he said. “We’ll have pit parties, so we’ll have 1,000 to 2,000 people come through before the show. You just sign stuff and talk to them.”
At just 23, Urie said he’s still grappling with the reality of having fans. Kids know his name and some tell him they’ve seen him on TV. Others clam up and can’t speak when meeting their favorite driver.
“It’s really just crazy to me,” he said. “I just look at myself as just me.”