Ed Eckert has what some people might consider a unique definition of fun.
Strapping himself into five-point harness, his head in a helmet that essentially becomes part of his machine, Eckert lives for the moment when he ratchets his seat belt a few clicks tighter across his fireproof suit and kicks in the 2,000-horsepower engine under his seat.
"I just make myself part that truck to absorb the impact," Eckert says. "You are in there so tight you can't turn your head."
And that's where the fun really begins.
"There's timing and there's also thinking ahead, there's so much going on inside that cab," says Eckert, who brings his truck, Fullboar, to Monster Jam at Rupp Arena on Saturday. "You have to worry about rebound, and how much throttle to hit, and when to steer the rear, because it has four-wheel steering. You have to know when to hit the brakes, ..." He gets nearly breathless at the thought of it all. "You've got to shift the truck as well, you have to manually shift the automatic. There is one hand on the steering wheel and one hand shifting and jumping to control your rear steering."
Generally sound advice would seem to be: Don't try this at home.
But that's exactly what Eckert did.
A mechanic by trade, he has had a love of all motor vehicles since he was a kid. Eckert, a Tennessee native who lives in Knoxville, says he managed to put together his first car with the help of his dad and $25.
"He showed me how to put it together, and parts and pieces," Eckert says.
As an adult, Eckert indulged in building fancy trucks for shows. He also did a lot of motocross and four-wheeling.
"All the stuff guys do," is how he describes his preoccupation. "I just love it."
He met former Monster Jam driver Jeff Perrin after Perrin drove in a show Eckert had organized.
"He was going to do a little car crush free, for the people who came to the show," Eckert says. After it was over, Perrin asked Eckert if he'd like to take his monster for a spin.
"I felt the horsepower of the blown-injected monster truck engine and I just had to have me one of them," Eckert says, still excited 15 years after that first ride.
"About $150,000 later ... and a lot of labor ... I got me one," he says.
Just as he'd built his first car, Eckert pieced together his monster truck, Fullboar. Perrin became a mentor and friend, helping Eckert bring his vehicle up to the particular mechanical specs required by Monster Jam, and helping him learn how to tame the mechanical beast.
Monster trucks do a lot more than when Dennis Anderson fired up Grave Digger in 1981. In human sports terms, today's trucks are more nimble wide receiver than lumbering offensive lineman. Although the arena shows are awe-inspiring, he says, drivers make it look easier than it is. And, he says, there is a lot of work outside of the arena.
A big part of that work is keeping the complex machines in good working order. "There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears out there," he says.
"I hear from a lot of people when they come through the autograph line that they think, 'Man, I could do that.'"
He's living proof that it's possible.
Since that first run at age 35, he has made a part-time career of running the monster truck circuit. He still works as a mechanic, although he runs in about 20 shows a year. Sponsored, full-time drivers do about 50 shows a year, he says.
It's a tough life sometimes. In his early years as a driver, a particularly rough landing compacted two vertebra in his back .
"That was one of those learning curves," he says matter-of-factly. Lesson to new drivers: Don't compact your vertebra.
Still, overall, he can't imagine a life without his monster truck. He's hoping that when he's too old to drive — not a time he can currently envision — his family will carry on the tradition.
(After all, they've already got the truck, so, ...)
Until then, Eckert will continue with the relish of an overgrown kid. His second-favorite part of the show is making his 10,000-pound truck spin in a doughnut like a twirling ice skater.
His favorite part? It's not the roar of the engine but the roar of the crowd.
"I honestly think the fans make the show when they start screaming and hollering for you. You hear the crowd roar, and that pumps you up and you think, 'I've got to do good for those people.'"