Monster Trucks roar into Green Bay’s Resch Center
By A.C. Kruse-Ross
On April 5 and 6 the walls of Green Bay’s Resch Center will tremble beneath the roar of multiple 1,500 horsepower, 10,000-pound, 12-foot tall, mechanized behemoths as they roll into town for three larger-than-life shows. Don’t miss Monter Jam – As Big As It Gets!
Veteran driver and long-time ‘hired-gun,’ Lee O’Donnell will be on hand with the ever-popular Iron Man truck to contribute to the rumble and put smiles on the faces of fans. O’Donnell — considered among the top racers in the sport — spent years filling in for absentee drivers in other rigs before receiving the keys to Marvel Comic’s Iron Man in 2010.
We at SCENE were fortunate enough to speak to O’Donnell about his early racing days, his transition to Monster Trucks and the thrill of finally having a truck to call his own.
SCENE: Are we getting you from your at home in New Jersey?
Lee O’Donnell: Yes, I’m in New Jersey right now. But I can’t wait to get back to Green Bay, I know so many people there that it’s not even funny! I used to race back-road all over there!
SCENE: So are some of these folks going to the show to cheer you on?
O’Donnell: Oh, I know they are! The phone’s already ringing with, ‘Can I get tickets?’
SCENE: How did you come to find yourself behind the wheel of a Monster Truck?
O’Donnell: Well, I started off-road racing in Pennsylvania when I was 16 and I did that for a lot of years. The last year I raced off-road was 2007, but I started Monster Trucks in 2000. So I’d do Monster Trucks in the winter, and then off-road in the summer.
SCENE: How was the transition, going from the off-road stuff to getting behind the wheel of the big trucks?
O’Donnell: At first it was really different. With the off-road truck, you controlled exactly what the truck did; you’d make it do what you wanted it to do. Whereas with the Monster Truck, you were always reacting to what the truck did. But now the monster jam trucks are so much better, they’re like a really big racecar!
SCENE: So with advances in technology, the trucks have become more responsive?
O’Donnell: Oh yeah, the trucks are really good now.
SCENE: Can you tell me your history behind the monster truck, because for a long time you were the ‘go-to guy,’ the one that filled in for folks. You’ve had success with that as well. Can you tell us why it took so long for you to get your own truck?
O’Donnell: It has to do with my off-road schedule, and we were very busy doing that. We had some success with that, but I was looking for another avenue. That’s when the Monster Truck thing started to happen. I’d get a call to go for the weekend, and I’d go and I’d be very successful, and meeting guys that had been doing this for years. It started slowly at first, and then it got to where they really needed me.
At one event, our corporate sponsor was Ford at the time, and their main driver had another function, and they told me that they had a big show and they really needed me to do well at this event. I went down to Atlanta, and I won the event. And they really began to think about this, so it was right after that that Iron Man came about.
SCENE: That was 2010, the unveiling of the Iron Man truck, is that correct?
O’Donnell: Yes, that’s when it really picked up momentum!
SCENE: You were bouncing around in different trucks for a time. Is there a disadvantage for you sitting behind the wheel of a truck that you’re not familiar with, and is there an advantage now because you’ve got your own truck and you’re in it every other weekend?
O’Donnell: The trucks that I was getting into, the Ford-built Blue Thunder was a corporate truck, and it was a really good truck — the best of the best. I was handed good equipment right from the get go. I thrive on the pressure, on that need to perform, but now with my own truck, it’s beyond comfortable. It’s mine, everything is where I want it, I have a cup holder, it’s little things like that that make it mine.
SCENE: How much tweaking gets done when you’re getting your own truck? Are there adjustments that are made for you as a driver?
O’Donnell: I do go over that with the crew chief. I have one of the best crew chiefs in the business. And his whole job revolves around me. What do I want the truck to do? What do I need to be comfortable? We discuss this prior to an event, and then discuss it again on Monday, after the show. We don’t get to practice the truck prior, we have to do the show first and then we discuss on Monday, after the show.
SCENE: So you make adjustments, then do the event, and then adjust again?
O’Donnell: We do. We go round by round racing in the truck to make it perfect. You don’t want to make any mistakes. Then I’ll get asked how everything went, and I’ll make suggestions as to making the truck operate better. And we usually get better with each round.
SCENE: With a Monster Jam event, there’s basically three main categories that you compete in, you’ve got the racing, the free-styling and the wheelie event. You’re really well known as being a great racer. Is that just rollover from your history prior to monster truck?
O’Donnell: I believe so. I always like to beat another guy; I always like to race somebody. Freestyle is cool, but you’re not head to head with anybody. I’m just a racer. I have a 5-year-old daughter and we race from the garage to the house, and she never wins!
SCENE: Are you ever going to ease up and let her win?
O’Donnell: (laughter) Probably not! Because the last one in the house is a rotten egg! Nobody wants to be a rotten egg.
SCENE: Does racing another person put a tremendous amount of pressure on you?
O’Donnell: Absolutely! You can go up against somebody that you haven’t had much success against, that’s when I really want to be on my game. You’re also wondering if someone you’ve never raced against is any good. All these things go through my head as I’m pulling to the line.
SCENE: When the gun goes, and you start, are you still thinking at that point, or are you simply reacting?
O’Donnell: I’m not thinking at that point, I’m just focused on what I’m doing.
SCENE: In the past you’ve also been recognized as having improved in the freestyle event. Is there a secret to that, or has that simply been time behind the wheel?
O’Donnell: I think it’s more time behind the wheel. I wasn’t known as the best freestyle guy. The body on Iron Man is so expensive, that the first couple years my bosses were like, ‘Try not to wreck it! We need you to go out and do a great job, but please don’t wreck the body.’ Now, they’re more relaxed with it, but they never like to see you tear it up. That’s what it takes to be a great freestyle guy; you have to take it way beyond the limit.
SCENE: When you’re qualifying, do you also go through the freestyle event, or is it just for racing?
O’Donnell: Qualifying is only about the racing!
SCENE: The Monster Truck finals are coming up in March in Vegas. Where do you see your team, the Iron Man squad, finishing?
O’Donnell: I love to race and I’m a racer, but we’ve always struggled with racing out there. But last year, we set the second fastest qualifying time out of 24 trucks, so we were feeling really good. But for whatever reason, in the second round I missed my breaking point, so I lost the second round. In freestyle for the past four years, we’ve always finished in the top five. It’s kind of strange, where I think we should do well, we typically don’t, and where I think I’m not the best freestyle guy out there, we’re still finishing in the top five, out of 24.
SCENE: In the event that you remain in the top five in freestyle and you finish where you think you should, those stats would be good enough to put you in the top three, wouldn’t they?
O’Donnell: It should, but sometimes we just struggle with the racing. I can’t figure out exactly why, but it’s a different format and style of track that we’re doing, and I’ve never really gotten a handle on it, until last year. So we’re looking to go to finals, it would be great, but a good goal for this year would be the semi-finals, and I’d be thrilled.
SCENE: You’re dealing with some pretty heavy equipment out there, you guys are jumping all over cars, the whole bit. How nervous do you get out there, or is it just another day at the office for you?
O’Donnell: Well, it’s my job. It’s great, it’s fun, but it still has it’s downside. I get mad at things, but it’s cool when you’re at a big stadium and you win in front of 70,000 people. It’s crazy-good, it makes up for all the bad stuff. I don’t get nervous!
SCENE: Have you ever had something go wrong enough to get you scared?
O’Donnell: I’m never scared! I only get scared watching other guys, and I think to myself, ‘Man, I’d never do that!’ But my wife laughs and says, ‘You do that every week!’ But I’m the guy that drives 60 mph on the highway!
SCENE: Iron Man is a relatively new truck, how have the fans responded to the truck in general?
O’Donnell: It’s crazy the amount of people that swarm that truck. We always have it looking 100 percent. The little kids love the movies and they flock right to it, and then there’s the dads and grandpas and they remember the comic books. So I get both sides of the family.
SCENE: You mention that difference in age groups. Is that what a monster jam crowd looks like?
O’Donnell: Absolutely. We sign autographs at the end of the show, and you talk and ask if they enjoyed the show. One thing that always gets me is at the end of a show when you ask the moms, and they have no voice left because they’ve screamed during the entire show! That always makes me laugh, because I’m certain that they came believing that they wouldn’t have a good time!
SCENE: Well, like they say, you pay for the whole seat but you only need the edge!
O’Donnell: Exactly! And if they liked that show, then I did my job.
SCENE: So you recognize that you’re an entertainer, not just a racer?
O’Donnell: I am an entertainer. I can almost guarantee that they’ll have a good time. I’ve never come across anyone who didn’t come away with satisfaction. It’s going to be loud and in-your-face. It’s more personal, and that’s what the audience likes about it.
SCENE: That interaction with the fans is important, you’re signing autographs and letting them look at the trucks. You don’t get that with a lot of other events.
O’Donnell: These people in the audience are the ones paying your salary! If you can’t take five minutes to sign an autograph in some form or another then you’re not doing your fans any service. It is a lot of fun, and I mess around with pretty much everyone. It’s like one big family. You try to make them laugh and smile!
Fans are invited to reach out to O’Donnell via twitter @leeodonnell23 and via instagram at leeodonnell23.
For tickets online visit reschcenter.com or ticketstaronline.com. To order tickets via phone call (800) 895-0071.
Meet the drivers, crews and explore the trucks with a Monster Jam Pit Pass available for Saturday at 11:30 for an additional fee.
Saturday, April 5 — 2 p.m.
Saturday, April 5 — 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 6 — 2 p.m.
Saturday, April 5 — 11:30 a.m.