Monster trucks will rev through Raymond James Stadium tonight in a familiar display of ear-piercing, metal-crushing horsepower. But mingling in the trail of dirt and exhaust is a new cloud of safety concerns.
In the wake of two deaths at monster truck events in January — one a 6-year-old boy in the stands struck by a piece of metal, the other a veteran promoter who walked in the path of a truck — the industry faces a wave questions. Among them: What went wrong? And how safe are spectators?
For MonsterJam, one of the sport's leading event tours, the show goes on full-bore in Tampa and beyond while an investigation continues into a Jan. 16 accident in Tacoma, Wash.
Debris from beneath a truck inside the Tacoma Dome flew into the stands, striking Sebastian Hizey's head and ricocheting into the head of an adult spectator. The youngster died, while Erik W. Smith, 40, was hospitalized with neck and jaw injuries.
Officials with MonsterJam, owned by Virginia-based Feld Entertainment, maintain their sport is safe and say the accident was its first spectator death in more than 25 years of existence.
"What happened in Tacoma was a tragic event, unprecedented in the history of MonsterJam," said Stephen Payne, a Feld Motor Sports spokesman. "We take our commitment to safety for the fans who come to MonsterJam, as well as the drivers and crew, very, very seriously."
Payne said he was unable to discuss the specifics of the Tacoma incident because of the investigation, but he noted that the truck involved, Natural High, no longer is part of the tour.
"We're inspecting every single truck before it comes on the performance space," he said. "And at each and every venue that we play at, we make sure the safety buffers that we put in place are appropriate for that venue. We have people on the floor who have remote ignition interrupters, so at the first sign of a problem with one of these trucks, we can shut it down immediately. And a truck is not allowed on the floor unless it passes a test that shows that interruption works."
Tampa Sports Authority officials say they trust Feld Motor Sports, the company that produces MonsterJam. "In the more than 25 years that the Tampa Sports Authority has hosted this event, we have never had an incident that endangered the safety of our fans," said Mickey Farrell, director of stadium operations.
In addition to the remote kill switches, a buffer zone between the dirt track and seats is standard at all shows. What caused the accident in Tacoma remains unclear. The truck had a mechanical problem early in the event and was removed, but it returned for a freestyle performance.
The driver, Gary Schott Jr., told investigators he felt his truck vibrate coming off a jump. One witness said a part of the car, thought to be the driveline, hit the ground from beneath the truck and smashed into pieces, propelling the debris. But nobody connected with the race was aware anything had flown into the stands until somebody threw down a piece of metal.
"That's such a tragedy — just picturing the boy's dad coming to the show and that happening to his little boy," said Dennis Anderson, a MonsterJam driver of the iconic $235,000 Grave Digger.
"It was a one-in-a-million chance that accident happened like it did. It was a very fluke thing. And we've all run to the table to figure out what it was and how can we fix it. We don't want this thing to happen again."
There have been other injuries at monster truck shows, including five fatalities from 1992 to 1998, the Associated Press reported.
"It's no different than any motorsport in the world," Anderson said, "but then to have back-to-back incidents that took two people's lives. … "
That second incident occurred Jan. 25 in Madison, Wis., when the president of Image Productions, which stages the Monster Truck Nationals and other truck shows, walked in front of a truck that had just finished its run. Coincidentally, George Eisenhart, 41, was at the forefront of safety initiatives for monster trucks.
"George was one of most aggressive people we've ever had in this business about staying ahead of the game (in safety)," said Rich Schaefer, communications director for the Missouri-based Monster Truck Racing Association. "What happened to George is one of those situations that could just as easily happen to me walking out in front of my house to get my mail. He just simply didn't look both ways before he walked out, and the vehicle was just idling back to its parking spot."
"The two incidents in January were just real rough for the industry as a whole," said Ross Bonar, who has covered the sport for 15 years and writes about it on TheMonsterBlog.com. "You're talking about an industry that has gone on for more than 30 years now, and on any given weekend, there are shows in 15-20 cities. And with all that, there's only been six to seven fatalities in the history of the sport. The people who put on these shows want families to come out with their kids. So making sure everyone is protected at the event is the highest priority."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8541. Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report.