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A monster in the family

Published Sep. 9, 2005

With his wife's support, an Oldsmar man parlays his love of trucks into a career that is a roaring success.

She was from Massapequa, New York. He was from Dunedin. He liked to hunt and fish. Her idea of the great outdoors was the inside of a dance club.

When they went on their first date, he picked her up in his red Ford pickup and announced that they were going to hang out with friends and maybe do a little off-road driving. She was wearing high heels, jeans and a crisp white blouse. When they got to the spot, she wouldn't get out of the truck. She made him carry her to the tailgate.

"Out in the woods with 40 or 50 other trucks and their dogs and their coolers of beer," Kathy Hartsock said, shaking her head. "At one point I asked where you go to the bathroom. He said, "In the woods.' I said, "Not me,' and I made him take me to the Shell station three miles down the road."

But opposites attract, she said, "And he was just gorgeous."

He was Scott Hartsock, and when Kathy's mother found out she was actually going to marry this guy, she . . . well, she had some reservations.

"My mother said, "Oh, my God! Why? Couldn't you find a business executive or someone like that?' "

Scott and Kathy were married March 9, 1985, on Clearwater Beach, and in the ensuing years, they had two children and a red Ford pickup that kept getting bigger and bigger.

Today, the truck stands more than 10 feet tall, weighs more than 4.5 tons and is worth about $150,000. It also has a name.

"I call it Gun Slinger because I used to be a gunsmith," Scott said, standing in the large open garage next to his home.

Gun Slinger is one of the featured trucks in Saturday's Super Bowl of Motor Sports at Raymond James Stadium, and Hartsock is becoming one of the most popular drivers on the monster truck circuit. Last year, he finished second on the tour.

But Gun Slinger wouldn't be here if not for Kathy.

Nine years ago, the Hartsocks had to decide whether Scott would stay a gunsmith or build his truck into a monster truck, buy a moving van in which to haul it and travel around the country on the racing circuit. In the meantime, Kathy, who worked for a mortgage company, would be the family's sole means of support.

"That put the burden more or less on me," she said. "I had to ask myself whether I could support us if this didn't work. But I believed Scott was going to give it everything he had.

"That's how it all came to be."

Scott's first race was in Naples in 1992. He rolled the truck.

"I panicked," Kathy said. "We came home with a crushed truck, and for the next few races, I couldn't even watch. I'd sit in the stands with my head down."

Slowly, Scott began to learn which parts worked best, how to race and how to find sponsors. As he started winning, the fans started to notice.

He's gone almost every weekend now. He'll drive 1,000 miles to a show, turn around two days later and drive home. When he gets back, he spends the week frantically trying to repair his trucks. (His second truck, Wrenchead.com, made its debut last month in Atlanta.)

"I leave for two weeks," Scott said, "and I come back and my daughter (age 12) is a young lady."

"He doesn't get to see the recitals and the baseball games," Kathy added. "But when school is out in the summer, we all travel together."

Success on the circuit is determined by two factors: winning and marketing. The trucks have to be gleaming and the drivers friendly.

"I had a dad call me and ask for an autograph for his son," Scott said. "I told him sure. Then he said they had driven here from Alabama. That just blew me away. I invited them over, and we talked for more than an hour.

"That's how dedicated the fans can be, and for me, it's an honor that they want my autograph. I'll sign until there's no one left in line."

The rewards are an average of $150,000 a year, mostly from the sale of T-shirts, hats, toys and other merchandise, some sold at the Web site http://www.gunslinger4x4.com. A good part of that money goes back into the maintenance of the trucks.

As for Kathy's mother, she's now one of Scott's biggest fans.

"She gave me a guardian angel that I always take with me," Scott said. "On the road and when I'm racing."

On the tailgate of Gun Slinger is this inscription:

Thanks to my wife,

daughter & son.

"I'm proud we got to this point," Cathy said.

Scott smiled at his wife and finished the sentence.

"Because together is the only way we could have done this."

MONSTER TRUCK FACTS:

Weight: About 10,000 pounds.

Height: 10 feet.

Engine: Typically around 1,500 horsepower.

Transmission: Depending on a driver's preference, an automatic or manual transmission can be used.

Fuel: Alcohol.

Tires: Most trucks take 66-inch tall, 43-inch wide tires designed for agricultural machinery.

Top speed: 60-70 mph.

The first monster truck: Bob Chandler's Bigfoot, a Ford F Series pickup built in the late 1970s.

Cost: Between $100,000 and $150,000.

Racing: Races are divided into exhibition and pro races. Exhibition races typically do not offer prize purses. Drivers compete in Monster Truck Racing Association sanctioned events. The MTRA is the governing body of the sport.

The team that keeps trucking: Kathy and Scott Hartsock of Oldsmar, and, of course, Gun Slinger, the monster truck, in the shop at their home. While Scott learned the tricks of the trade on the monster circuit, Kathy's paycheck kept the family finances going.