Monster Jam returns to Raymond James Stadium this weekend, bringing a macho vibe of huge trucks rolling over lesser vehicles and gnarly rigs soaring into the air in a fume-filled arena.
Two of the 16 drivers competing in Tampa will be women, a small but growing force in the popular touring show of beastly vehicles.
Candice Jolly, 38, was only the second woman to drive a monster truck when hired by Feld Entertainment, which owns Monster Jam, in 2007.
She helped pave the path for Rosalee Ramer, a 21-year-old college student who became the world's youngest female professional monster-truck driver shortly after her 14th birthday. She had to wait until she turned 18 to join Monster Jam.
"They didn't want females in the sport," Jolly said of her first year in Monster Jam. "It was a male-dominated sport."
Jolly shares a home in Naples with her husband, Neil Elliott, a fellow Monster Jam driver (Max-D). In a phone interview, she said she dreams of being the only mother-son monster-truck team when her 13-year-old, who races go-carts, is old enough.
In the 12 years since Jolly joined, Monster Jam's multiple tours have grown to include 16 female drivers. That's out of 100 other drivers, so it's still overwhelmingly male, "but at least we are in double digits," said Jolly, a mom, real estate agent and keeper of therapy animals for autistic kids.
"I don't want to say they were rude, but they were very set in their ways," Jolly said of her first years in Monster Jam. "They didn't want a girl there. So I have pushed some limits, and once I got here people realized I was an actual driver."
She comes from a family of racers, including her mother, grandmother and a younger sister. She started racing at 8 and won several national championships racing go-carts before she moved up to Formula V cars. But the monster trucks really pushed all the right buttons for her.
Ramer, like Jolly, also comes from a family of racers. Ramer's father, Kelvin, will race against his daughter, driving the classic Time Flys monster truck while she gets behind the wheel of a fairly new truck called Wild Flower.
She helped her dad build the truck, and she's using her long interest in tinkering with engines to study mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. She set up her class schedule so she can fly out on Thursdays, race all weekend and return to campus Sunday nights.
She loves the girly pink and rose details on Wild Flower but also the customized body design that can match her wild driving style. She has an aggressive approach to freestyle, the part of the show when the trucks burst off large jumps and pop wheelies across the course.
"The truck has one of the lowest centers of gravity, which is super helpful for making tight turns, but in freestyle it comes into play in a whole new way," Ramer said. "It helps me to get it under control if I do something wild."
Both Ramer and Jolly are tiny and athletic. Advances in technology, such as nitrogen-charged shocks, have made it easier for women to level the playing field with the male drivers, they said.
The shock absorbers contain nitrogen to charge the hydraulic fluid. This allows drivers to push the threshold way beyond that where such a performance with conventional shocks would have resulted in injury to the driver.
"The truck is an equalizer for us," Jolly said. "So we can go out and do what the boys are doing and it doesn't hurt us."
Jolly will race head-to-head against her husband in Tampa. And the two Ramers will also be competing Saturday.
Jolly was thrilled last year when she finally defeated her husband, an award-winning driver at Monster Jam for almost 20 years. But Elliott "would hardly speak to me," Jolly said. "He said, 'You have no idea what a hard time the guys gave me.' "
She chuckled at the thought and added, "He's a great sport. He's always been fully supportive and right there in my corner. And it helps that he's a good driver, that I can learn a lot from him."
Jolly drives Monster Mutt Dalmatian, which she fondly refers to as a "girl's truck" with adorable floppy ears, a wagging tail and Dalmatian spots. Her arrival song is Who Let the Dogs Out?, and her fans often show up at the preshow Pit Party dressed in Dalmatian costumes to get their picture with her.
With a 10,000-pound vehicle flying 30 feet through the air, the drivers require a custom-designed seat molded for their bodies. Jolly also wears a safety harness, helmet, protective gloves and a flame-retardant suit that "provides 30 seconds of burn time."
"These trucks have rear wheel steering, so when we are spinning a doughnut you don't even have to hang on to the steering wheel," Jolly said. "It spoils you when you are in your regular car. I keep looking for my rear steer."
Working in the male-dominated worlds of racing and engineering, Ramer offers a lesson of hope.
"I think I ended up being born in exactly the right time period," she said. "I honestly, in the last few years, have been impressed in the number of women engineers I've seen at work and at school. And everyone on the track is like my uncle or big brother. They are super supportive. A lot of them have known me since I was little and I was holding a flashlight."
IF YOU GO
Monster Jam returns to Raymond James Stadium to crush lesser cars and even school buses in competition at 7 p.m. Saturday. Come early for the Pit Party from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., where you can get pictures with the trucks and drivers. Pick up free Pit Party passes at any Ford dealership while supplies last. Tickets to the main show are $15-$185. 4201 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Toll-free 1-800-745-3000. monsterjam.com.