Kid drivers take on mini monsters

BY ANGELINA MARTIN

For eight-year-old Shane Plato, bigger isn’t always better. The young daredevil currently holds the title of the world’s youngest mini monster truck driver and recently competed in the 2016 Monster Truck Spring Nationals at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds.

Mini monster trucks are real, to-scale versions of the huge trucks that typically compete against one another, but about half the size. At events, the mini monster trucks come out individually to tear up the course, just like their bigger counterparts. The tiny trucks spin, jump and crush their way through events, and while watching, one almost forgets that the trucks are just a fraction of the size typically seen at competitions. Since the mini trucks are driven by quickly-growing boys and girls, trucks like Shane’s feature adjustable seats that can give the driver more or less leg room – something that has come in handy for Shane numerous times.

“He grew about an inch in a week, so I had to lower the seat,” said Shane’s father, Lee Plato.

The trucks also feature adjustable pedals that can slide forward or backward, making it nearly impossible for the young drivers to grow out of their vehicles.

Safety is always a number one concern for Lee while Shane is driving, so it’s imperative that he and his son are able to stay connected during each competition. A headset that Shane wears while inside the truck allows him to communicate with his father, who has carries a walkie-talkie, as he drives. If Shane crashes or something goes wrong with the truck, he has a direct way to let his father and team know if he’s okay and what any issues may be.

Mini monster truck drivers are the future of monster trucking; according to Lee, Shane hopes to be in a full-sized monster truck by the age of 18.

“It feels pretty good to be the youngest in the world,” said Shane. “Ever since I watched the big trucks, I got inspired to drive.”

Shane began his journey at the age of five, when he would sit on his father’s lap in a full-sized truck and help him drive. A year later, Shane got behind the wheel of his own mini monster truck after plenty of talks and a lot convincing.

“It’s hard to get people to let a six year old drive,” said Lee, but Team Kid KJ was willing to take a chance on the young Sonoma County boy. Now, Shane travels all over the West Coast competing for the mini monster truck team.

Team Kid KJ is a mini monster truck team based out of Florida, showcasing the youngest monster truck drivers in the history of the sport. Shane, behind the wheel of Skull Crusher, and friend Corbin Shockey, who drives the truck known as Monster Buddy, make up Team Kid KJ’s West Coast team.

Nine-year-old Shockey of San Marcos was encouraged by Shane to join Team Kid KJ after he expressed interest in driving at another monster truck event. The May 14 event at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds was Shockey’s first time competing.

“My favorite part about driving is going over the jumps,” said Shockey.

The Spring Nationals were also significant for monster truck driver Jeff Souza of Denair. Souza has been actively participating in monster truck competitions for a few years now, but this weekend marks the first time that he will compete alongside his son, Hunter Souza.

Hunter is also mini monster truck driver and operates the Wrecking Machine – a pint-sized but powerful truck that has earned him the reputation of being a “heavy hitter.” While he too has competed in competitions all over the West Coast with Shane, this will be the first event that his dad is also driving in.

“It’s always been both of our dreams to compete together, and this is our home town, too,” said Hunter.

For Jeff, competing himself is only half the fun.

“Just sitting there watching (Hunter), I get an adrenaline rush,” said Jeff.

Hunter’s interest in monster truck driving came from watching his father, who described the activity as being in Hunter’s blood.

“He didn’t have a choice,” said Jeff with a smile. “He’s been in the shop late nights with us when the trucks are at his house, so he didn’t know any better.”

Thirteen-year-old Hunter has exceeded his father’s expectations when it comes to his driving skills. Jeff hopes to have him in a full-sized monster truck by age 15. In his last competition, Hunter did a lot of damage to his truck, which Jeff credits to his knowledge of the sport.

“He comes out and he knows what he’s doing,” said Jeff. “He’s watched all the heavy hitters. He’s doing good and we’re proud of him.”

For Hunter, spinning donuts and jumping in the Wrecking Machine is the best part about monster truck driving.

“It’s always an adrenaline rush,” said Hunter.
Every mini monster truck driver’s dream is to compete at the Monster Jam World Finals, said Lee, but it requires eating, breathing and living the sport – something that Shane, Shockey and Hunter are already professionals at.

“These guys act just like adults,” said Lee. “They listen and know what’s going on. They catch the track crew doing things they’re not supposed to do.”

Making it to the Monster Jam World Finals takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but young Shane is already taking strides to make his dream a reality. He made history as the first person under the age of 18 to drive at the 2016 event and will soon be featured on Jay Leno’s television series “Jay Leno’s Garage.”According to Lee, Team Kid KJ is also in talks with several television stations about a potential reality television show featuring the mini monster truck drivers.

“It’s the real deal,” said Lee of the boys’ trucking prowess. “It’s a lot of fun.”

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