At an age when most teenagers are learning to drive, Cassius Stevenson can balance a supercharged, methanol-fuelled $400,000 monster truck up on its rear wheels and drive around in circles.
If the Covid pandemic hadn't swept the world last year, it's quite likely the 16-year-old Queenslander would have turned professional by now and be a full-time addition to the Monster Jam tour where drivers jump from show to show across the US, with tens of thousands of adoring fans, cable TV coverage and a fat pay cheque just for turning up.
But the pandemic put a hold on the career of the world's youngest monster truck driver and now he's itching to get back to the US where there's a brand new truck waiting in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a huge pent-up demand for his fearless antics.
However, for now the much more humble showcase for his talent will be the Queanbeyan showground where, for the first time in years, the monster trucks are back for a Saturday matinee after a packed-out show in Bendigo last weekend.
The truck Cassius drives is one of the most modern of these brutish mechanical beasts in the country. They're all four-wheel steered, V8-powered, 1500-horsepower machines, and all built in the US.
Under the hand-made space frame and plastic bodyparts are mostly components borrowed from drag racing. Unlike any other form of vehicle competition, monster trucks are driven by looking down and out through their perspex floor panels.
"There's not much of a view out the windscreen; you certainly can't see what's in front of you," he said.
Cassius's grandfather Robert, who is a former champion speedway driver and promoter, brought the first monster trucks to Australia almost 40 years ago.
"I thought I'd make enough money in the first five years but here we are, still touring and doing shows," Robert Stevenson said.
His major motivation now is to support the burgeoning career of his grandson, who had his choice of speedway driving careers but instead was drawn in by the thrill of mastering these five-metre high machines and seeing how high he can launch one.
It's something he's been aspiring to do since he was about five years old and sat on a pillow to drive one.
In the monster truck world, there's two predominant disciplines: racing and freestyle.
And it's the freestyle - wheelies, backflips and massive, big air jumps - in which he excels.
"It's like most things; as the tech gets better, the driver skills go up and the tricks get bigger and more spectacular," Cassius said.
"The trucks now are heaps better to drive and can do far more tricks now than they could five years ago. They don't land as hard as they used to, either."
But occasionally they land harder than they should, and upside down. Cassius wears a full race harness, neck brace and fireproof gear, while the ever-present threat of an "invisible" methanol fire means the truck needs six onboard fire extinguishers trained on the cockpit, engine and gearbox.
Every truck is assigned a marshal who carries an automatic ignition cut-out in his hand. If the truck crashes, flips, rolls or there's a risk of an engine fire, the marshal can cut the truck's ignition remotely and activate the on-board extinguishers.
"We don't really want to overdo it too much; it gets too expensive to repair stuff," Cassius said. Replacing one of the eight, hand-built shock absorbers costs around $6000 and if you get a flat tyre, that's another $6000.
After the late Saturday afternoon show - compacted into two busy hours and tailormade so mum and dad can get young kids home in time for dinner and bed - the promoters will pack up and head for the next gig in Longreach, Queensland.
Dominating the crowds everywhere the trucks go are kids aged between four and 14.
"It's like a oversized daycare show," promoter Clive Weatherby said.
Meanwhile, Cassius Stevenson keeps a close watch on the Covid developments around the world, aiming for the time when he can rejoin the other big-name "jammers", wheelstanding his truck to fame and fortune.
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