Monster dreams come true
Monday, April 14, 2014
As a teenager, Gene Patterson found his life’s ambition.
The first-ever paid car crush happened to be at the old Capital Speedway in the late 1970s. That’s where Patterson saw John Breen smiling gleefully in the passenger seat of Big Foot.
Whatever it took, that’s where Patterson wanted to be.
As he passed out trading cards with his name pictured as the driver of Big Foot and Snakebite at Cole County’s DARE graduations, he encourages the youngsters they can reach their dreams too, if they make good choices.
It’s been 10 years since he’s been behind the wheel of these Monster Trucks. But a few months ago, he got behind the wheel of a mini-Big Foot go-kart to film the DARE graduation video for Ralph Lemongelli, school resource officer coordinator.
They met at a Blair Oaks parents meeting, when Patterson found “The Original Monster Truck: Big Foot” by Scott Johnston on the library shelf and pointed to a photo of him driving Big Foot.
Meeting the students at the various DARE graduations, including Blair Oaks, Eugene and Russellville, this year has revived his favorite part of the Monster Truck world — meeting the fans.
In addition to driving in more than 1,500 events in the Monster Truck circuit across the nation, Patterson also drove in the movies “Road House,” “Tango and Cash” and “Police Academy 6” plus the television series Monster Jam.
Fans still ask for autographs when he attends Monster Truck events.
“It’s nice to see the effect you have on people; it’s really cool,” he said.
A few years after that starstruck moment at Capital Speedway, Patterson passed the Mad Dog II being worked on at a service station on his way home from work.
An amateur photographer, Patterson offered to take photos of the truck-building process and send them to “Four Wheel and Off Road Magazine.” He also had taken the first photos of Big Foot in action at the previous event.
They are still popular photos today.
Burnt out at his computer components job, it was perfect timing when Mad Dog driver Breen asked Patterson to go on the road with them. Then, they built Stomper Bully and Patterson took the driver’s seat.
“Monster Trucks were starting to crop up like dandelions,” he said.
The earliest trucks were regular full-sized trucks modified for the larger wheels and power. The doors opened, there was no two-way communication, limited visibility and drivers just wore a helmet.
Accidents were common early on, too. Patterson’s developed the nickname “test pilot.”
His Big Foot Firesuit is in the Monster Truck Hall of Fame.
“As the sport grew, we were going faster and jumping higher,” he said.
The Big Foot opportunity came in 1987.
“I knew they were building more trucks and I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Patterson said. “That was the best day of my life, short of my kids being born.”
In 1991, when he was driving Snakebite as Colt Cobra, he was named a “Mover and Shaker” by the “Four Wheel and Off Road Magazine” — the same magazine he had sent photos to eight years earlier.
When the Mattel toy company rolled out its Big Foot line, they insisted on a “villain” truck.
That’s when Patterson moved from Big Foot to Snakebite, which also was the industry’s first three-dimensional truck body with the eyes and fangs.
With a hood to make him more mysterious, Patterson played to the fans on the track and in the two videos they made.
“We couldn’t make the novelties fast enough,” he recalled.
He drove his dream for more than a decade, before he decided to slow down. And, when the industry needed experienced drivers a few years later, Big Foot complemented him by inviting him back.
“When you’re a racer, you just want to race,” Patterson said.
But after a couple more years of the flying and flopping, he knew it was time to end his career for good.
It’s been more than a decade and he still won’t let anyone else drive the family car and he doesn’t like roller coasters.
“When you’re used to being in control, when you’re not, it gets spooky,” Patterson said.
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