Gunslinger is shooting for a crushing victory at Monster Jam

Before Scott Hartsock became Monster Truck driver Gunslinger, he was, well, a gunslinger.

In fact, the self-described Central Florida good-ol’-boy loved guns so much that he built them professionally.

“I’m a real avid hunter, and I did a lot of work for SWAT teams all up and down Florida, including the Miami-Dade area,” said Hartsock, who was a gunsmith for 14 years before joining Monster Jam in the early ’90s. “When the Monster Trucks got involved, I was doing double-duty, working four 10-hour days building and customizing guns and shooting competitions.”

It was a natural transition for Hartsock.

“You pretty much had to have an SUV or pickup truck jacked-up to get out in the woods to be able to shoot your high-powered rifle that your normal shooting ranges wouldn’t allow you to shoot,” he said.

“And things got out of hand and I finally got into a Monster Truck, and it’s 23 years ago September that we’ve been in the business of Monster Trucking.”

Fans can see Gunslinger making mayhem Saturday night as Monster Jam plows into Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, along with other superstar drivers including Grave Digger, Max-D, Overkill Evolution, Iron Warrior, Black Stallion and El Diablo.

The Gunslinger truck will be easy to spot — it’s the one with the bullet holes in the side.

“Yeah, it’s built off the Gunslinger theme,” Hartsock said. “And I’ve got two characters, one on each side of the truck. One of them is like a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne character, and the other side would be the same character, but he has no skin on, so he’s just a skull figure. And I tell people that when I’m happy, I’m this guy, and when I crash, I’m the other guy [laughs].”

Mike Vaters Jr. — who drives Overkill Evolution and whose father is a 30-year veteran of the Monster Truck scene (he’ll be behind the wheel of Black Stallion Saturday night) — quickly became a fan favorite in only his first year, having won Rookie of the Year and been crowned Young Guns Champ.

And he achieved all this without much constructive criticism from dear old Dad.

“Not really so much advice, a little tiny bit here and there,” he said. “I just kind of gathered it from watching every other driver’s style. There’ll be points where he starts trying to tell me how to drive, and I’ll just say, ‘Yeah? I disagree.’”

The 26-year-old says it took awhile to follow in his father’s footsteps because of his career in off-road motorcycle racing.

“I did freestyle motocross for 10 years before this, and I just got tired of getting hurt and taking a risk,” Vaters said. “So I had the opportunity to get into a seat, and I jumped on it, and it’s been a hell of a ride since.”

Wait a second — jumping 35 feet in the air in a five-ton, 12-foot-tall truck is seen as less risky?

“Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “I know it’s gonna sting a little bit, but you still feel safe. They have remote control that can shut us down if we get out of control, like officials on the sideline if they see anything wrong. But it’s amazing to see that much weight flying through the air, and a lot of people are caught off guard by how agile the trucks are, and how big they are.”

Hartsock is equally awed by the feats these trucks can achieve.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “If you live in a four-bedroom house, it’s nothing to jump your whole house with a Monster Truck nowadays.”

But he disagrees with Vaters’ risk assessment.

“It’s incredibly dangerous!” he exclaimed with a laugh. “But people go to NASCAR to see a crash, and people go to Monster Trucks to see a crash. And they get it — we deliver.”