The crowd is at its loudest when the trucks soar into the air for the first time.
One after another, more than a dozen 650-horsepower pickup trucks in racing regalia launch off a ramp at 65 mph. They sail 10 feet above the ground before smacking back onto the track. The trucks also drift, sliding around corners with one wheel up. On straightaways they reach 140 mph.
This is Stadium Super Trucks, one of the newest motorsports. Now in its sixth season, the series has a dedicated fanbase and its most talented lineup of drivers yet. Super Trucks put on a high-octane show earlier at the 44th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“It’s so different from everything else in the world,” said Matt Brabham, a driver competing in his third full season. “And obviously the jumps are insane.”
Super Trucks is the creation of Robby Gordon, a marquee name in the world of off-road racing. Over the past 30 years Gordon was won multiple championships in the SCORE International series, the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000. He is the big draw with fans.
“This is racing, but it’s also entertainment,” Gordon said.
“He’s brought off-road racing back to its roots,” said Richard Hughbanks, a fan from Lancaster, Calif. Hughbanks and his family wore Super Trucks hats and t-shirts as they waited for driver autographs.
The family watches every race online. Dade, 13, has two Gordon autographs. Alysa, 16, wears Gordon’s No. 7 on her volleyball jersey.
Super Trucks is Gordon’s show. He designed and built the trucks, found sponsors and hired most of the team. During the race weekend in Long Beach, half of the Super Trucks crew stayed at Gordon’s house in nearby Orange County.
The series takes on the aggressive attitude of its founder. Gordon can be brash. He boasted that Super Trucks gives fans more action than the IndyCar series. In past years, Long Beach race officials reprimanded Gordon and Super Trucks after drivers tore their 35-inch Toyo all-terrain tires through carefully manicured flowerbeds at one scenic corner.
The series uses a unique system that places the fastest qualifiers at the back of the field and awards points for each position they earn, incentivizing passing. It also has two mandatory caution periods designed to bunch the field. No driver can build too large a lead.
Gordon and Brabham lead an impressive group of drivers that includes 2017 champion Paul “The Dude” Morris and 18-year old phenom Gavin Harlien. There’s a celebrity draw: Arie Luyendyk, Jr., the tabloid staple from The Bachelor franchise.
Brabham, 24, discovered the series while competing in an open-wheel race in Toronto in 2015. He walked over to see the Super Trucks paddock during a break, and when one driver pulled out the crew asked if he wanted to take his place. He finished sixth in his first race. He finished fourth in the next one.
Brabham joined Super Trucks full-time, just missing the championship by a single point in 2017. The grandson of three-time Formula One world champion Sir Jack Brabham, his ultimate goal is to earn a full ride in IndyCar. For now, his sights are set on the 2018 Super Trucks title.
“Every time I go out it’s full focus, full aggression,” Brabham said.
Super Trucks ran two races during the weekend in Long Beach. On Saturday afternoon Brabham and Gordon moved from the last row of trucks to third and fourth. Both were hot on the tails of Luyendyk and Harlien.
But the fun stopped short. After six laps, Apdaly Lopez rolled his truck with twenty minutes still on the clock. Rather than resume the race, officials brought it to an abrupt end.
When Grand Prix officials cut the first Super Trucks race short, series public announcer Sean Sermini broadcast his assessment of the decision: “Very upsetting.”
“I’m probably going to get in trouble for that but I don’t care,” Sermini said.
Drivers regrouped in the paddock. Brabham’s truck had suffered a brief collision that turned his right front fender into a crumpled mess of fiberglass. That didn’t bother him but he was disappointed not to finish the race.
“It was going to come down to the end there,” Brabham said.
Super Trucks mechanics used zip-ties to stitch Brabham’s hood and brought Lopez’s flipped truck back to working order. They also had to repair the pace car, a brand-new Textron Off Road Wildcat XX UTV. The company debuted the new model only two weeks earlier. The pace car driver broke it on a jump before the race began.
The next day the mechanics arrived early to finish prepping the trucks. Many of the lightweight bodies were patched up. The pace car was back in working order. The Super Trucks community is great at breaking things and even better at putting them back together.
Brabham smiled as he made final adjustments to his No. 83 truck. He liked his chances.
Fans cheered when the second race started. Jaws dropped when the trucks launched off the first ramp. By the second jump the crowd had phones out for photos and video.
Brabham worked his way through the pack. After starting in 12th place, he rose to fifth in just three laps. With Luyendyk, Jr., forced to retire early and Gordon and Harlien stuck in traffic, he ran virtually unchallenged. Brabham blew through the field and took the lead with eight minutes on the clock.
But mayhem was still to come. Blade Hildebrand’s truck collided with another, crumpling the hood into his field of vision. Undaunted, Hildebrand drove the back straightaway at 100 mph leaning across his seat to see ahead. At the Turn 10 jump, his hood flipped up and flew off, crashing to the track.
Body panels and parts started flying. The second and third place drivers collided and slammed into a wall of tires. A plastic fan skidded across the track.
Brabham took the victory without trouble. He earned points for the win, points for each pass and additional points for accruing the most points of the weekend. It’s his second win of the season and his second consecutive win in Long Beach.
“Matt got past four guys in one corner,” Gordon said. “It was the move of the race.”
To celebrate, Brabham took his victory lap to the extreme. He hit one of the jump ramps at an angle that launched the truck up onto its two right tires. Brabham steered around a corner and down the back straight with his truck nearly perpendicular to the track.
When he reached the last jump, the truck finally returned to all four wheels and Brabham unleashed a three-wheeled donut that sent a wall of smoke into the bleachers. One fan, reveling in the carnage and fury, leaned his head back and pumped his fists in the air. “Yes!” he yelled.
After the race, Brabham casually held his orange trophy and fielded questions from the media. One reporter asked how he knew the two-wheel trick would work.
Brabham looked across the table to Gordon.
“I learned from the best,” he said.