In 1974, St. Louis construction worker Bob Chandler purchased a Ford F-250 pickup truck to haul tools and equipment during the week and to take off-road excursions through the Missouri countryside on the weekends. Within a year, his newfound passion for four-wheeling turned into a business. With the help of his wife, Marilyn, and longtime friend Jim Kramer, he opened a parts and service shop, the Midwest Four-Wheel Drive Center, in Hazelwood, Mo. (pop. 25,703).
It turned out that Chandler was his own best customer, as he routinely bent, buckled and broke his truck during his hill-climbing, mudslinging adventures. Each time his truck broke down, he rebuilt it slightly bigger and stronger.
“I would break an axle, so I’d put a bigger one on the truck,” recalls Chandler, 70. “Then I’d put bigger tires on. Then I didn’t have enough power, so I’d put a bigger engine in it. It was a vicious cycle.”
Chandler became so infamous for driving to extremes that his shop manager nicknamed him Bigfoot. “We always had to tow him home,” says Kramer, 60. “We told him, ‘If you’d keep that big foot of yours off the gas, we wouldn’t have to do this all the time.”
Chandler painted the nickname on his truck, which had grown to monstrous proportions, sporting heavy-duty axles, a super-charged eight-cylinder engine, four-wheel steering and tires that measured 48 inches tall. By 1979, the oversize pickup was garnering so much attention from off-road enthusiasts that a promoter asked Chandler to bring his truck to a Denver, Colo., auto show. “I thought, ‘What, you’ll pay me?’” Chandler recalls. “We ended up making some posters of the truck and made $300. We thought we were rich.”
As Chandler continued making public appearances, people began to call his truck Bigfoot. During one show, motor sports promoter Bob George coined the phrase “monster truck” to describe Bigfoot and the monster truck phenomenon was born.
In 1981, Chandler introduced a smashing stunt to the fledgling sport. In a cornfield near his shop, with his brother holding a video camera, Chandler took aim at two junk cars and crushed them with Bigfoot, just to appease his own curiosity. “I wanted to see if I could do it,” he says. “I was surprised at how easy it was.”
He played the video for customers at his shop, where another show promoter saw it and pleaded with Chandler to duplicate the deed in front of a crowd. Chandler was reluctant at first, debating whether to re-create the stunt. “It seemed like it was destructive and negative,” he recalls.
Ultimately, Chandler decided to crush more cars, performing in front of a small but delighted crowd at a Missouri event. For a subsequent show, Chandler built Bigfoot No. 2, taking the truck to the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, where he fitted the behemoth with the now standard 66-inch-tall, 700-pound tires, originally made for fertilizer spreaders.
“They had 68,000 people show up,” he says. “I drove up on the cars, stopped and waved to the crowd. Flash bulbs were going off and 30,000 people came over the walls. My son was in the passenger seat. I said, ‘Roll up your window and lock your door because I don’t know what’s happening!’”
The Chandlers sat in the truck for 10 minutes, waiting for security personnel to usher euphoric fans back to their seats.
The car-smashing stunt was a defining moment, which confirmed that Chandler’s heavy-footed hobby had moved from off-road gatherings and small auto shows into mainstream popularity. To meet public demand, Chandler and his crew built other Bigfoot trucks and soon other monster truck teams were cropping up across the nation. By 1984, up to 40 monster trucks were performing coast to coast.
“I think everyone was influenced by Bob and Bigfoot,” says Jeff Cook, 41, president of the International Monster Truck Museum & Hall of Fame in Auburn, Ind. (pop. 12,731). “Anybody in the first 20 years of the sport can probably tell you the first place they saw Bigfoot or got to meet Bob Chandler. That’s a big highlight in most people’s lives.”
Today, monster trucks are the machines that drive a multimillion-dollar industry, featuring ominous names such as Grave Digger, King Krunch and Maximum Destruction. Cook estimates that 300 monster trucks—ranging from single-driver operations to large corporate-sponsored teams—entertain millions of fans nationwide each year.
Weighing about 10,000 pounds with 1,500 horsepower engines, modern monster trucks are faster, stronger and safer than their pioneering predecessors. Many of the advances—from superior parts to mass audience appeal—owe their existence to Chandler, who now owns 22 vehicles emblazoned with the Bigfoot name.
“The sport has changed a lot since Bob first started with the original Bigfoot,” says Dan Runte, 46, a 22-year driver for Chandler’s team. “But all along the way he’s been an innovator in the sport, especially with safety.”
During monster truck events, drivers are strapped into custom-built seats with harnesses, and wear helmets, fire-safety suits and head-and-neck support systems because, as Runte says, “we’ve gone from driving over cars and vans to crushing bread trucks and school buses.”
Chandler has witnessed the sport’s evolution. “Back when I started out, my safety equipment was my cowboy hat and a lap belt,” says Chandler, who in 1987 co-founded the Monster Truck Racing Association, which developed industry-wide rules and safety guidelines.
Although he retired from competitive driving in the 1990s, Chandler remains active in the sport, spending most days overseeing his 17,000-square-foot Bigfoot facility and four-wheel drive shop in Hazelwood.
“A lot of guys would have stopped after being able to say they were the first to do something,” Cook says. “But Bob’s very passionate about what he does and still enjoys it.”
One of his biggest thrills is meeting ardent fans and seeing their excitement when Bigfoot enters an arena. “We had a lady call and say, ‘My grandmother is going to be 80 next week and all she wants for her birthday is to ride in Bigfoot,” Chandler says. “I told her, ‘You bring her over and we’ll give her a ride.’ So we did. All you could see was her nose sticking over the dash. She loved it.”