Jeff Horne's truck is a big blue beauty. It rises into the air on waist-tall tires that cost $240 each, has 11 chrome lights and a license plate holder that says: "No Fat Chicks." He bought it to attract attention for his Annandale landscaping business.
He loves the way it performs off-road -- booming across an empty beach, or scrambling through a dark forest, dodging stumps and diving into mud bogs. "It makes you forget about everything else," says Horne, 25. "It's fun. It's a release."
Now, the Virginia legislature has voted to ban monster trucks such as his, claiming they are dangerous. The trucks are so high, authorities claim, that they easily plow over cars in collisions, and have a greater tendency to roll over.
Other problems include blind spots, greater exposure of gasoline tanks to puncture, and front lights that are so high they tend to overwhelm motorists whose rear view mirrors are set for conventional automobiles.
Virginia's legislation, approved overwhelmingly by the House and Senate, would take effect Jan. 1 if signed by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles. Baliles has not indicated whether he will sign or veto the measure, which would place limits on the bumper heights of vehicles allowed on public roads based on weight.
The proposed ban isn't riding well with tall-truck owners such as Horne, who claim the proposed law would cost them thousands of dollars to lower their trucks. They also say there are no impartial studies proving that the modified trucks are dangerous.
"WRITE as many letters and make as many phone calls as possible," urges a recent memo sent to members of the 4x4 Virginia Four Wheel Drive Association. "DON'T STOP until you have contacted every member of both houses and everyone all the way to the GOVERNOR. BE POLITE and CALM."
Privately, they're very polite, but they're not calm. They'd rather have a beefed-up state inspection program to weed out wobbly, unsafe trucks. Or, special sections of Virginia forest reserved for off-road vehicles. Better yet -- a sound gubernatorial veto that would toss this measure into a backwoods mud bog, where some believe it belongs.
"I feel pretty bad, because I have about $16,000 tied up in my truck, and I'm going to lose a whole lot of money," said Horne. "They're coming down on everybody who has a safe truck because there are a few people running around with very unsafe trucks."
Performance and -- as they say in the glossy ads -- "earthquaking torque" are the elixirs of the sport of high-rise pickups. There's just something that grabs about the smell of new rubber, the sight of mud spattered up on a truck windshield, the hungry power of big, lustrous metal.
If you're right side up and rolling -- well, that's where a lot of these men would rather be.
Their idea of down-and-dirty fun is crashing fender-deep into a mud pit, with tire treads as deep as garden furrows, biting through the goo.
"It's an emotional and physical high," said Richard Bille, 20, a stereo installer from Springfield. "You're out there, and you're in an area where no one else can go except in a truck that's as tall as you are. To jump down into a mud hole and come out in one piece -- it's indescribable, it really is."
Who else would buy a stock truck, then spend as much as $18,000 or more to "build" it -- adding, lifting, shortening -- with the goal of creating the perfect truck, a truck worthy of a name like "Outa Hand" painted in custom scroll, or deserving of a "Moose Is on the Loose" license plate. This is pure, turbocharged truck love.
Gary Alves is president of Totally Toys, a four-wheel drive club based in Alexandria. He's 27, a car salesman. His truck has Fun County tires, and is nicknamed "Untamed." Alves has spent about $9,000 customizing it, and says his next club event will be to vote against Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who has called tall trucks "unsafe vehicles."
"I don't think there's any recourse," Alves says. "It really comes down to whoever's got the time or the money to lobby, or hire lawyers to lobby. Unfortunately, all of my money's tied up in my truck."
Bill Briggs' truck is, as he says, "pretty up there." He's got 42-inch Super Swamper tires, about $3,200 invested in custom work, and only one regret: It gets 20 miles to the gallon, instead of the 38 it got when it came out of the Toyota showroom.
Briggs, a 22-year-old car mechanic, says he understands what the legislature is trying to do. He just doesn't agree with it. "My truck is as safe now as when it was stock," he said. It rides rougher but presents no highway handling problems."
"I'm happy with my truck," he said. "I have it just the way I like it. My dad even likes it. My mom likes it. I take my mom for rides in it. I have to pick her up and put her in it, but she likes it. As a matter of fact, my dad now wants me to lift his truck a little bit.