Shane Plato remembered the first time he flipped his mini-monster truck. The show was in Eureka in 2015. The crowd gasped, and paramedics came running.
“I was just sitting in my truck” — strapped in, upside-down, biding his time — “and everyone was trying to get to me,” recalled Plato, who was 7 at the time and didn’t suffer even a scratch, although the medics did briefly attend to his mother.
“She thought she was having a heart attack,” said Lee Plato, Charlene’s husband and Shane’s dad. Turned out Charlene was fine, as well.
After the truck was righted, Shane drove back to the grandstand, waved to the crowd, then made sure to thank the event sponsor during an interview with the trackside announcer.
Even at that tender age, he’d watched so many monster truck videos on YouTube, his dad Lee said, that “he knew what to do, and what to say, to ease the crowd.”
Six years and dozens of shows later, Shane Plato, who lives with his family in Cloverdale, has graduated from mini-monster trucks to the real deal. Now a savvy 13-year-old, on the cusp of eighth grade, he will roll into Santa Rosa’s Chris Beck Arena next Friday night in his 10,000-pound behemoth, Skull Krusher, with the distinction of being the world’s youngest professional monster truck driver.
Plato will be participating in the Sonoma County Fair’s Monster Truck show, to be held at the fairgrounds on Aug. 6 and 7. At the “pit party,” starting at 5:30 both evenings, spectators will have a chance to mingle with drivers and see the colossal rigs up close. At 7 p.m., the drivers will fire up those 1,500-horsepower big-block engines for racing, wheelie contests, car crushing and “amazing freestyle action,” according to event promoters.
Lee Plato’s fascination with monster trucks predated 1997, the year he opened his automobile body shop, the Healdsburg Collision Center. It eventually rubbed off on his son. When Shane was 5, he came across a YouTube video of children driving those “mini-monsters.”
“I just kept begging and begging my Dad for weeks, months,” Shane shared on a recent episode of The Throttle Out podcast. “Eventually he gave in, built the truck, and I started practicing.”
Before long, the boy was a fixture at monster truck shows, on a first name basis with such legends of the industry as Dennis Anderson, driver of Grave Digger, one of the most renowned trucks on the Monster Jam circuit.
It’s almost as if he leads separate lives, keeping monster trucks apart from his more mainstream teenage existence.
“I hang out with my friends every day,” said Shane, who plays football, basketball and baseball. “But in that day, I’ll also make room for monster trucks.”
What do other kids say when they find out that he’s got a side gig popping wheelies and catching air in a truck whose tires alone are 5½ feet tall?
“At first, they don’t really believe it. But as soon as they see it, they’re kind of in shock,” the teen said.
“I’ve grown up around cars since I was born, and this just came along, in my path. And right now, I think it’s my career.”
Monster truck drivers are paid to entertain crowds like the one that will gather to see Plato and his peers at the county fairgrounds.
“It’s a business,” said Lee, who noted that if “you don’t go out there and break the truck” too often, necessitating frequent, expensive repairs, “you can actually make a living running a monster truck.”
This is Shane’s first year in a full-sized monster truck. He made his debut in the grown-up version of Skull Krusher last month, at a show in Santa Maria.
“We actually had to slow him down a little bit,” his dad said. “It was like, ‘Hey, this is your first time in this truck, kind of chill out a little bit.’”
Once Shane is old enough for college, Lee hopes to be “semi-retired” from the body shop.
“I’ll be the guy that moves the truck from show to show,” he said. “Shane can fly in on the weekend, do the show, then go back to college. He’s definitely going to college.”
In the meantime, there’s been a bit of pushback, in the monster truck community, against the idea of a boy operating one of these behemoths before he is old enough to even hold a learner’s permit to drive a car.
“You’ve got old-timers who absolutely hate it,” Lee said. “They think a 13-year-old boy can’t be doing this.”
What they’re failing to understand, he said, is that his son has been “driving longer” than many of the veterans. “He’s being doing this since he was 5,” Lee said.
True, Shane’s been in a “mini-monster” most of that time. But many of the controls and the setup in the big truck are just like the smaller one. So Shane is “comfortable with everything,” his dad said.
“They see me as this kid,” Shane said of the doubters. “But in my eyes, I know I’m very skilled at monster trucks.”
He’s especially advanced at picking up on “show flow” — on playing to crowds, feeding off the energy of the fans.
“When I do a jump, I can hear if the crowd likes it,” he said. If they do, “I’ll hit the same jumps a couple times, to keep that energy.”
He’s been known to climb out of the truck and dance on the roof to whip up the crowd.
“I’m a bold person,” he allowed. “I like to stand out.”
Eventually, he intends to learn to do a backflip — not off the truck, but in it. He’s not there yet. But he’s got time.
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ausmurph88.