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1972 Dodge Van Monster Truck - Rollin Thunder

The Legendary Rollin' Thunder

Dennis Taft
Oct 20, 2006
Photographers: Dennis Taft
Photo 2/16   |   The leaf-spring suspension from the 2 1/2-ton donor truck was retained by creator Jim Oldaker. He also added 16 Rough Country shocks to the 5-ton Rockwell axles.
It's hard to believe, but the craze of monster trucks is nearing 30 years in existence. What began as an exercise in one-upsmanship amongst four-wheel-drive junkies in the Midwest has evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry that spans the globe.
Looking back at the humble beginnings of monster trucks, you may be surprised to learn that one of the earliest and brightest stars on the national scene was a diesel-powered early '70s Dodge van named "Rollin' Thunder." We started scouring the Internet and industry Rolodexes to hunt down Jim Oldaker, the guy who can claim responsibility for this beast. Jim now leads a relatively quiet existence in Oklahoma, where he does great work making prosthetics and orthodontics for medical patients. His story is pretty cool.
Photo 3/16   |   A California Highway Patrol officer takes time to admire Rollin' Thunder and decides against writing a "no mudflaps" ticket.
"The whole thing really got started because we had this shop in California named Streetable Customs," Jim said. "We built a lot of custom vans and did a lot of feature trucks for Truckin' magazine. It was a good business. At the time I was driving a VW Bug, and I had an old van that I had used to haul my motocross bikes. I originally got the idea to make the van into a four-wheel-drive."
As so often happens in these circumstances, fate intervened. Jim explains, "I happened to get a magazine that had some pictures of Bob Chandler's Bigfoot. That kind of got me to thinking. I was then told about a big industrial water truck that had been abandoned at a local construction site. There was a union dispute, and the thing had been torched. It was a mess, but the chassis was good and the motor was OK, despite the fire."
Photo 4/16   |   When the sport of monster trucking took off, Detroit Diesel, Allison, Hella, Rough Country, and a few other companies put their support behind Rollin' Thunder.
The burned-out hulk of a truck was transported back to the shop and the car-b-qued vehicle was torn down to the bare chassis and running gear. Now, we've all seen monster trucks flying through the air and jumping small buildings in a single bound on television, but in the early 1980s that kind of performance had not even been dreamt up yet. "The truck was a leaf-spring truck, so we just stuck with that suspension setup. I believe there were 16 leaves on each corner. Remember, we were not jumping stuff like they do now. We were just creeping up and over a couple of cars," Jim said.
The running gear of the truck is what led Diesel Power to Jim. Foregoing the peer pressure to swap a blown, gasoline-burning, big-block V-8 into the van, the practical Oldaker saw gold in the two-valve, two-stroke, Detroit Diesel 6v-71 that was already on the chassis. "We went through and cleaned up the motor and replaced anything that was melted," Jim mused. "That diesel engine was really good to us. In several years of running the truck, about the only thing we ever had to do was replace an injector, and that was at the beginning of running the truck."
The engine was not modified or hot-rodded in any way-it was bone stock. It may not have made the power that some of the blown trucks made, but it was far more reliable and maintenance-free than the competition. The transmission was another very unique part of the setup. "We ran a Fuller five-speed manual transmission, which had a Creeper gear that I never, ever used," Jim said. "Most of the time I would have the truck in Second gear. The shifter had about an eight-foot throw, so there was no way to shift the thing fast. Those two-stroke diesels rev pretty good anyway." This thing defined the word unconventional.
One would think that having a vantage point 12 feet in the air and that diesel mill humming at your feet would give Jim the feeling of invincibility. Such was not the case. "After we finished the truck, some mud boggers came to the shop and offered to pay me to go and crush some cars at one of their races," Jim explained. I had never really driven this thing yet. I had taken a ride with Bob Chandler during one of his shows, but outside of moving the truck around a little, I had never done anything with it. We get up to where the show is and I take the truck for a little drive down the road to test things out. I got the rear steering tweaked a little, and the whole truck started acting really weird. I had front and rear lockers in the truck, and it was trying to twist itself up. I let out the clutch and the shifter just jumped out of gear. This was an hour before the show, and I was pretty nervous about crushing cars."
Basically, in the beginning the trucks would simply creep onto a stack, or just a pair of cars in Low gear, and perhaps perch themselves on top or maybe make a couple of passes over the junkers. Speed was not a concern as much as height, weight, and overall size. Bigger was better, and Jim was just about the biggest around.
Those humble beginnings lit the fuse on the monster truck bomb that eventually saw Jim and his family traversing the country six months out of the year for the next four years. Rollin' Thunder was the runner-up at the first ever side-by-side monster-truck race. Jim and his truck were a hot commodity, so hot, in fact, that he struck a deal with Detroit Diesel/Allison for sponsorship of the truck. Jim explained, "They hired us and paid us really well to travel around and run the truck. I was actually in the process of building Rollin' Thunder II when the first lightweight racing trucks showed up on the scene. I decided that another 20,000-pound tank was not going to be of much use, so we stopped that project." The second truck was going to be Detroit-powered also, utilizing an 8v-92 backed by an Allison six-speed automatic transmission with a drop box.
"It was a pretty amazing time," Jim said. "This was an unknown commodity. No one that was doing this stuff at the time knew what was going to happen. It was a big deal to a lot of us. Once we got the first couple of shows out of the way, we had offers continuously. The traveling was the stressful part at first. I drove the rig and my wife followed me with the kids in our pickup truck. We finally bought a bus. That brought the stress level down about 10 notches!"
After Rollin' Thunder and its operator got more comfy with the notion of crushing cars, Jim began to take on some new challenges. One of them involved a recurring act with an escape artist. At each show, the trick would work like this: Jim would position his truck in front of a sad-sack junk car. The escape artist would be tied up and placed in a straitjacket, then loaded into the car. Jim then began to crush the car with the guy inside. He would make a daring escape each time to the delight of the crowds. This was a finely tuned act right? Umm...not exactly. Jim explains, "This was kind of a scary thing for me to do. They chose my truck because it was the biggest and heaviest of the bunch; it had the most effect on the car as I crushed it. Basically, the guy had Velcro on the back of the straitjacket, so when the guys loaded him in the car he would be pretty much free and just waiting to jump out. The major problem was that I could not see the guy because I was so high up. I had no idea what happened until I could see him in the clear. There was no way for me to stop once I got going, so it was pretty scary. We did it at all the shows, and he got out OK every time."
It was around 1984 when technology had caught up to Rollin' Thunder and the traveling had caught up to Jim Oldaker. "I had [put] $60,000 into the original truck. I built it and the hauler all myself. I didn't see the point in spending the money to build a new truck with all the technology it would need to be competitive. A guy in Japan wanted to buy the original, so I sold it to him."
Jim had a short stint driving a Bigfoot truck for Bob Chandler (they remain friends to this day), but that didn't blossom into anything long term. Jim went back to the "regular world" working on boats.
So how does a monster-truck driver end up making prosthetics? "One day I got a call from my brother-in-law back in Oklahoma asking if I wanted to come to work making prosthetics for him," Jim said. "I was born in the Midwest, and this was the perfect time to go back." Now licensed and certified, Jim maintains an office about 15 minutes from his home.
Jim Oldaker brought joy and excitement to the lives of thousands of adults and kids (I know because I was one!) over the course of his monster-truck career. Rollin' Thunder was immortalized in the form of toys, video tapes, and media appearances. Does Jim miss it? "I still like it, and I like the people that are involved with the trucks. We still talk to a bunch of the people that are out there. I have to say that I am quite content now. I live by a lake and have a bunch of motorcycles, and my kids are great."
Jim may not be delighting thousands in arenas anymore, but his talent and work in the field of prosthetics is enriching the lives of his patients, one person at a time. From diesel monster truck driver to prosthetic craftsman? Only in America!