As Monster Jam truck driver Bari Musawwir’s name was announced, a different type of energy filled Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida, earlier this month at the Monster Jam World Finals.
Cheers flooded the stadium. Adults and children stood with outstretched arms for the signature Zombie Arm Wave, alternating up and down to mimic a revived corpse, the latest design of Musawwir’s truck.
Musawwir was returning to Orlando after a three-week tour of South Africa with Monster Jam, during which he won his first competition in Durban. Winning either the racing or freestyle competition in front of his family would be the perfect end to a great season.
Wave your Zombie arms in celebration of @BariMusawwir's first career Stadium freestyle win in Stockholm! pic.twitter.com/WeUPJuO9oA
— Monster Jam (@MonsterJam) November 30, 2017
He almost didn’t make the final round after high-tailing it during the racing semifinals and landing in a cartwheel that ended with broken parts and a small fire in the truck’s rear. Musawwir’s final round ended with a disqualification for starting before the green light.
But the youngest fans didn’t seem to care. All that mattered was that they’d be able to meet their hero at the Pit Party. The next day, Musawwir spent six hours posing for pictures and signing autographs. With each photo, autograph and minute spent with the youngest fans, he was reminded of his first Monster Jam experience, which would ultimately lead him to be the driver he is today.
“I was that kid,” Musawwir said. “I was that kid asking for that autograph, asking for that picture from a driver at a Pit Party. I kind of see the world through their eyes at that moment asking for an autograph. I can relate. It’s definitely gratifying for me to be able to live out a dream and inspire children to try to make the world a great place. It’s definitely gratifying to see the smiles on kids’ faces, and it just makes you feel good inside.”
Musawwir, now 38, attended his first Monster Jam event as a 6-year-old growing up in Cleveland. He and his mother, Joy Howard, traveled to the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan for the event, where the 12,000-pound trucks and their 66-inch tires “completely mesmerized” Musawwir, according to Howard.
“I didn’t know then that he had already decided that this was going to be the ultimate life dream,” Howard said. “He’s always been interested in anything with wheels and has always been mechanically inclined.”
Howard watched her son’s love for radio-controlled (RC) cars and trucks grow as he learned how to build ramps and tracks while attending countless RC competitions. Musawwir got his college degrees in computer-aided design and computer visualization technology and began his career with a sign company, where he mastered vehicle designs and car wrapping. But Howard wasn’t expecting the news that her son excitedly shared when he’d been chosen to drive Monster Jam trucks full time.
“ ‘Are you serious?’ ” Howard asked her son. “And he was. He showed me the videos, and then it was completely real. Not that I doubted him, but it was completely real. He now had a chance to live his dream and beyond. It’s been about 10 years since he’s been in this business, and he still loves every bit of it as if he first started.”
In 2006, Musawwir took a trip to Digger’s Dungeon, the home of popular Monster Jam truck Grave Digger in Poplar Branch, North Carolina. Musawwir raced his trucks well enough to catch the eye of a Monster Jam official. The official, impressed with Musawwir’s handling of his RC truck, asked if he’d be interested in driving Monster Jam trucks.
On the surface, it seems like a leap. Musawwir had no driving experience outside of the RC trucks. But for Musawwir, hopping in his first truck was almost like riding a bike.
“The same hand-eye coordination you need to drive an RC vehicle is the same hand-eye coordination that you need to drive a real race vehicle,” Musawwir said. “The laws of physics still apply. The inertia is still the same. It’s just a smaller vehicle, and you’re not in it, but you have to develop that knack of knowing what the vehicle is going to do by just looking at it and controlling it with your hands versus being in it and feeling the real truck. When you’re in it, you have to feel what the truck is giving you and you have to actually use your hand-eye coordination along with your feet because you’re driving with the pedal. There’s a lot going on, but it does translate. It’s almost like a simulator where you can practice to know what the truck is going to give you. The reactions are very similar.”
Musawwir returned to Florida in 2006 but received a call a week later to return to North Carolina for testing. He didn’t hear back from the organization for another two years, when he was called in for another test session. There was a final call in 2010, this time asking if Musawwir would be interested in driving in his first official show, in Panama City, Panama.
“I had never been out of the country in my life,” Musawwir said. “I got my passport, finally got everything ready to go. I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat before the show. But we made it my debut there.”
In 2011, Musawwir became the first African American full-time driver on the roster. Currently, of Monster Jam’s 74 drivers, only three are of African American descent.
Musawwir takes pride in being a black driver who serves as an example for children of color that they can be whatever they want to be.
“I’m proud to be able to let people who look like me know that it is OK to be a first at anything,” Musawwir said. “To inspire people to be, like, just because there’s not many African Americans in this, no matter what it is, don’t be afraid to try. And know that you’re going to have to be 10 times better, more polished, more knowledgeable to prove yourself, but it just goes far. It definitely helps if you’re very well-educated in what you want to do. That way, you just grab people’s attention.”
Musawwir began his stint as a driver in Monster Mutt, then the well-recognized Spider-Man truck, before switching to Zombie.
At the Monster Jam World Finals, young fans lit up as they extended their hands for handshakes and high-fives and saluted him with the Zombie Arm Wave. Musawwir’s 5-year-old son, Cairo, was also in the crowd. Musawwir believes his young son is following in his footsteps with his love for “playing” Monster Jam every day at home.
“My job never ends,” Musawwir said.
And these are the moments he wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.