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Mom, Mormon, monster truck driver

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LAS VEGAS — When Nicole Jardin Johnson, mother of two boys, takes a drive, it's not a minivan she's climbing into, but a 10,000-pound, 1,475-horsepower, 12-foot tall, red Herculean monster truck dubbed "Tasmanian Devil."

Johnson is a rock-crawler-turned-monster-truck-driver. Acclaimed as the rookie and female with the most monster truck competition titles in a single season, Johnson achieved nine wins in 2011, her debut year. She was subsequently named the Rising Star Driver at the 2011 Monster Jam awards ceremony and most recently earned second place at the Young Guns Shootout at the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam World Finals XIII in March 2012.

But before monster truck driving, there was rock crawling with all its crushing, flipping, crashing and burning glory.

A Brigham Young University graduate and licensed contractor, Johnson grew up spending weekends and summers with her diesel-mechanic dad. Her love for cars grew with her marriage to Frank Johnson, who drove a 1972 Toyota Land Cruiser with a V8 engine. Later, Johnson returned to BYU to complete her degree in construction management, while her husband attended Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University). BYU Magazine recently featured her in an article titled "Smashing Success."

As detailed in the BYU Magazine article, the couple's love of cars drew them to rock crawling — an extreme off-road sport where competitors drive specialized four-wheel drive vehicles over harsh terrain like boulders and mountains. Her husband wasn't happy unless something came back broken on their vehicle, she said.

At first, it was Frank who competed. (He had been a rock crawler spotter for five years before he competed.) But in 2004, Nicole got behind the wheel when a friend asked her to drive her vehicle in a women's rock crawling competition. According to BYU Magazine, Nicole's first-place win sparked a passion for off-roading, and soon the family purchased their first vehicle.

"I'm pretty competitive by nature. ... We decided the timing was right, Frank's team no longer needed him as a spotter, so Frank spotted and I drove," she said. "Then I really got bit by the bug."

The couple worked hard to show up in a clean vehicle. She was in charge of making the car look good — even learning fiberglass repair in the process — and her husband was in charge of the mechanics.

"Together our vehicle was a good performer and looked good," Johnson said.

Johnson and the family were featured in several media outlets, including History Channel's "Modern Marvels," after becoming professional in 2007.

During a trip to an international auto world exhibition in 2012, Johnson's attention turned to monster truck driving. As detailed by BYU Magazine, there she met Dennis Anderson, a professional monster truck driver, who encouraged her to audition for the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam. Two weeks later, Johnson test drove monster trucks in North Carolina, and six weeks later the season began. Her debut competition in January 2011 was only the third day she'd ever driven a monster truck, according to BYU Magazine.

In 2012, Johnson advanced to the more challenging televised events. In March, she won both the overall racing and freestyle competitions in one event. It's not until she's signing autographs that people usually realize she's a woman, Johnson said. "They jump off the ground saying, 'No way!'"

Johnson often gets asked what it's like being in a monster truck. "It's like being in a cartoon. It's so crazy. They paint the obstacles bright red and bright yellow. I'm in a 12-foot tall beast that has teeth and hair and ears," she said. "It's so fun you forget all about paying bills and doing laundry."

The monster truck season is 12 weeks long and runs from January to March each year. During this time, Johnson flies between her Las Vegas home and competitions frequently. While her family is unable to attend every competition, they attend as many as they can.

"My husband and kids are really super supportive … They're pretty used to the extreme nature of what Mom and Dad do, they're so accustomed to it that they're, 'Eh, whatever, so she rolled.' But I think they're proud."

Although competitive by nature, Johnson wouldn't call herself a daredevil. Having never broken a bone, she calls herself fairly conservative and takes special attention to the safety aspects of her vehicle, making calculated risks.

A convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Johnson emphasized that her approach has always been family oriented. They arrive to competitions on time with clean clothes and a clean vehicle, and they place an emphasis on safety and being good examples to members of the LDS Church.

"I try and be family oriented," Johnson said. "I make sure I live the same standards on Sunday as I do the other days of the week. I dress modestly, I'm careful about the way I represent myself — especially in front of children … I always rely a lot on prayer, and I'm not praying to win, I'm praying for safety."

Email: ajones@desnews.com