Driver marks 40 years of ‘Grave Digger’ as Monster Jam revs into FedEx Field

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 40 years of Grave Digger (Part 1)

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the iconic monster truck Grave Digger.

On Saturday, the truck revs into Monster Jam at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

“This year is the 30th anniversary for Monster Jam and the 40th for ‘Grave Digger,'” Driver Adam Anderson told WTOP. “I can’t tell you how excited we are for this event. First time ever there, one of the closest to home for us [in the Outer Banks], I’m pumped for this.”

Don’t worry, football fans; he won’t tear up the field for the Washington Commanders.

“They come in with a type of product to lay over the grass,” Anderson said. “We then cover it with hundreds of thousands of yards of dirt. It’s a pretty unbelievable process. The dirt crew is the hardest workers. They’re the first ones there loading into the event and the last ones loading out. … We roll in, roll out, you just gotta mow the grass when we’re done.”

Anderson’s father, Dennis, created Grave Digger in Chesapeake, Virginia, back in 1982.

“He worked on a farm, did not have any money whatsoever, and he was just basically taking old junk parts, whether it was old trucks but also farm equipment to piece these things together,” Anderson said. “The owner of the farm, his son had all the newest, best, brand new tires, new truck, lift kits, anything you could have that you could buy, he had it.”

This sparked a rivalry between his underdog dad and the wealthy farmer’s son.

“He came in one day … talking smack to my dad, and my dad said, ‘I’m gonna take this old junk and dig you a grave,'” Anderson said. “All the other workers in the granary started hooping and hollering and started calling him ‘Grave Digger.’ … He went out that weekend and kicked his butt … went home that night and spray painted ‘Grave Digger’ on the side.”

Gear heads will appreciate the resourcefulness of the early monster truck.

“In the beginning, all the trucks were steel-bodied,” Anderson said. “My dad’s very first ‘Grave Digger’ was on combine tires, it was a 1951 Ford pickup truck, it had a 327 Chevrolet motor out of a car he had, it had two transmissions to make up for the gearing, and the chassis he got an old Jeep Kaiser with these big military axels underneath.”

The specs of the truck have evolved quite a bit over the years.

“He built a second truck that was bigger, then he got a little more money, then he got a bigger motor, then he got bigger drive train, then he got bigger tires, which you have to have now a 66-inch-tall, 43-inch-wide tire to be considered a monster truck,” Anderson said. “My grandparents helped him get his first set [of tires] in 1985 and the rest is history.”

Monster Jam didn’t exist until 1992, so he drove for other promotions to start.

“In the beginning, tractor pulling was the main attraction,” Anderson said. “Monster trucks were a side act to tractor pulling and mud bogs. … Once the technology in the monster trucks started to develop, the entertainment value began to develop. … It was just a single event called Monster Jam, and it went over so well that it just developed into the brand.”

Growing up, he never once questioned his dad’s unique profession.

“It was super normal to me, because that was just my dad’s job,” Anderson said. “He created ‘Grave Digger’ in 1982, created me in 1985, and it’s been my entire life. … I was there on the track as a young kid, sitting in the seats. … During the summer, I’d go out on the road for a month or so with my dad, working on trucks. When I graduated, it was on!”

He took over driving Grave Digger in 2015 as his father shifted toward retirement.

“I hold the world record for the most Monster Jam trucks jumped [over],” Anderson said. “They said eight is what I had to do and I’m like, ‘That’s not that bad,” until I actually saw all eight of them sitting up in a row and I’m like, ‘Oh, boy, this is farther than I thought.’ There’s photos and video on Discovery Channel of [me] breaking world records.”

Does it ever get intensely bumpy behind the wheel?

“Every single weekend of my wife for the past 17 years,” Anderson said. “Last weekend, we were in Foxboro, Massachusetts. … I’m out there going nuts, doing all these crazy stunts, backflips, saves, wheelies. … You do not care what is happening in that moment. You’re so focused and your adrenaline is pumping so hard to be the best showoff there is.”

Thankfully, safety has improved drastically over the years.

“My dad had a part in, kind of like the [Dale] Earnhardt stuff, in developing not only externally what Monster Jam trucks are, but internally for the driver,” Anderson said. “Everybody has their own specifically tailored seat, you’re fully contained, you’re wearing a fire suit, a head and neck restraint, a helmet, shoulder pads built into the seat.”

Even so, he doesn’t walk out unscathed.

“It bumps and bruises you up,” Anderson said .”When you take a 12,000-pound truck and you fall from the air 30 feet, you’re gonna feel it. You’re absolutely going to feel it the next day and the next day, but we’re fine. The roll cages are unbelievable in these things now. We have specifically-built bars just for doing backflips in case we don’t land it.”

The truck-crunching action often damages the carefully hand-painted skull exterior.

“There’s one man that paints, his name is Jim McShea, he’s been doing it over 20 years,” Anderson said. “The original paint artist passed away, his name was Fred Bauman from the Chesapeake area. … It takes about 50 man hours to do one of these bodies and I can destroy it maybe 50, 30, probably 10 seconds. You feel terrible because it’s a work of art.”

He, his dad and his siblings have driven a total of 41 Grave Diggers over the years.

“This year there was five ‘Grave Diggers’ competing around the nation,” Anderson said. “I ran on one of the stadium tours, then my sister runs on the arena tours, so the smaller venues … then my youngest brother, Weston Anderson, also did the smaller venues. … My brother, Ryan Anderson, drives the ‘Son-uva Digger,’ a spinoff of the family deal.”

Of all the competitors, who is Grave Digger’s arch nemesis?

“It’s always been Max-D: Maximum Destruction,” Anderson said. “He started a rivalry with my dad. My dad retired in 2016 and even up until then it was a constant battle back and forth with him and it still is. I had him all year this year and it was just unbelievable.”

Who will win Saturday? It’s up to the live audience to find out.

“You can watch Monster Jam on TV … but until you see it live, it’s a different story,” Anderson said. “You can have all these ‘Grave Digger’ toys, but when that little kid comes to the show and has that ‘Grave Digger’ toy in his hand and walks up and sees the real thing, it’s awe-inspiring to not only him but also the parents. … I’ve seen parents become fans!”

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 40 years of Grave Digger (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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