Meet Grave Digger: Trash talk creates a monster

Published January 18 2012
Updated January 23 2013

Grave Digger.

When you hear the name of the monster truck blaring from a commercial of the "SUNDAY! SUNDAY!! SUNDAY!!!" variety, it invokes images of stadium shows dominated by a colorful, Halloween-themed car crusher. And this year, Grave Digger is celebrating 30 years of that motorized mayhem.

The man behind the monster is four-time world champion driver Dennis Anderson, who created the sport's iconic truck. Anderson and Grave Digger roll into Tampa's Raymond James Stadium for Saturday's Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam and return Feb. 4 for another show.

Anderson, 52, is a self-described "shade-tree mechanic" from Kill Devil Hills, N.C., whose passion as a young man was for "tractors and big tires and trucks."

Those interests would eventually converge to build a monster truck dynasty. But the tale of how a 1951 Ford pickup became Grave Digger begins with Anderson's rebuke of a trash-talker named Gary. His sin: laughing at the truck, which Anderson used for mud-bogging.

"I made the name up mouth-fighting with one of my buddies," Anderson tells the Times. "I told him with a few choice words: I'll take that junk and I'll dig you a grave. And I took a can of spray paint and painted "Grave Digger" on the doors."

A legend was born. Today, 10 Grave Diggers are in action in as many states every week.

Anderson took a minute to look back on the Grave Digger family tree, but before he did, there was one question we had to ask.

When you're stuck in traffic, do you wish you were in Grave Digger?

"All the time," says Anderson, who immediately mentions his travels to the Big Apple. "If I lived in New York City and I had a taxi service, it'd have monster tires on it. Hell, yes!"

THE ORIGINAL (1981-82)

"I was always a Chevrolet man from way back," says Anderson, who powered his '51 Ford with a 327 Chevy motor. Anderson put huge farm-combine tires on it at a time when "rich farm boys" were using 40-inch tires for their mud boggers. Jaws dropped when Anderson's truck showed up. He says it cost about $800 and was built with a "bunch of junk put together." He still has it, and it will be at the Tampa show. Painted on its tailgate: "We ain't bad, but the bad don't mess with us."


Anderson turned to the late "hippie artist" Fred Bumann, who created a "spooky" paint scheme for the first panel truck Grave Digger, also a '51 Ford, which was a simple blue and gray. The cost: $1,200. "I was making payments on that to him," Anderson says of an expense he couldn't afford. With its ghost and graveyard theme, the truck looked like Grave Digger, but the body was still steel and it didn't have the modern undercarriage or suspension. In '87-'88, Anderson finally switched to a Chevy panel truck, a 1950. But by '89, a series of wrecks and a scarcity of vintage metal bodies led to the first fiberglass Grave Digger. Today, all monster trucks have fiberglass bodies.


For the 20th anniversary, the truck featured pictures of past Grave Diggers. For No. 25, Anderson used a special chrome paint scheme at the World Finals in Las Vegas. Cost of the body and special paint: $20,000. That was its one and only appearance because Anderson wrecked it. For this year's No. 30, a "grim head" logo debuts. Note the truck's undercarriage and how it differs from the earlier "Digger," above. Anderson says the team flip-flops from a purple to a green body each week. Anderson promises to reveal a special 30th anniversary body at this year's World Finals. (New Jersey painter Jim McShea is now the Grave Digger artist. The whole process of preparing and painting the bodies now costs about $11,000.)

Sources: Dennis Anderson, Feld Motor Sports. Photos courtesy of Feld Motor Sports.