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Original Grave Digger passes the Monster Jam torch to his kids

As Orlando hosts the Monster Jam World Finals Friday and Saturday, monster truck legend Dennis Anderson reflects on the legacy his kids carry on

TAMPA — Grave Digger cried.

Dennis Anderson — once a tough guy behind the wheel of a truck, once a wild man running over cars — got emotional the first time he watched his daughter compete in a monster truck event. She had been on the circuit for a while, but he had been too busy. So busy.

When he arrived at the stadium in Charlotte, N.C., his home state, to finally watch her burn rubber and drag metal across a dirt floor, he offered a bit of advice about how to turn a donut. Spinning in a circle may be the simplest of all tricks in the monster truck world, but one tip got her on track.

And then she went out and won that part of the competition.

“She had never won a competition in her life and she won that night. I'm in the stands, and I had tears of joy. I was screaming louder than their fans were and they were probably looking at me like, ‘You gotta be kidding me? Over a stupid donut?’”

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But almost every parent understands the emotion that overcame Anderson. You can witness Super Bowls, attend the World Series or root for your favorite college every fall Saturday, but nothing quite compares to watching one of your children compete at a high level in sports. Pride, fear, joy, anger and disappointment all mix in an uncommon way, creating unnerving emotions you may not have known existed inside your heart.

That same emotion will grip Dennis Anderson, 58, Friday and Saturday when he watches three of his four children – 21-year-old Krysten, 29-year-old Ryan and 33-year-old Adam – compete in the Monster Jam World Finals at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.

“I'm nervous as hell, you know,” Dennis Anderson said. “And the reason that I'm nervous is because, you know, my boys are the reigning world champions (Adam in racing, Ryan in freestyle). I've always told my kids, remember, you’ve got to learn to lose before you can win, but I'm going to tell you that's a hard knot to swallow when you are the flagship truck.”

Grave Digger and driver Dennis Anderson has long been a fan favorite at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Anderson's last drive occurred at Raymond James when he got injured trying to perform a backflip in 2017. Photo from Live Nation. LABPREP

This is the first time Feld Entertainment has staged the Monster Jam World Finals outside of Las Vegas. With annual shows throughout Florida, including two at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, officials believe the state’s adoration for the motorsport will draw well and create even more fans. They’ve added five competitions and, of course, the popular pit parties will be held from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day.

The roaring-truck spectacle owes much of its popularity to the elder Anderson, who helped build the sport after coming out of his native Kill Devil Hills, N.C., a perfect name for the rural town that gave birth to Grave Digger.

Anderson spun yarns about his early days at a Tampa sports bar last month, but the conversation just as easily could have taken place around a campfire or on a front porch adorned with rocking chairs. He possesses a folksy charm that can endear him to an audience of two or a stadium full of what he likes to call “concrete crews and city slickers.”

“Whenever I was in any big competition or was on TV in interviews, I would always thank my fans for every nut and bolt on my truck and every shingle on my roof and I wasn’t BS-ing them when I said that. When you’re out there on that floor, and you got 50,000 people supporting you good or bad, and you look up in the stands and see that you got the most tee shirts, you win.

“The fans made that truck.”

Related: MORE MONSTER TRUCKS: Meet two women who drive monster trucks

Anderson grew up in Kill Devil Hills the son of Gail and Jesse Anderson, who worked as a part-time farmer and part-time shipyard worker. They kept no shortage of tractors and trucks and hot rods on the property, and each required some minor maintenance to get it started. That led to Anderson winning a Future Farmers of America state competition for troubleshooting engines.

His dreams of being a farmer eventually gave way to his hobby of mud bogging and staging shows at local fairgrounds. He readily admits to devoting more money to his truck than to his home as he struggled to make ends meet. The need for new parts trumped the need for a new roof.

Dennis Anderson rose from the rural backroads of North Carolina to become the famed Grave Digger driver, but looking back, he realizes he could have spent more time with his family. [Times Files]

Even after partnering with a promoter and growing the hobby into a fleet of trucks, he worried about where he might be in five or 10 years, fearing he would end up broke and selling everything for parts. But the truck driver possessed an innate sense for business. He started selling T-shirts in the pit parties and after the races, he started going back out on the floor and “freestyling.” That led to a separate category for the sport.

Anderson’s willingness to create carnage on the floor elevated Grave Digger from monster truck to marketing and merchandising. Today, you can buy Grave Digger T-shirts, party favors, bowling balls, toys and even bed sheets.

Yes, someone sleeps with Grave Digger every night.

The popularity made Anderson a star as he barnstormed across the country hauling his trucks in a Peterbuilt tractor trailer. When he told friends he had to hit the road to go perform, they said, “You act like you’re some kind of rock star.”

“I am in that truck,” he shot back.

But while he built the brand, he didn’t build strong family ties. He divorced his first wife and his mother cautioned that he needed to spend more time at home with his kids.

Adam Anderson, Krysten Anderson and Ryan Anderson carry on the Monster Jam legacy created by their father, the original Grave Digger Dennis Anderson. Photo courtesy of Feld Entertainment.

“A lot of times I didn't have as much patience with my family as I did with my fans and, and it took me a little while to realize that,” Anderson said. “I missed all their tee ball games and soccer games, school plays. I didn't do that. I was out making everybody else's kids happy.

“So, then I felt like I had to make up for lost time when I was there. So, I was rushing through a love relationship with them, buying them go-karts, buying them stuff. My dad said, ‘You’re spoiling them.’ I said, ‘Dad, everything I buy them has got a motor on it. They’re in training.’”

Deep down, he never believed his kids would enter the sport — Weston, his youngest, may soon join in — because he spent so much time on the road. Now he oversees their efforts, unabashedly admitting to living through their performances. The original Grave Digger remains driven, but he misses driving the truck. He misses the adulation. He’s attending his first competition in Florida since 2017 to support his kids, and to see his fans.

"Once I had a bad spill and it was time, that was The Man knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, old guy, you better back it down and chill out and live life.' You know, I have a mental problem: being a motorsports entertainer and my family being successful at it ... I can never quit.

“I can’t ...,” his voice trails off, he pauses and chokes back that uncommon emotion.

Grave Digger has a heart.

That’s all I’m saying.

Contact Ernest Hooper at Follow @hoop4you.