Monster truck “racing” technically includes a contest of who can get to the finish line first, but really this sport is about showmanship. And when Grave Digger’s signature red headlights come on. you know you’re about to see something amazing.

Creator Dennis Anderson told Monster Jam he made the first “piece of junk” that went by Grave Digger in 1979. A shaggy-haired gearhead starting out of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, his eventual rise to fame is another classic American Dream story of a man on a mission to build a lifted truck that’s bigger, better and badasser than anybody else’s.

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(We tried to reach out to the folks in charge of Grave Digger at Monster Jam a few times, but they must have been too busy crushing cars to get our messages. If they get back to us with some awesome details we missed, we’ll let you know and make some updates.)

Anderson told the site he was into tractor pulling, mud-bogging, and every other awesome way to waste fuel all his life. In 1982 he was running a rust-red ‘52 Ford pickup truck body, jacked up, stuffed with a small-block Chevy engine under the hood and tractor tires on the wheels in mud-bog races any time he wasn’t working on a farm to pay his bills.

There’s as much trash talk in mud racing as any other sport, so Anderson got plenty of crap from boggin’ buddies about his yard-found equipment. As current Grave Digger teammate Randy Brown tells the story in this video, that’s actually how the legendary truck got its name:

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When Dennis started mud racing... everybody would laugh at him because he’d show up with a bunch of junk, you know cobbled together, whatever he could scrape.

Anderson’s reply?

I’ll take this old junk and dig you a grave with it!

Here’s the original rig with the namesake, making a rare post-retirement event apperance.

Even when he didn’t win races, Anderson had a reputation for balls-out driving that brought in spectators and supporters. If you’ve ever seen him race recently, you’ll know that hasn’t changed a bit.

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Brown says “everybody at the mud pit started calling him ‘Grave Digger’ and the name stuck.”

The truck would adopt the Halloween-y theme a few years later, but the legend goes Anderson got his first shot at monster trucking when a local monster show was missing a machine. Grave Digger already had big tires and Anderson was willing to try driving over anything. So he stepped up, crushed a few cars with his mud bogger, caught the eye of a promoter, and got a shot to move on up to the big show.

In 1984 Anderson’s vehicle was transformed in to a true monster truck. The Ford pickup body was ditched for a 1950’s Chevy panel van in grey-and-blue livery still run today by Anderson’s son Adam, the wheels and engine got way bigger.

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The black-and-green-and-ghostly design was drawn up and applied the following year, but 1986 was Grave Digger’s real coming out party. Anderson beat Jimmy Kramer, pilot of the most famous monster truck everyone wanted a piece of: Bigfoot.

As Monster Jam tells it, at a competition run in Minnesota and aired nationally on ESPN, Grave Digger knocked off the number one guy in the sport. By the power vested in the fans by street justice, that made Anderson The Man.

The rivalry between Grave Digger and Bigfoot was blown up by the promoters and drivers, because a little drama makes competition a lot more fun to watch. Off the track, they don’t actually want to kill each other though.

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“People think that I hate Bigfoot. I love Bigfoot. If it wasn’t for Bigfoot I’d have never done what I’ve done,” as Anderson has been quoted as saying.

If you’ve got a half an hour, here’s a great highlight reel of the two truck’s rivalry:

At this point different sources blur the dates on Digger’s rise to stardom, but suffice it to say over a three-year period in the mid-1980’s the truck got bigger, got the basic graphics we know and love today, and beat Big Foot on TV.

But even after that brand-establishing victory, monster trucks were still usually only in action as side-shows for tractor pulls. Anderson had a tough time driving and keeping the lights on at his house, so he’d hold on to day jobs and dig himself heavily into debt. “I remember one time Dad borrowed money against one of the first credit cards they got for $3,000 to get me a set of tires,” Anderson told Monster Jam.

But as talented as he was behind the wheel, Anderson’s gift for flamboyance on and off the stage kept his monster truck program moving. He pushed for t-shirts, posters, anything to keep the fans fired up. TNT Motorsports, the PR company pimping monster trucks at the time, recognized this and eventually made Anderson an offer he couldn’t refuse: a guaranteed pay day every time he raced.

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We call monster truck shows “races”, but really, people go to see the insanity we now call “Freestyle.” That’s where the trucks go hard, go high, pull off absurd stunts and usually die trying.

And if Anderson did a good job getting his name out there off-track, he blew people’s minds when he got behind the wheel. Flat-out, for-real. All the time. Of course, he was the one you wanted to watch.

At some point early on, Anderson discovered that the red circular taillights from a school bus fit perfectly over the headlights of his Chevy body. Legend has it that monster truck announcer Army Anderson started telling fans that when the red lights were on, something was about to go down.

Of course that fueled the fire of what a beast Anderson was, and today the lights just stay lit throughout his performances. Monster Jam owns monster truck events in the U.S. now, and Anderson is still considered the man to watch.

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Today’s Grave Digger usually goes out last as the finale, and he’s backed up by a team of seven other drivers. His sons also compete against him, running “Grave Digger The Legend” in the afore-mentioned grey-with-blue color scheme and “Son-Uva Digger” which looks more like the O.G.

To date there have been over 30 competitive vehicles to be known as “Grave Digger,” and now you can even visit “Digger’s Dungeon” in North Carolina. That’s a shop with all the Grave Digger gear you could want alongside some of the retired competition trucks.

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Grave Digger’s rise to fame basically boils down to what Anderson told The Daily Journal last year:

If I drove it for myself, I wouldn’t dare drive it the way I do. I drive it for the fans.

Go hard, break stuff, put on a hell of a show. That’s how you make it in monster trucks.

Images via DaMongMan/Flickr, Beadmobile/Flickr, Chris Barnes/Flickr, Steve Sellers/Flickr, GraveDigger.com, Monster Jam


Contact the author at andrew@jalopnik.com and invite him to a monster truck race.