The Real Grave Digger: Hero or Hoax?
Behind the Scenes at the Monster Jam World Finals
The staccato thrum of eight pistons blasting past top dead center burrows down my ear canal and through my inner ear. It ignites my auditory nerve and burns its way straight into my soul.
Loud doesn't even begin to describe it.
This is 540 cubic inches of supercharged big-block glory. This is the noise that fills arenas, sells stockpiles of merchandise and annihilates more cars than Los Angeles' 405 freeway. This is the undiluted spirit song from the zoomie headers of Grave Digger, the world's most famous monster truck.
And I'm way too close.
Conversation here in the pits of the 2010 Monster Jam World Finals is utterly futile. Dennis Anderson, the driver of Grave Digger and the best-known name in the monster truck business, isn't remotely fazed. He simply turns up his volume:
Whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop. Braaaaaaaah.... The auditory assault continues.
"WE'VE ALWAYS GOT..."
Braap, braap, braap, braap, braap. Big cam in these things.
"WE'VE ALWAYS GOT A BACKUP TRUCK AT THE WORLD FINALS!"
It's a statement that handily summarizes monster truck competition, where the difference between fame and obscurity is all about just making the equipment survive.
The Big Show
The 2010 Monster Jam World Finals — held at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas — is the 11th edition of the monster truck event that produces the year's closest racing, biggest air and most outrageous crashes in monster truck racing. Monster Jam competition is divided into two categories: traditional head-to-head racing and the freestyle competition, where drivers hammer out 2 minutes of jumps and are awarded a score by the judges.
Feld Entertainment produces the show and actually owns about half the trucks on the floor of this arena. The fans either don't know or don't care about this fact. Detractors, however, are less forgiving of the sanctioning body owning both the competitors and the competition itself, claiming the big names - like Grave Digger - are given favor. Is it racing, or is it just WrestleMania on wheels? Either way, the conflict is hardly unprecedented in American motorsport.
Indy Racing League founder and president (at the time) Tony George campaigned a team with reasonable success in the series of his creation from 2005 to 2009. Gerald Forsythe campaigned one of the most competitive teams in the Champ Car World Series, of which he was part owner, from 2004 until its consolidation with the Indy Racing League in 2008.
This notion, of course, assumes you view monster truck competition as worthy of consideration as a legitimate motorsport in the first place. Monster trucks are, after all, just a sideshow as far as traditional racing fans are concerned. Their authenticity and significance — among non-fans at least — fall somewhere between pay-per-view wrestling and a Britney Spears concert.
The bottom line is that the Monster Jam is first and foremost a show. And isn't all racing just a show, an opportunity for the best driver and machine to prove themselves? It can't be said that motorsport of any sort represents a noble cause. When viewed with this perspective, Monster Jam is different from other forms of racing only in that Feld is up front about its potential conflict of interest.
A show it might be, but Dennis Anderson, driver of Grave Digger, and his rival Tom Meents, driver of Maximum Destruction, both play to win. And they're not the only ones. Races are typically short, between 15 and 30 seconds for a lap on mirror-image courses. One mistake means it's over. This isn't momentum racing where mistakes can be overcome. Instead, it's a sledgehammer-to-the-kidneys motorsport, where it pays to be willing to crash.
Walking the pits before Friday night's qualifying session, there's tension in the air. Crew members walk faster, drivers don't stop to chat and the machines, despite their cartoon and comic-book graphics, get intensive attention. There's a sense of purposefulness here that's no less serious than any open-wheel pit we've experienced, from Long Beach to Indianapolis.
If we suggested to anyone that what we have here is just an exhibition, some kind of sideshow, any one of an army of handlebar-mustached participants would be happy to give us a knuckle sandwich. It matters who wins. And it's obvious.
Hit the Track
Trucks qualify without bodywork in case they roll over; there's no need to destroy the expendable parts before the main event the following night. Drivers are allowed two practice runs and one qualifying run. We've hooked up Grave Digger to our testing equipment so we can review Anderson's driving style in 100-samples-per-second detail.
Anderson and his crew chief Dustin Brown are in lockstep with their approach to the event. "Dennis doesn't want to change anything before this race," Brown says. "We come here every year with the same setup and when he's on, he's hard to beat."
Anderson's runs are impressive. After repairing a steering vibration that had nearly caused a roll in practice the night before, he lays down three runs within 0.3 second of one another. His top speed during the lap increases progressively in practice from 67.2 mph to 69.1 mph and finally to 70.5 mph on his qualifying run. Braking points are deeper each run as the risk/reward calculus changes from "preserve the equipment" to "need to win."
And the data doesn't lie. In the electronic analysis we witness the calculated risk-taking of an experienced pilot who drives accordingly. It pays off. At the end of qualifying, Anderson and the Digger are among six drivers separated by a mere 0.03 second — a margin that is, on a relative scale, eight times smaller than that covering the top six qualifying drivers at the 2010 Spanish Grand Prix for Formula 1 cars.
All in the Family
Still, the idea that Anderson is concerning himself with hundredths of a second is as laughable as the idea of comparing monster truck racing to Formula 1 in the first place. When you talk to Anderson and his oldest sons Ryan and Adam, what you sense is a genuine desire to give the fans the show they came to see — and to win. Ryan, 24, has been driving monster trucks for several years and Adam, 20, is in his first season.
Among them, the Anderson family holds five world titles — three in racing and two in freestyle — each earned in Vegas at this event. There's another message here, though, one that's as authentic as Anderson's rock-solid handshake. And that is the family's appreciation for its fans. Anderson has been racing monster trucks for 28 years, and he started in the early 1980s with nothing more than his own ingenuity and whatever parts he could scrounge.
Even the Grave Digger brand name comes from Anderson's humble beginnings. He created the iconic identity for his truck when a well-off friend was hassling him about his archaic equipment, then a Chevy-powered Kaiser Jeep military chassis topped with the body of a 1951 Ford truck. His response? "I'll take this junk and dig your grave with it." We suspect he did, and though the Grave Digger now wears the body of a 1950 Chevy truck, the attitude endures.
For the Fans
"In 1999 I stopped driving the truck for myself and started driving it for the fans," Anderson says. It worked, because when the gates of Sam Boyd Stadium open at the pit party on the day of the show, a mob of fans literally runs to get in line in order to get Anderson's autograph and spend 30 seconds with him.
Only one other driver can rival Anderson's popularity and that's Tom Meents, who is pitted right next to Anderson. Known for his all-or-nothing style, the driver of Maximum Destruction actually has more world titles than Anderson, eight all together. To this Anderson says: "He can have all the trophies he wants, I just don't want him to have all the fans. Tom does respect me and I respect Tom, but out on the track, well, there's no respect there."
Still, they have to get along. In a sport where competitors might spend 25 weekends a year with each other, there's little room for bitterness. "You can't live with an enemy like that," says Anderson.
The big prize, the one Anderson and every other driver want to win most, is freestyle. Racing is important, but it's the 40-foot-high, 100-foot-long leaps of freestyle that earn prestige. It's here that Anderson and Meents made their names.
"My biggest fear is failing to do it bigger and better than the next guy," says Anderson. Doing so is where the risk enters the equation. Anderson broke his shoulder several years ago and his son Ryan suffered a concussion after crashing at this event in 2009. The most common injuries are to the dangerously high cervical vertebrae of the neck, according to Mike Wales, Feld's senior director of operations. Just as with any other motorsport, the risks are real.
Anderson notes, "If you have a crash every week in your street car, you'd be hurt. I have a crash every week and very seldom am I hurt. When I got hurt in the past it was because of a lack of knowledge and pushing too hard without the right equipment." Fortunately, Feld Entertainment offers health insurance to its drivers, something that few motorsport sanctioning organizations do. Anderson says it isn't cheap.
While walking the pits the night of the show, I find Anderson in his trailer. It's clear he shouldn't be bothered, so I seek out another driver, Charlie Pauken. But I'm stopped by a crew member, who says, "He's getting himself geared up. Best not to bother him now." I look around and notice there are no drivers to be found.
But there, standing in his trailer, watching his crew make final preparations to his truck, is Tom Meents. He's joking, sucking back a Mountain Dew and eating something out of a bag that looks like donut holes.
Wales, the Feld Entertainment guy, looks at Meents, then looks back at me. Noting the obvious, he makes this profound observation: "He's a little farm-boy crazy. He'll just go out there and stick his foot in it."
Meents' pre-event Zen might come from the local 7-Eleven, but his strategy is right out of the all-or-nothing playbook that defines the world's biggest motorsports superstars. It's a tactic that sometimes pays off and sometimes breaks the truck on the first jump. With Meents, either way is spectacular.
"I'm going to do what got me here," Meents tells me. "It's going to be two minutes of maximum destruction. I'll roll out on the floor, punch myself in the face — and drive."
The Grand Finale
As the night progresses, the unlikely unfolds, as Grave Digger and Maximum Destruction face off in the racing finals. ("Is this WrestleMania?" the skeptics ask.) And when the dust clears, Anderson is the victor, a result earned by textbook-perfect driving. This is his fourth world championship and his address to the crowd is as authentic as it is emotional. He recalls a fan who, earlier in the day, gave him his late mother's locket as a good luck charm.
"He told me to ride it to the finals and that's what I did," Anderson says. "I drive this truck for you. Thank you for every nut and bolt on my truck and every shingle on my roof." And then, in tears, he adds, "I'm gonna screw this truck into the ground tonight."
But later, in freestyle, both Anderson's Grave Digger and Meents' Maximum Destruction fall short of everyone's expectations. Instead Charlie Pauken wins with a run that repeatedly kisses the sky thanks to equal parts muscle and elegance. It's the best performance of the night and everyone knows it.
At the end of the day, monster truck racing takes the fundamental conventions of a back-woods good time (attitude, dirt and horsepower), infuses them with magnitude (big-block race engines, superchargers and 66-inch tires), then plays out the consequences in front of fan-packed arenas around the world (or in Vegas). After five days of observing Dennis Anderson, his boys, his crew and his competition balance the testosterone-fueled nature of their sport against the physical, legal and logistical constraints in which it must operate, I've come to two realizations.
First, Anderson and company are good at what they do. They're at once first-class showmen, humbly appreciative competitors and deceptively talented drivers.
Second, this is genuine motorsport. The idea that any outcome could be orchestrated amid the unmitigated mechanical chaos of monster truck competition is absurd.
More important, it matters little what you think of the legitimacy of the competition. Monster truck racing is dangerous, unpredictable, difficult, expensive and exclusive. And if these attributes don't make it a real motorsport, then there are no real motorsports.