If you ever want to hear the story of how Grave Digger came to be, all you need to is ask Dennis Anderson.
He’s probably told it a million times in his 40-year career, but somehow every retelling feels fresh.
If you watch Anderson’s face, it’s almost like he can’t believe it himself.
It’s as if every time he tells the story, he realizes that getting to race and drive monster trucks for four decades is something that actually happened to him.
Every telling of the story ends with a smile and a look on Dennis Anderson’s face that says, “Can you believe how lucky I am?”
But most times, he’ll just come right out and say it.
“I was just an All-American boy, living a dream in the beginning,” Anderson said. “I didn't know how long it was gonna last. This was never a plan or even a goal in life. And then 10 years went by and I was like, man, I can't believe I'm still playing trucks.”
Ten years turned to twenty, then thirty. And in 2022, he’ll celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Grave Digger, the iconic ride that made him a monster truck legend.
You might think it’s a good time for Dennis Anderson to sit back and enjoy his victory lap. Let the next generations jump the buses, crush the cars and sling muds in arenas and coliseums across the county.
But zipping around in a golf cart, greeting fans and keeping an eye on his Currituck County home base isn’t the kind of driving he was made to do. So Dennis Anderson came up with an idea.
And like most of Anderson’s ideas, it involves giant tires, loud engines and the kind of hell driving that rearranges your guts and rattles your brains.
More on that idea later.
But first we need to go back to the beginning...
Ordinary vehicles go through a process.
They’re designed, tested, marketed and rolled out one at a time on an assembly line.
But Grave Digger was born Frankenstein-style: a wild experiment of spare parts mixed with blood, sweat and tears.
Better yet, think of it as a superhero origin story, something that feels right at home in the Marvel Universe.
Everything starts with a scruffy Currituck farm boy, tired of getting pushed around. Picture him working long nights in the dim light of his chicken house, building a giant metal monster one piece at a time.
You can almost see it on the big screen: part Tony Stark welding the first Iron Man suit and a little bit of the Fast and Furious meets Mad Max.
The countryside fills with a spooky green mist. There’s a rumble of thunder and then a noise like a jet-powered grizzly bear. Two red headlights blink to life in the darkness. Cue the opening riffs of "Bad to the Bone" by George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
What makes Dennis Anderson’s story so compelling is how close the movie version is to the truth.
Anderson hails from just over the state line in Chesapeake, Virginia. He started working at Currituck Grain and saved enough to buy his first house at 19. He was a hard worker and hustler with the ultimate dream of being a full-time farmer.
The only thing standing between him and a lifetime of growing and harvesting crops were the mud bogs.
“Mud bogging” was a popular way to spend the weekend in Currituck back in the late 1970s and early 80s. Local drivers would bring their rugged country trucks fitted with tractor tires to race each other in the sloppy wet dirt.
To put it mildly, Dennis Anderson enjoyed mud bogging.
Another mild statement? Anderson didn’t like to lose.
So what do you get when you mix a love of four-wheeling with a burning desire to be the best?
You get a small-town mud bogger who trades his agricultural aspirations for a storied career that defines, redefines and reinvents monster truck motorsports.
You can learn all about Grave Digger on the internet. There are videos on the official Monster Jam website and stories in all the leading monster truck media outlets.
Anyone with a few days to kill could easily spend those hours going down a YouTube rabbit hole full of eighties and nineties videos, but it’s much more rewarding to go see the man himself.
Most days, you can find Dennis Anderson somewhere on the property of his Digger’s Dungeon headquarters located at 5650 Caratoke Highway in Poplar Branch.
Visitors to the Outer Banks recognize the location as a checkpoint on their way to the beaches. It’s the sprawling compound with the iconic Grave Digger monster truck out front, head first in the ground with its back end in the air.
The location has grown over the years, adding attractions such as monster truck rides, gem mining, a petting zoo and a diner (just to name a few).
The gift shop is packed with Grave Digger t-shirts and toys. The walls are decorated with pieces of past Grave Digger trucks that have fallen off in competition or been hung to preserve history.
But behind all the roadside tourist attractions, the property hosts a collection of buildings. Inside, workers help keep the Grave Digger enterprise afloat by working on high-performance diesel engines, shocks and new vehicle designs.
Inside the buildings are works in progress, all kinds of modified, custom cars and trucks… “sleeping monsters” with open engines and thick welded joints. Immaculate cement floors and high ceilings. Some of it feels like science fiction, but all of it, to use a technical term, is very, very COOL.
The scope of the operation is impressive. It serves as a reminder that Dennis Anderson has more than made a name for himself, especially when you notice how many trophies and awards are piled and stored on shelves and in corners.
In 2020, Dennis Anderson was named as the first inductee into the Monster Truck Hall of Fame. He retired in 2017, after suffering an injury in January of that year while attempting a back flip at an event in Tampa, Florida.
Adam and Krysten keep the Anderson legacy alive by driving Grave Diggers and Ryan drives Son-uva Digger. His youngest son Weston, currently races a mud bogger named Bog Hog and patiently waits for his promotion to the big leagues of Monster Jam when he reaches legal age.
As his crew were busy working inside the main bays of Digger's Dungeon, putting the finishing touches on Dennis Anderson's latest project, the Godfather of Monster Trucks took some time to talk about his journey, his family, his fans and the spooky green and black beast that started it all...
I guess we’re not far from where this all started.
I was working at Currituck Grain. I remember that morning. I used to always wear these Dekalb corn hats… they were my favorite hats.
I had corn dust on me. I worked in the fields. I was a jack of all trades for their family, but on bad weather days or when we were in between crops or whatever, I would work with hundred pound bags of corn. We'd put them on a scale. And I was the one who weighed them and then I would sew the bags up.
Gary Todd would come in... sporting his name tag on his shirt, a big ring of keys… everything that I wanted. I envied him.
You wanted a name tag and key ring.
Well I had a name tag and keys too… but my ring of keys was to a freaking chicken house! He had keys to everything in there.
He had the really important keys.
Right. So he just came in one morning and smart mouthed me in front of everybody and I let him have it.
He was talking trash about your mud truck.
I told him, “I'll take this junk and dig your grave.”
And everybody kind of cheered me on.
After that I took a can of spray paint and wrote “Grave Digger” on the side. And from then on I was the Grave Digger.
So the way you tell the story is that you put him in his place at the mud hole that Sunday. Your tractor tire truck put him and about ten other farm boys to shame. It seems like you got a taste for winning and just kept on going.
I hated to fail. That was my main drive.
You also talk about how you were the “low man on the totem pole” back at Currituck Grain. You made $3.65 an hour, but you hustled and scraped and somehow made enough to keep working on your truck.
In the beginning, we went to junk yards, we got a surplus part, we welded it on, we modified it and we fixed it. When we broke it, we hoped like hell the next time that we could even find that surplus piece again to modify it.
My lights would be flickering, but you can bet I was ready to spin a wheel in that truck. My priorities may not have been correct in the beginning, but the dedication and the drive is what made the truck, the longevity of it.
Did you have big business goals in mind when you started this? Were you always an entrepreneur?
No, that didn't happen until I figured out that I'd have to be smarter about this and I needed to make money to afford the nuts and bolts.
What was the key?
It was pretty simple in my mind… first off, you’ve got to have fans. Fans will support you. In my interviews on TV, I always thank my fans for every nut and bolt on my truck and every shingle on my roof. And I sincerely mean that because we wouldn't be sitting here on this property right now, if it wasn't for them.
How did you make that transition? How did you figure out that you could make money doing it?
By being the loudest and the proudest guy in the arena. Everybody else was in a red, yellow, or blue Ford or Chevrolet truck. When I came rolling out in Grave Digger, nobody knew if it was a Chevrolet, a Ford or a Dodge… and they didn't care. It was just “Grave Digger.”
It was a wicked truck and they were getting ready to see something.
When they cheered for me, I knew I had to be the man. You know what I mean? So I sacrificed. I sacrificed nuts and bolts.
When I was in the heat of the moment, I was like a rock star smashing his guitar. It didn't make sense, until the next day, when the reality of what I’d done hit me. Was it really worth it? It wasn't at the moment, but in the long-term… absolutely.
Because we would travel to different cities every year and people would go, “You’ve gotta come see this guy. He's crazy. He will run his truck, he’ll crash it, he’ll bash it. You have to come watch it.”
You started to build a following...
Yeah, I was a number one ticket seller for the promoters. And when you're the number one ticket seller, then guess what? You’ve got a little leverage.
If you want me to come to your event, you're going to have to pay me to come to crash my truck. So I always got a guaranteed fee, and before you know it, that was my living.
That’s what I told people, “I’m not an all-American guy just playing trucks. I’m an all-American guy living a dream. This is my JOB.”
I've been in the business long enough that I've got three generations of families following me. And now we're getting ready to go into the fourth generation. You know, that's how long we've been in business.
Did you learn about building a brand along the way?
Yes, I did. We wanted everybody to say “Grave Digger, Grave Digger, Grave Digger.”
Our T-shirts and our uniforms and everything had Grave Digger on it. We had to have cool designs. The guys who print my shirts are right here on the Outer Banks... Island X-Per-Tees. I've been with them for probably 38 years.
Before that I was printing t-shirts myself with my buddy in his barn. We would screen print one shirt at a time and fold them and put them in a box. I mean, we'd be doing it till three o'clock in the morning.
You did a lot of racing and touring. Was it hard on your family?
Family was the biggest thing that I was worried about. I was the guy who was sacrificing a lot, not only financially, but personally. Sacrificing family time.
I’ll never forget when I started doing big autograph sessions and pit parties. I used to sign autographs until two o'clock in the morning, I wouldn’t leave until the last person was done. And these kids would come up and say that my sons, Adam and Ryan were the luckiest kids in the world to have me as a dad.
So they're standing there with their dad, and I said, no, you're the luckiest kid in the world because your dad brought you to Monster Jam. My kids are at home.
I didn't go to soccer games. I didn't go to their school plays. I was on the road. I was so dedicated to that truck.
It's hard to keep a family together when you're a traveling man.
Now they’re doing what you were doing.
Right, now we've kind of gone full circle. They understand me way more now than they ever did.
I've retired from hell driving Grave Digger, but, you know, while we're sitting here talking right now, my three oldest are on an airplane heading for Oklahoma. They're going to go do a big Monster Jam show. That's Krysten, my daughter, and my sons Adam and Ryan. Wes is down here working in the shop right now.
What’s different about how they do things now?
When I left from here, I would pack a trailer up, a 379 Peterbilt with big straight pipes on it. I’d say, “See you guys when I get back,” and I'd go from here all the way out west on the Southern route and then I'd cut a square and go all the way around the United States. And I'd be back in three or four months.
But now, they go do a show and when they’re done, they fly home and they're with their family.
How did this idea of “Digger’s Dungeon” come about?
You asked before if I was a good businessman from the start. I wasn't a good businessman, because if I was, I would have never gone to Kill Devil Hills to open a four wheel drive shop.
I lived in Chesapeake, right across the line and I worked down here in North Carolina. All my romping and stomping and growing up was in Kill Devil Hills. All my memorable moments of having fun as a kid was with my grandparents in Kill Devil Hills.
My grandpa bought a bunch of land down there, and my mom ended up with a piece of property and a house. So I ended up with that piece of property and that house.
I opened up a shop there, Grave Digger 4x4. That's how I was going to support my monster truck habit, by building custom lift kits and tires. I didn't care if you had a blown head gasket or you just wanted a tune up or oil change, I did it all. But we got busier than I wanted to be working on everybody's trucks. Eventually it was just too much.
There was a demand for Grave Digger from big companies. I started getting contracts for multiple trucks. They were offering upfront money for me to build another truck. I'm like, okay, give me a hundred grand and I'll show you a wicked truck. That's how I built those trucks.
I never went to the bank. You couldn't go to the bank and say, “Hey, I'm Dennis Anderson, and you know what? I'm going to build this big, bad monster truck and I need some money.” You think they're gonna lend you money to build a truck?
That’s not how it happened for me. I made it by dealing with the promoters and borrowing upfront money.
So you moved up here from Kill Devil Hills?
I didn't want to work on anybody else's stuff. When I came in, I had four Grave Digger trucks that I had already built down there in Kill Devil Hills. We outgrew that and needed to come up here to Currituck.
I noticed that on Wikipedia, it still says Grave Digger is from Kill Devil Hills.
And on TV, they still say “Grave Digger, hailing from Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.”
I wanted to try to change that. This little township we live in right here, when you look into the old maps, it's “Bertha, North Carolina.”
But Charlie Mancuso was one of the biggest promoters that I dealt with and he said we are NOT going to be saying “Grave Digger from Bertha, North Carolina” instead of “Kill Devil Hills.”
I always caught flack from everybody in the county when it was on TV. But I did keep the house down there and a P.O. Box for the fan club, so I could be legit.
Did you set it up so people could come see you?
When I was on ESPN a long time ago, they would say, “Dennis Anderson from Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.” You couldn’t Google that stuff back then, so people would come on vacation to the Outer Banks and ask locals “Where's the Grave Digger guy?” And then they would just come to my shop.
One time I was in Awful Arthurs or some place like that, and somebody asked “Where's the Grave Digger place?” And I said, right down there at the “Digger’s Dungeon.”
I was just being funny. It was a joke. But then after I thought about it, I was like, that would be a pretty cool name.
So I started calling it Digger’s Dungeon just to my friends. People would come in and buy t-shirts from the parts room. And I said, well, we can hang some shirts up in here.
Summertime comes and more people start coming around. I had one guy working there who was crotchety as hell, telling people they had to keep out. I said, no… let’s put up a chain, clean up the shop. We WANT them to come see it.
So when I came here, I said this was gonna be “Digger’s Dungeon.”
I started in 1991. I lived over there in that brick house and raised Adam and Ryan. I built this for the tourists and so my fans could come by and see me.
I would work on my personal truck in one bay and in other bays, hired drivers worked on theirs. People would pull up out front. I had a ride truck going and I would give them a ride on that truck for $5. I would drive around, tell them a little story and come back. Then they’d come inside the gift shop and I'd sell them a t-shirt. I'd sign it, take a picture with them.
So what is the size of the operation now?
At one time, I had 47 monster truck people working here on this property and throughout these other buildings. We still service a fleet of 56 monster trucks in the engine department located out back. Today, I have 16 employees that work in the operation here.
Can you talk a little bit about why it's important for you to be here.
At one point in the game, I was going to Florida. I was going to do everything that I’m doing here in Florida, because it was more of a year-round thing. But there's a part of me that just can't do it.
This is where Grave Digger was created.
Maybe after I'm gone, the boys will move out or do something, but it hasn't gone anywhere because its roots are right here in Currituck.
Do you have plans to grow?
There’s been a plan in place for over 10 years now. My goal was to have a Digger’s Dungeon Superstore. I was going to tear that brick house down, revamp everything and just put everything under this one big, giant building. It was just a huge, huge idea, but I never could really get the finances to do it.
I put in Dennis Anderson’s Muddy Motorsports Park because I wanted to put a footprint down. I was going to create a motorsports theater with a live theater show about how monster trucks were made.
I was going to introduce the show and we were going to have the first Grave Digger and tell the whole story of monster trucks. I wanted to do it through the summer. But some people said you can't get those tourists out of the water and out of their beach chairs and all that. I said, yes, you can, because we’re going to do it at night. My show was called "Fire and Thunder Under the Lights" on Wednesday and Thursday nights. And I had a big plan for that.
I put the Motorsports Park there because I knew where the bridge was going.
The Mid-Currituck Bridge?
I wanted that bridge so bad.
All the locals would ask me, “Why are you supporting that? It's going to ruin your business.” I said, no, it's not. It's going to make my business better once people learn how to run the Outer Banks and do the inner and outer loop.
There's a loop over here and I want to be in that loop.
We need go-kart tracks. We need putt-putt. We need hotels. We need all that stuff.
That bridge would be very helpful for what I want to do over here. But you know, a lot of people around here don't want it. They don't like growth.
People do come here because it's not so commercialized, but you know, that always goes away and where do you draw the line?
You're a very popular attraction in the summer and it's kind of remarkable for you to be so accessible to people who come here.
Sometimes I do want a break. I like to sit in my diner without being bothered, but you know, if I don't want to be bothered, then I shouldn't carry my butt in there. You know what I mean?
I love that people come here.
And being humble gets you farther than being a bully.
How is the sport different now?
For one thing, we have a Monster Jam University, so the drivers are trained and trained and trained.
Back in the day when I did it, I didn't go out in that field and practice. I would do a quick shakedown, make sure the motor was good and everything was holding together. And then I’d be like, “load it up and let's go.”
Because if I'm going to do some big test jump, I'm going to do it in front of 50,000 people. And I'm going to get paid.
Either way, I’m going to be a hero. If I make it, I’m a hero. And if I crash, I’m a hero for trying.
Do you miss it?
Yeah, I do. But I'm getting ready to pick It back up because I've got this new deal that I'm doing… the Dennis Anderson Monster Truck Experience.
My fans have watched me for over 35 years, now they get the opportunity to ride with me.
This is a big boy ride. We're jumping over the buses, cars and all that. I want to give them their money's worth. It's going to be a good experience. Trust me, your adrenaline is going to be going, you're going to be shaking.
I’ve flown trucks 45 feet in the air and done huge jumps and flips and torn off all four wheels in one show. I’ve done everything you can possibly do in a truck, so I know how to impress somebody.