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Grave Digger driver talks post-COVID Monster Jam restart ahead of Columbia event

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If you’ve been anywhere near a car radio in the last 30 years, you’ve heard of Grave Digger. Or, to put it more accurately, you’ve heard of Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrave Digger, the massive, car-smashing, dirt-hill jumping monster truck that’s been barreling across arenas around the country since 1982.

Originally owned and driven by Dennis Anderson, Grave Digger started out as a Frankenstein’s monster of salvaged parts melded to the body of a 1952 Ford pickup and ended up an iconic monster truck. It’s one of the few instantly identifiable trucks on the Monster Jam motorsport event tour, a combination of pure racing, driving skills and freestyle stunts created by Anderson himself back in 1992 .

These days, there are seven different Grave Digger monster trucks raising hell around the country, and driver Tyler Menninga will be behind the wheel of Grave Digger chassis No. 36 when the Monster Jam rolls into Colonial Life Arena this week. Menninga will churn up the dirt and compete with other monster machines like Megalodon, Bad Company and Xtermigator.

“It’s gonna be awesome to be back in front of a crowd of people again,” Menninga said of getting back to driving the behemoth following a year lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s been over 365 days since I’ve been behind the wheel, so I might be a little rusty at first, but it might be like riding a bike. I don’t know, because I’ve never gone without doing it for this long.”

So how does one end up behind the wheel of Grave Digger to begin with? Well, it helps to have a lifelong love of motorsports.

“It’s definitely something I pursued,” Menninga recalled. “I grew up pursuing off-road racing at a very young age, and I had a passion for motorsports.”

It also helps to know the owner’s son.

“I got tight with Dennis Anderson’s son Adam when I was in high school,” Menninga said. “I went to work for him one summer, and without him I wouldn’t be here driving this truck right now.”

Not that it was easy to get behind the wheel of perhaps the most iconic truck in the sport.

“I like to say there’s not any pressure, but there probably is,” Menninga laughed. “I try not to let any of the pressure of the Grave Digger name over my shoulders get to me. I try to put on a good show for the people who came to see us. That’s really what it comes down to: They’re there to see something cool and I’m there to give it to them every time.”

In terms of what people who come to the socially distanced, masks-required-when-not-eating-or-drinking version of Monster Jam are in for, even Menninga seems a little awestruck.

“Even if you’ve been within the last couple of years, it is so different now,” he posited. “We’re doing the craziest tricks with these trucks. Ten years ago you never would have thought possible, it’s just something you have to see for yourself. The equipment we’re running is constantly progressing, both in terms of performance and safety, and the tracks we’re driving around right now are progressing very fast.”

Menninga said that one of the reasons the stunts and racing are better than ever is that, for the first time, there’s essentially a farm-team system for Monster Jam drivers.

“For the longest time, you kind of had to know somebody or know somebody that knew somebody,” he explained. “But here in the last couple of years, we’ve partnered with the University of Northwestern Ohio (in a program called Monster Jam University), so they have a scholarship program set up through the school where you can earn a chance at working for Monster Jam, whether it be on the mechanical side or drivers side.”

Other than that, Menninga said that if you want a career in a monster truck, nothing beats seat time — ANY seat time.

“Just having a motorsports background helps,” he advised, “whether it be go-karting, dirt biking or ATVs, the longer you can be on something with an engine, the more it will help you.”

Monster Jam

April 9-11. Colonial Life Arena. 801 Lincoln St. $20-$163.

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