Getting to know Grave Digger

by Eric Ginsburg

Please, please just light it on fire already. Everyone has been waiting patiently and it’s why we’re all here. That car has been in your mouth for at least 10 minutes while the announcer explains how a three-story tank/dragon fusion was created on an exotic island in the first place. Let’s be real — it’s a sufficiently dramatic, but nobody cares. We just want to see you light that car on fire.

Megasaurus — a colossal car-eater by trade — can certainly breathe fire, but for whatever unknown, disappointing reason, opted not to torch the old clunker. It’s largest of the trucks at Monster Jam at the Greensboro Coliseum, and undoubtedly an important part of the show, but Grave Digger is the main attraction. You can tell by the masses of kids waving its signature pirate flag, or by the unavoidable fact that it seems to conveniently win every competition.

Rigged competition doesn’t always sit well — it’s a great reason to fundamentally reject “professional wrestling” — but it’s understandable. Think of Monster Jam like a gigantic kids’ movie, where it’s important that the good guy wins every time, even though in this case Grave Digger’s ultimate competition is named “Superman.” Nevertheless, as a Kill Devil Hills native (how fitting, right?), it’s important to root, root, root for the home team.

The original Grave Digger premiered in North Carolina more than 30 years ago. The name grew to encompass two cars in 1989, according to the official timeline. These days the title covers nine leviathans, with Randy Brown driving for the Greensboro event, though primary driver Dennis Anderson is the one who’s been pulling in the bigger wins.

Watching a monster truck rally is like a right of passage to a Northern transplant, similar to News & Record editor’s musings about trying grits for the first time. Having never watched a NASCAR race — let alone been to a competition despite Bowman Gray’s proximity — or never ridden a fourwheeler, gone hunting and lived without real barbecue for two decades, it’s easy to feel left out. Monster Jam is a partial vindication.

As Grave Digger and Superman face off in the championship match-up in a quick-start jump over two smashed jalopies, the lights suddenly drop. A monster truck rally is a family affair, and the kids start really going ham for the North State favorite, chanting and shrieking wildly. “The Distance” by Cake and revving engines blare through earplugs. And then it is over, the competitors careen through the air and cross a line on the other side of the jump in a few seconds.

The instant replay on the jumbotron proves that Grave Digger really did cross the line first, though a win later in the “freestyle” category is a little more arbitrary, as what looks like three random audience members hold up scorecards. The first freestyler is Rap Attack, crushing several cars and flying the wrong way up a ramp.

It isn’t enough to top crowd pleaser Grave Digger, who takes the category with three 8 ratings over Rap Attack’s “666.” There is no second place in Monster Jam, but Superman — after going vertical on a jump — is just shy of victory again with “877.”

Monster trucks are no good for hipsters — this is not a pastime to be ironically enjoyed unless from afar, by way of a thrifted Bone Crusher T-shirt. There’s nearly as much downtime between acts as a punk show, shirts at the event run close to $30, even the lowest grade beer is $9 and it’s incredibly loud.

It is worth being 20 minutes late to be able to borrow earplugs, an accessory usually reserved for playing drums, going to the shooting range and seeing sludge-metal band the Body. Wearing earplugs is a further cultural barrier to understanding what the rules are or anything the announcer is saying, none of which is necessary for complete enjoyment.

Plus, they are part of the official attire of most Monster Jam attendees, along with excessive camouflage and the occasional children’s truck-shaped headgear. The attendees, who only fill half of the Greensboro Coliseum, are relatively uniform, and the only people pretending to enjoy it aren’t hipsters, but parents whose kids talked them into it.

After each win, the emcee briefly interviews Brown, Grave Digger’s driver. To the delight of fans, the conversations are kept short, always followed by Brown climbing into the stands and handing his award to an audience member — both times to young girls. Monster Jam is much less of a sausage fest than I anticipated, a fact that is outweighed by the dialogue in the “quad wars.”

Two teams of adult racers, each representing a half of the Carolinas, fill time racing on four-wheelers between monster-truck melee. After South Carolina’s second win, the lead driver says something about North Carolina’s top quad racer, a blond woman, going back to the kitchen.

North Carolina prevails in the third matchup, somehow taking the trophy despite losing two out of three. The state’s frontrunner isasked about the kitchen comment after trumping the Palmetto State, but her response is indecipherable through the earplugs.