Grave Digger and other monstrous trucks to jam in Pittsburgh

By Noah Levinson

When Pablo Huffaker wakes up each morning in Tomball, Texas, he doesn’t see his work as more… When Pablo Huffaker wakes up each morning in Tomball, Texas, he doesn’t see his work as more special than any other man or woman’s, even after 23 years.

“I’m just sitting in my office chair,” Huffaker said.

Of course, his office chair is actually 12 feet in the air, surrounded by a cage of green and black steel and inscribed with the words “Grave Digger” on the back.

“I do my work from the driver’s seat,” he said.

Grave Digger and eight other trucks are set to destroy, entertain and captivate in Monster Jam at Mellon Arena this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Monster trucks themselves began as an accident in St. Louis, Mo. In the middle of the 1970s, Bob Chandler — a construction contractor — decided to create the Midwest 4-Wheel Drive & Performance Center after he came to the conclusion that he couldn’t get parts or service for his F-250 4×4 pickup truck.

Chandler used the truck for work but also took it off-roading for fun. Eventually, he had the idea to use large agricultural tires, lifting the truck high into the air.

While that truck was only used to carry the flag during the national anthem of truck and tractor pulls, it wasn’t until 1981 that Chandler wanted to see if his truck could drive over several junk cars lined up in a row.

Thus was born Bigfoot — and with it the monster truck phenomenon.

Huffaker, a driver for one of the seven Grave Diggers touring the world, has been helming Grave Digger for 17 years but driving monster trucks for 28.

“I’ve done it since the beginning of the sport,” he said.

Dennis Anderson of Poplar Branch, N.C., created the first Grave Digger in 1981 from a 1952 Ford pickup and a Chevy engine.

“People would come up to him and ask, ‘What are you gonna do with that thing?’ And he would say, ‘I’m gonna dig your guys graves in it,’” Anderson said.

Anderson then took the truck to a custom painter, asking for an eerie paint job, and christened the truck, “Grave Digger.”

Jim Koehler, from Columbus, Mich., started his own monster truck career back in the late 1980s. He now drives the green and yellow fiery truck, Avenger, the name originating from his father’s old 1960s drag car. After witnessing monster trucks in his hometown in northern Michigan, Koehler and his buddies imagined the excitement of having their own truck.

Koehler then started researching monster trucks and looking into the specifications of trucks he liked, and took pictures to get his own ideas.

“I just tried to take the best of everybody’s stuff and put it all together,” Koehler said. “It was more like a labor of love, a project-type thing. I never expected for it to become a career. I expected just to show it off to have a cool, big giant truck.”

But what’s so cool about having a giant truck? While Huffaker sees getting into one as part of his everyday routine, Koehler still gets excited every time he drives his truck.

“It’s all the amusement park rides wrapped up in one. It’s the best park and you’re in control of the rides,” Koehler said.

Of course, with the multiplication of size comes the multiplication of danger.

“You used to get beat up, you’d be sore with bruises,” he said. “Safety’s come a long way, though. Monster trucks have the illusion of being totally unsafe and uncontrollable, but the safety is there.”

Despite the fact that harnesses, neck collars, helmets and specialized safety-foam seats, which handle the g-force of landings, are only a few of the innovative safety features of the modern monster truck, Koehler still sees the experience as a wild illusion of insanity.

“It’s controlled chaos,” he said.

It’s easy to wonder why people are so attracted to this so-called controlled chaos, especially when it involves oversized pickup trucks driving over used automobiles, but Koehler has his own theories.

“I think it’s just a step out of reality,” he said. “This country is driven by the automotive field, so it’s just another motorsport. And people cling to motorsports.”

While Freudian theories of playing with oversized toys or a deeply rooted enjoyment of violence in humankind could account for this obsession, sometimes it’s better to use Huffaker’s strategy and to not question it.

“I have no idea why we love them, but whatever it is people love about monster trucks, I’m thankful for it,” Huffaker said. “Even my two-year-old grandson loves them. Maybe as he grows a little older, maybe I’ll ask him, ‘What did you find so neat about them?’”