SAN DIEGO — It’s an incredible feeling when a monster truck flies off a jump, explained veteran monster truck driver Carl Van Horn. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done or driven.”
Van Horn, who drives Grave Digger, one of the most popular of monster trucks, will for sure take to the air and more at Qualcomm Stadium Saturday night for the Advanced Auto Parts Monster Jam.
It’s also the 30th anniversary of the truck, which is now famous for its distinct color — a far cry from the original Grave Digger that debuted in 1982, a red 1952 Ford pickup truck. Grave Diggers’ popularity is something that remains a mystery to Van Horn and the truck’s creator and first-ever driver Dennis Anderson.
“It’s amazing how popular it is,” Van Horn said. “We all, even the creator (Dennis Anderson) — the only thing he can think of is the whole combination…of the name, the mystique of the paint job. And I think it’s a lot to do with (Anderson’s) driving style. He’s been said to be the one who created freestyle (racing).
“(Anderson) has a wreckless style, crashing, big air…all these things combined I think is what has made Grave Digger what it is over the past 30 years. It’s still the most popular truck wherever we go.”
Van Horn began his career with Grave Digger as a crew mechanic. He had been around mechanics all his life, being the son of a mechanic and working at his father’s shop where he grew up in North Carolina, just 30 miles from where the original Grave Digger shop was based.
It was only after learning there was a position available that he became interested in monster trucks. “I used to watch them on television whenever I could, but I watched anything to do with racing,” he said. “A friend of mine…told me there was an opening and that’s basically what sparked my interest. And at that time, I didn’t even think of being a driver then.”
Despite the size of the trucks he worked on, basic mechanical skills are all that’s necessary to be on a monster truck crew, he explained. “I’ve been around (mechanics) all my life…I call it ‘mechanical common sense,’ where you know how to figure something out, even if you’ve never actually done it,” he said.
While Van Horn was serving as crew chief to Grave Digger, he tried out to become one of the truck’s drivers.
He and four other crew members went out into the field and were asked to perform maneuvers such as jumps, wheelies and to show control over the vehicle.
“I actually got the job out of it,” Van Horn said. “That was pretty cool. (I) didn’t expect it, but really I had a good day that day.”
What makes the feat that much more impressive is that Van Horn had never before driven a monster truck.
“I didn’t drive monster trucks,” he said. “But…I had a lot of friends…that had different things like quads, I actually had a little go kart…so I got to be around stuff like that. I got some seat time in different vehicles, but never in a monster truck,” Van Horn said. “I guess it all paid off when I got to the monster truck; it all fell together.”
Van Horn admits driving the truck was difficult at first. The trucks have front and rear wheel steering because the wheels are so big and don’t turn very sharp.
The front wheels are controlled by the steering wheel, the rear wheels are controlled by a switch. Controlling the steering is all about the timing, he explained.
“When you get those two in-sync, the rear with the front, that takes a little bit of seat time, but once you do that, it’s all about fun, then,” he said.
And some of that fun is in the jumping.
“When you first start jumping obstacles in a truck, and a lot of new drivers get this, this feeling that they just jumped 10 feet in the air and they look back at the video and they realize they jumped 3 (feet).
“You’re already sitting up so high, so if you really do get some big air you’re like, ‘Holy Cow that was amazing.’”
Of course, it’s all about the landings.
“The higher you go, the more G-Force’s going to affect your spine and your neck and everything. That’s the biggest thing. When you do get big air, huge air like that, you gotta be worried about the landing,” Van Horn said.
Van Horn said that there’s never a dull moment during Monster Jam, which is often filled with roll-overs and wild crashes.
“If you like motorsports, you’ll love monster trucks,” Van Horn said.
What makes Monster Jam so unique, Van Horn added, is that the drivers are so accessible.
“We spend a lot of time with our fans. After each show we have autograph sessions…it’s always a fun night at Monster Jam.”