Every night on the road is a monster's ball for Pablo Huffaker.
The 54-year-old Texas resident revs up and roars off — jumping, skidding, bouncing and speeding during Monster Jam truck shows.
Haffaker rolls with a little extra: He's in "Grave Digger," one of the most famous mean machines on the Monster circuit. He'll bring the green and purple rig to the Times Union Center's annual truck party this weekend. Monster Jam shows will be held Saturday at 1 and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Haffaker, whose crew just finished a weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, talked about his career in Monster Jam, his appreciation for fans and the rush that comes on nights when "Digger" goes shoveling off.
Question: How did you get started on the Monster Jam circuit?
Answer: I love four-wheel trucks. I even had my own jacked-up four-wheel drive. Then I saw "Bigfoot" in the movie "Take This Job and Shove It," and Scott Stephens and I decided that we were going to build a Monster Jam truck. We didn't really anticipate doing what we're doing today with them, we just built a Monster Jam truck to promote our four-wheel drive shop. We scraped together the funds and built a two-and-a-half ton Monster Jam truck with 48s on it (48-inch-high tires) just to promote the show.
Don Johnson with TNT Motorsports came into Houston and told us if we would change the name a little bit and the paint job — it wasn't "King Crunch" originally, it was "The Executioner" — then they would run us in their January, February and March season. So we painted the Monster Jam truck up and after three months of running it on the circuit, we shifted into becoming a sideline act coming out for intermission.
Q: "Grave Digger" is one of the most famous trucks in Monster Jam. What kind of responsibility comes with driving the rig?
A: There's a lot of pressure to fulfill the expectations of the "Grave Digger" fans, that's probably the biggest thing. The "Grave Digger" truck has got quite a reputation, an incredible following behind it. So the fans' expectations are pretty high, and every time you go out there you get all the other competitors who want to knock you off that spot.
Q: Why do you think the truck is so popular?
A: Just the driving style. Early on, it was a pioneer in performance and the things we would do, the freestyle. In fact, "Grave Digger" was pretty much the innovator of going out and doing freestyle, and that came about when Dennis (Anderson, the truck's creator and former driver), if he went out early in a race and got beat early, he would tell the promoter, "Hey, at the end of the show I want to go out and just run this thing into the ground for my fans, I didn't get to make but a couple of passes." That's kind of how freestyle got started. So early on, "Grave Digger" became a fan favorite and it grew over the years. Our fan base has expanded, it's multigenerational now, not just first-generation. We've got second- and third-generation fans now. It's very, very impressive.
Q: People can't really see you inside the truck. Do you have some anonymity?
A: The "Grave Digger" truck has its own persona. It's pretty different from any type of sport. The trucks are the stars for the most part. We're just the lucky guys who get to get behind the wheel. The persona of "Grave Digger" is that when kids come to the autograph line, most of them don't say, "Hey Pablo!" they say "Hey 'Grave Digger!'" The trucks are the persona. We're just the pilots.
Q: How do you like dealing with the fans?
A: Without the fans, we would have never been able to make it as many years as we have. Tearing these trucks up on a regular basis is kind of what we do, but the fans are behind us, they support us, they come out for the merchandise and just come out to the events. It affords us the ability to keep this sport alive. If you didn't have fans out there supporting you, what would be the purpose? We've been able to stay as enthusiastic as we have over the years because our fans are extremely enthusiastic and very supportive. It just doesn't get old. Every weekend is a new experience and our fans are just excited today as they were 36 years ago when "Grave Digger" first hit the paint.
Q: Who's coming to the shows in Albany?
A: We have "Stinger," an up-and-coming new guy. We have Kaylyn Migues, she drives "Jail Bird." We have "Monster Mutt," "Northern Nightmare," "Scooby-Doo" and "Master of Disaster."
Q: Half the fun must be coming up with these names.
A: They get so creative, it's pretty neat. And not so much the names, but different body styles, that's one of the things that sets our sport apart from somebody else, these crazy body styles and these 3-D body styles that are on the trucks. What other sport has a truck running around with a tongue and a tail, that's "Monster Mutt?" The trucks are entertaining whether they're sitting still or moving.
Q: People know about the jumps and the sounds. Are drivers always looking for something new or different for the shows?
A: Absolutely. We've included a new element in our performance. We're constantly looking for ways to entertain the crowd and in our two-wheel skills competition, you'll see trucks going out there, we call them moonwalks and poppers, as opposed to your typical wheelie competition, where trucks just go out and everybody does the exact same things. We're out there bouncing the thing up, standing it up on the front tires, jumping it backwards, locking the brakes up, standing it up on the back tires, and throwing it back into drive and going back the other way. It's pretty wild.
Q: Do those big jumps take physical tolls on the drivers?
A: These trucks are incredible pieces of equipment. You talk about jumping over three cars, we jump these trucks 30 feet in the air, 100 feet out and when you land, it's not bad. It's not the smoothest landing in the world, but it doesn't cause you any physical injury, it doesn't knock you out. It's just a firm landing. You just wheel that thing around, turn it around and go right back the other way. We don't get beat up that bad.
Q: You're in your mid-50s now. What do you think you'll be doing with Monster Jam in five years?
A: For all I know this could be my last full-time season. I'll stay actively involved, even if I quit driving in the sport, in the development of new equipment, just furthering the advancement of monster trucks.
Q: What's one of your best memories of your time in the sport?
A: One of the neatest things about what I've been able to do is, for the last 36 years, I've been able to travel around this country doing something I love to do with my wife by my side most of the time. My wife, Tina, has been my crew chief, my cheerleader, my crew member and my partner in this for many years. To have a career that's lasted this long and for us to work together as a team has been pretty incredible.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].