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Strutting their stuff, and more: behind the shine of the multimillion-dollar truck show industry

Photo: Jason Coffelt

There’s a side of the trucking industry most don’t see. Look behind the hardened exterior and you’ll find a community of people dedicated to both their profession and their community.

During the summer months, on any weekend you’ll find a truck show going on somewhere in the U.S. Drivers who work 60-hour weeks will often buy their own cleaning products, spend six to eight hours cleaning their rigs on their own time just so they can participate in community events and truck shows, like the one FreightWaves recently visited, the Gear Jammer Truck Show in Hudson, Massachusetts (pictured above). Some, like the crew from MJD Trucking, drove four hours each way to get there, while others traveled more than 1,000 miles from Iowa and Minnesota.

Walking through rows of shining trucks is a bit like a county fair: there’s dust, entertainers, hot dogs, music, vendors, children staring in amazement, drivers singing the national anthem and big rigs of every shape and size that all pass the “white glove” test. Drivers stand proudly next to their prized rigs eager to answer questions from young and old. It’s easy to understand why truck shows have grown in scope and size at the intersection of family, community and commerce.

What’s difficult to fathom is the expense and extent drivers go to in customizing their big rigs, which range from short-haul dump trucks and boat haulers to long-distance heavy machinery and produce haulers. FreightWaves visited with truckers at Gear Jammer and found company drivers who pay for their own cleaning products, show company trucks on their own time and who have spent the equivalent of the original truck’s purchase price on custom modifications.

This group features career professionals who are often second and third generation truckers, or new drivers to the industry who are determined to make trucking a long-term path. To them, their truck is their business card and a mobile billboard for the industry, which can be seen in any number of fundraising and charitable events they display: Make-A-Wish, Touch-A-Truck, Special Olympics  and Truckers for Troops.

Professional career truckers like Mike “The Boston Trucker” Gaffin, as he’s known to his 50,000 YouTube and Instagram followers, take fierce pride in what they do and grab every opportunity to display it, whether it be with extra chrome and “chicken lights” on their trucks to improve theirs and the industry’s image, or to raise money for a worthy cause. According to Mike, “I keep my W900 Kenworth spotless and wash it every day because it’s my livelihood, plus I take pride in what I do. I have a reputation for having a clean truck and can’t be caught riding dirty.” Mike is a second-generation trucker and got the “diesel bug” riding in his father’s White 9000 sitting on a milk crate, and believes “good trucks attract good drivers and for me it’s more than just a job, it’s a career that’s been very good to me and my family”.

New York City’s most famous photographer and trucker Brian Lyons tells a similar story. He drives a spectacular T880 Kenworth for Gaeta Demolition, hauling roll-off containers in the construction and waste industry throughout the five boroughs of NYC. To Brian’s 17,000 Instagram followers, he’s one of the most entertaining drivers on social media as he showcases trucking in America’s biggest and busiest city. “Every day’s a truck show and I keep my truck in pristine condition because it provides for my family, housing, clothing, health plans, vacations, cars and retirement plans,” Lyons said. “This truck has made it all possible, so I take care of the truck that takes care of me”.

Truckers are quick to remind everyone they carry this country and play a vital role in the economy, but behind the scenes, many feel slighted by almost everyone outside the industry. Trucker Greg Simmons, who’s been driving for 27 years, told The New York Times, “We’re throwaway people. Nobody cares about us. Everybody’s perception of a truck driver is we clog up traffic, we get in the way, we pollute the environment.  We’re just like cops. Everybody needs us, but nobody wants us.”

One of the challenges drivers face is the disconnect that occurs due to the isolation. With the exception of social media, drivers spend a lot of time on their own, making communication difficult, especially when they’re dropping off and picking up loads. Drivers tell FreightWaves that the longer they drive trucks, the more disconnected they become from mainstream commerce, making for a very insular world and creating difficult challenges for re-training into another career. With only SiriusXM and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep them in touch, for the most part drivers are left with their own thoughts. Little problems can turn into a full-blown crisis with too much “windscreen time”.

Pride and peer review are what drives professional truckers to attend trucks shows. It’s a chance to associate with colleagues who respect them and their work, show their trucks, pick up new repair and maintenance tips, raise money for charities and catch up with old friends they might only see a few times a year.

According to Bob Conrad, publisher of Gear Jammer Magazine, a magazine dedicated to working show trucks, “for our first truck show we chose autism as our fundraising cause because it hadn’t been done and we wanted a local connection, so we selected the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism and ended up raising close to $14,000 on the day”. The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism was established in 1998 by former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie and his wife, Laurie, in honor of their son, Doug, Jr. who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. To date, the Fluties have distributed more than $11 million for grants and programs in New England, New York, New Jersey, southern California and Canada.

“We’d have raised more for the foundation but had to allocate about 15% of revenue to the local police department for officers to manage traffic flow and safety,” Conrad said. Organizing a truck show is a time-consuming process for Conrad,  his wife Robin and sons Matt and Tom, with the 2018 event taking eight months to organize, including four meetings with the Town of Hudson and hundreds of phone calls.

FreightWaves interviewed a number of drivers at Gear Jammer and found for most it’s about pride; their truck is an extension of their self-image. According to many of the drivers we spoke with, a clean truck runs better, making them feel better about themselves and their head-turning rigs. Prizes, awards and recognitions are another reason drivers show their trucks, and at this year’s Gear Jammer event, Conrad and his sons gave out more than 100 trophies to the 300 truckers that attended. Other fleets in attendance customize their trucks as a driver retention tool or to recognize drivers that have made outstanding contributions. But for most, it’s about a sense of belonging to a group that offers respect and support in an industry that is ranked as one of the hardest and most dangerous.

The Chrome Shop Mafia

Bryan Martin was one of the architects and star of the CMT television show Trick My Truck. where he and his cast of characters known as The Chrome Shop Mafia rebuilt big rigs for truckers down on their luck. Martin and his brother Brice are also second-generation truckers and have built 4 States Trucks into a multi-million enterprise following the success of Trick My Truck and subsequent growth in the aftermarket truck customization industry. According to Martin, “most of our customer are either owner-operators or from fleets with less than 50 trucks. Owner-operators are around their trucks 24/7 and treat them like their own home so when it comes to adding some lights and stainless steel, they’re all in”.

Shows like West Coast Choppers starring Jesse James got truck builders thinking about what they could do with big rigs, according to Martin. “The Mid-America Truck Show really set the tone for the truck show circuit with some truck build-off competitions resulting in some amazing truck designs,” he said. “Each year the bar got set higher and higher and now we have truck shows all over the country with some spectacular rigs being built.” He noted that even though the Trick My Truck show spurred things along, the aftermarket truck customization industry really began in the early 2000’s when the industry was strong, rates were good, and people had money to spend just like today. In fact, the aftermarket truck customization market is expected to expand along with the unprecedented demand for trucking as reported in the SONAR weekly freight market update.

Guilt By Association

Every October, 4 States Trucks holds its “Guilt by Association Truck Show” with an estimated 600 truckers expected at the 10th annual big rig event in Joplin, Missouri. The show includes a BBQ, truck & tractor pull plus the world’s longest big rig convoy, ending in downtown Joplin with a huge party, big rig light show, and live concert ending with a fireworks display. “For truckers, the Special Olympics convoy is more than just a convoy, it’s a great way to get involved in the local community and give something back to families in need and send a positive message about the trucking industry,” Martin said.   

Jon Osburn, who operates OOIDA’s “Spirit of the American Trucker” display trailer, said OOIDA is involved with the Special Olympics “because we not only have members that have special needs children, but we do a lot of charities for kids. We are about community and it’s all about us being a family of truck drivers and having a chance to sit around and talk about what we do and how much fun we have doing it.”

“People sometimes give truckers a bad rap,” Robin Anderson, area development director for Special Olympics Missouri, said. “They are the most kind-hearted giving people and a lot of them don’t have a lot of money, but they will give us the last change in their pocket.” She said the event in 2018 will be the 15th convoy raising money for special needs children, and the Special Olympics has partnered with 4 States Trucks for the last six years.

Anderson talked about the growth: “In 2010 we had 17 trucks and raised $3,600 and last year we had just over 400 trucks and raised $100,000 for the Special Olympics”.

What’s clear is that trucking is a great industry for those who make it a career choice, and if we could somehow bottle what runs through these professional drivers’ veins and share it with new drivers entering the industry, we might just put some shine back on the industry’s image and make a dent in the alleged driver shortage and entrenched turnover levels in larger fleets.