Showing Off!
Spec'ing for work & show

by M.D. Morgan

Truck shows are the glamorous side of our industry. Where once there were only a handful of shows throughout the year, there is now a truck beauty contest nearly every weekend during the good weather season. The show truck circuit has become so large, showing your truck could be a full-time job. It is a full-time job for those lucky enough to afford it.

But what about you? You have a truck or you're thinking about buying a new one and want to venture onto the circuit. Where do you start?

We talked with some OOIDA members and a few dealers to get their recommendations and learn what they did to find fame (but not much fortune) on the show circuit.

One comment I heard repeatedly while doing research for this story was unless you have enough money and you don't need to drive a truck for a living, don't try and do it all at once!

The one exception to that advice is that if you can afford it and are thinking about something really big and expensive that you want on your tractor, (like a particular size of sleeper, or a custom sleeper), do it when you buy your new truck. The simple reason is that you are not likely to have the downtime or the money to do it later.

As Darian Stephens, an OOIDA member, points out, "Once you get to $110,000 or $115,000, it isn't going to make that big a difference in your payment."

Darian Stephens and his '95 Freightliner Classic have earned more than 70 trophies and awards. His philosophy on spec'ing a truck for work and show echoed what most of the show truck owner-operators had to say.

"First," says Darian, "spec as big and as light as you can."

Darian purchased as many lightweight and aluminum components as he could in the frame and drivetrain, including an aluminum flywheel housing. Darian also wanted a long wheelbase, but 290 inches was the maximum wheelbase he could go with on the Freightliner and still have a single rail frame. Anything longer than that, and the weight of double rails would have increased the weight beyond where he needed it to be. Darian needed to be able to load 44,000 lbs. of beef in the 48' and 53' reefers he pulls for National Carriers, and still have some of the other items he wanted on his truck.

Spec'ing every lightweight component he could allowed him the margin he needed for the custom Double Eagle sleeper, which is 94" long, 84" high and 94" wide.

"I've helped some friends spec their tractors like mine, including a buddy who wanted a Kenworth W-900L," says Darian. "It came within a couple hundred pounds of mine. That is for the tractor weight."

Overall, weight is one of the most important aspects of spec'ing a truck for work and show, since 19,000 lbs. is a common maximum tractor dry-weight for many carriers.

"It's getting easier to get big trucks lighter. Every year manufacturers come out with drivetrain and frame components that are lighter and stronger," says Darian.

One of the things Darian feels is really important in spec'ing a show truck, or setting up any truck for show, is good overall visual balance.

Darian points out, "You need to look at the truck from all the angles. Top to bottom, and end to end with an eye to what the final result is going to be, so that when you get there, everything is in proportion. So that no place on the truck has too much of any one thing for where it is. You want to be able to look at both sides of the truck and find that same balance."

Furthermore, Darian advises that you shouldn't compromise on what you want if you can't afford the extras you want most at that moment.

"By that," he says, "I mean if there is a certain thing like a visor or some other add-on that you want, don't get a part you know you are going to replace later, just to get rid of the painted one that's on there now because you think it's too plain. You just have to re-invest in the part you really do want later.

"You really have to be patient. Much of the stuff on my truck has been on my first two trucks. When I trade, I keep my custom stuff and put it on the next truck. You just can't afford to keep buying it every time you get a new power unit. Until I had to replace it recently because of corrosion inside, my back bumper and light bar had been on three trucks. Externally it always looked good because I took care of it."

Speaking of paying for all that chrome and custom stuff, how do you do that? Darian lumped all of his loads for years. His lumping fees were his chrome and goodie stash.

"You have to be willing to work for this," he says. "Not only to find the extra money, but every day you have to stay on top of your truck and keep it up. Not just the body and paint, but underneath especially. If you don't stay on top of it, it's just too big a job when you go to show. You have to keep at it every day."

Spec'ing chrome engine components at purchase is getting easier, too. Until recently, only Detroit offered a factory engine chrome package, but that option is now available from Caterpillar, too. Getting chrome on the engine when you buy it is much easier than trying to retrofit it.

OOIDA member Earl Peterson says it is time-consuming pain to do the chrome on your engine after the fact. Earl and his wife, Debbie, are also veterans of the show circuit with more than 50 trophies and a Shell SuperRigs calendar to boot. Earl feels it's easier to buy a new truck if you are going to show, because it is easier to keep up when you start fresh. Even so, Earl has already repainted the engine and transmission in his '97 Pete. Like everyone we talked with, Earl says having a show truck is expensive and "a lot of hard work."

Others aren't so sure that buying a new truck is preferable or even desirable. Nancy Drummond has a completely different take on show trucking, as does Ron Kelsey. Bob and Nancy Drummond have been showing for many years and have one of the "winningest" trucks on the show circuit.

"I think it's more of a challenge and more fun to buy an older truck and see what you can do with it. Both of our show trucks have been older trucks," says Nancy. "Bob and I also like to have as much custom stuff made as possible, rather than buying off-the-shelf things. That way your truck truly is custom."

Nancy also recommends spec'ing your truck to be as light as possible, because chrome and stainless are heavy. "But, really," she adds, "if you have to worry about weight, you shouldn't be building a show truck anyway."

Bob and Nancy pull an all-stainless 48' reefer. When they bought the trailer, Nancy was afraid the stainless was going to add 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. to the trailer. When they spec'ed it out at the dealer she was pleasantly surprised to find it only added 400 lbs.

"If you're going to make a living with your truck, the chrome and stainless weight is something you have to think about," says Nancy. "Aluminum is light, but you see a lot of show trucks with chrome wheels etc., because it takes a ton of time to keep that aluminum polished. With chrome and stainless you can wipe and go."

Bob and Nancy extended the frame on their '89 Kenworth to 305 inches. Instead of buying a glider, Bob and Nancy had the work done by a qualified mechanic friend. Nancy reminds that you also need to keep in mind what kind of hauling you will be doing. "We haul tropical plants, and some of the places where we have to make deliveries are awfully tight, but we manage."

Ron Kelsey, whose '81 Pete has twice won Shell SuperRigs and earned a wall full of trophies, is another who thinks a paid-for older truck is the way to go. Ron's truck has more than 2.5 million miles on it, and over the years (he's owned it since '83) he has continually upgraded it and completely re-done the interior twice. The current interior revamp allowed him to cover everything, including the dash, in glove-soft leather. Having a paid-for truck has allowed him free reign with modifications, more time at home, more time to show, and the ability to earn a good income.

The cab and sleeper interior have been extensively upgraded and modified, but the exterior is a subtle blend of carefully executed thoughtful touches, polished aluminum and chrome, and a simple but eye-grabbing signature paint job in shades of orange. The truck fairly jumps out at you going down the highway, and is testimony to the fact you don't need to have an RV-sized sleeper and 400-inch wheelbase to have a killer, show-winning truck. Sometimes less is more, and you don't have to be radical to win Best of Show. Ron's truck is repeated proof of that.

Speaking of radical, it would also be prudent to bear in mind that no modifications should be made to your truck that would in anyway compromise your safety or the safety of others. Keep in mind, too, the traffic lanes you run and the disposition of DOT inspectors in your neck of the woods. When I was running with DeWitt Bros. out of Arizona, both Arizona and California were on a lug nut, hole-crack inspecting binge for about a year. All of our trucks ran aluminum wheels with chrome hub hats (the kind with chrome plates behind the hats and the lug nuts).The chrome plates covered the entire area where there might be a lug stress crack, and guess what? The inspectors would make us call a tow truck and pull the wheels because they wanted to see behind the chrome plates. After that, the trucks moved through the shop for routine maintenance, every one of them had the plates pulled to prevent further expensive DOT harassment. So before you spend that hard-earned money, be certain that you can do what it is you think you want to do!

Hanging out at truck shows and talking to other owners about what did and didn't work for them will help give you an idea on how to proceed with your dream. If what you want to do is start with a new truck, your dealer can help you ferret out the hidden options in his book. And it is amazing what you can spec at the dealer in the way of chrome, stainless, custom wood sleeper cabinets and factory available custom paint options. The first thing you want to do with your dealer is tell him exactly what kind of loads you're going to be hauling and tailor your truck to that need first. Then see how close you can come to your target weight and dream truck from there.

Dealers tend to want to steer a customer into a unit they have on the lot. Be firm in your desire to get exactly what you want and your willingness to wait for it to be built to your exact specs. If you have Internet access you can begin your search for a dealer there. Web sites for manufacturers are: www.wstar.com (Western Star), www.navistar.com, www.paccar.com, (Kenworth and Peterbilt) www.freightliner.com, www.sterlingtrucks.com, www.macktrucks.com, and www.volvotrucks.com.

Long hoods, lots of chrome and stainless, aluminum wheels and frame components, long wheelbases and big power all add up to big money. Big money means a big down payment, big monthly payments, more interest and more FET (federal excise tax). It will pay to shop for the best interest you can find, and to carefully spec options inside your sleeper.

One of the better known trucks on the show circuit is Gordon and Janie Levering's "Gone with the Wind" truck. Gordon's ideas differ sharply with Darian's regarding costs. Gordon pointed out some important aspects regarding what went inside the sleeper.

"The sleeper manufacturer wanted somewhere in the vicinity of $179 for the under-cabinet coffee maker," says Gordon. "The cost of a microwave unit and television were similarly high. I bought my own coffeemaker for $29.95. The same with the other items. I asked the manufacturer to just build the spots where I wanted the appliances. They thought I was being too nitpicky about the cost. But when you consider the cost, plus the FET, and the cost of financing both of those over five years or so, it isn't such a small deal."

Gordon also says he thinks interest rate shopping is important because the first rate you get quoted isn't necessarily the best rate they are willing to give you.

All this money stuff is important, because that's why you drive a truck - to make money. And that issue is as important a spec as the engine and final drive ratios you choose for fuel economy. It will determine your all-important cost per mile. A show truck is going to cost you more to begin with, it will continue to cost you more money as you upgrade it, and you will lose a significant amount of revenue while you show it.

Nancy Drummond pointed out to me at a show last year, that she and Bob could have paid their home mortgage off with lost revenue alone from five years of showing. But the tradeoff for them was worth it.

Showing can be like a mini (albeit work-filled) vacation and one of the few chances drivers have to get together outside of a fuel island or a loading dock. The point is that more than one driver has gone belly up getting too carried away too fast with customizing a truck.

So in the end, whether you show for glory, camaraderie or charity, there really is no magic formula for spec'ing a truck for work and show, be it old or new. But there is a general rule. Take it slow, think it through, keep after it, and don't get impatient.

Have fun, be creative, and stand tall when it's done!

M.D. Morgan is a freelance writer living in Prescott Valley, AZ.