Monday, March 23, 2009

MATS: Fade to Black, It's a Wrap

After my two-year absence from the carpeted halls of the Mid-America Trucking Show and some anticipation, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised. With the ever-constant news of the down economy, the terrible trucking conditions of low rates, scarce freight and an overall mood of sour business, what I came away with was far different.

What I saw was a large crowd of people, truckers and families, suppliers and manufacturers with a major spark of enthusiasm. I saw and heard people who are tired of hearing how bad it is, when in fact many are still doing pretty well. What I heard from many was that perhaps we should stop listening to the doomsayers and go out and buy some American products and put Americans back to work.

I heard vendors say that sales are actually pretty good and that it was worth their time, effort and money to be there. I saw customers carting off bumpers and fridges and signing deals for APUs. OEMs made some dramatic presentations, particularly the Rock Star treatment International gave its new Harley Davidson-branded LoneStar. A brilliant piece of marketing.

I met many, many friends, and some of them I never even knew I had. Readers of my columns over the years, folks I have run with or had coffee with. So many came up to say hello or called my name. I am very flattered and humbled to have met so many very kind people. And not one wanted to kick my butt over a disagreement (this time).

I had the great honor of chasing media events with Jami Jones, Paul Abelson, Sandi Soendker, Mark Reddig, Suzanne Stempinski, Reed Black and Bill Hudgins. In addition to stuffing my brain to overload capacity with all of the best of the new technology and products, I had the pleasure of watching the masters of trucking journalism work their craft. In addition, I had several opportunities to hang out at the OOIDA booth and talk to members, both old and new, plus shoot the breeze with Todd Spencer and Jim Johnston.

In addition, I also had a great time out at the Papa Johns Stadium parking area where good friend Ron Mermis was set up with OOIDA’s NASCAR simulator. Plus there was a flatbed-equipped soundstage where performers got up to pick, grin and entertain a great crowd of folks. With the smell of BBQ smoke and the sounds of music and laughter, it was a sign that spring is finally here. And, maybe, just maybe, much of that doom and gloom is behind us.

I didn’t hear of any truckers asking for a stimulus package. I didn’t see anyone with their hand out, except for when the pork chop sammiches were being doled out. I didn’t hear anyone on the down side. Considering how tough it has been for the past year or so, I was quite amazed. But not really. If the rest of the country can be gauged by truckers, I would say we will be OK pretty soon.

Could it have been bigger or better? Maybe. There were some displays and manufacturers who were missing, but the spaces were filled with a really cool selection of vintage and antique trucks. And as Suzanne and I found out with what we called the 20-foot rule, we could not walk 20 feet without running into someone we knew. At times we were down to the 5-foot rule and just enjoyed visiting with so many great folks.

If you missed it, well, all I can say is there are only 359 more days until MATS.

Dave Sweetman

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hugs, gears and tears

I am a lot of things, but one thing I'm not is sappy. Anyone who knows me will vouch for that.

At least I'm not usually very sappy. But the end of the Mid-America Trucking Show every year turns me into the sentimental sort.

I've spent the past four days cramming my head full of information on EGR and SCR along with the grand debate swirling around the two 2010 emission-standard technologies. It's been press conferences full of new technology - some of which blew me away, like Grote's new LightForm strips of LED diodes no wider than 1/10,000th of an inch.

OOIDA members have been quizzing me and the rest of the folks - including our fearless leaders Jim Johnston and Todd Spencer - at the booths (yeah, we had three locations counting The Spirit truck) on every issue under the sun.

We've talked about speed limiters, electronic on-board recorders, diabetes waivers, tolling, cap and trade emission credits, tax breaks on fuel-saving technologies, increased taxes on truckers (remember Mt. Vernon's 2-cent tax on diesel only), longer-heavier trucks, bad broker practices, fuel surcharges ... you name it, I promise OOIDA folks were tested on it.

As usual, those in attendance met some of the coolest people you will ever meet. I am not kidding when I say I saw Aaron Tippin cruise down the hallway of the South Wing with no "handlers" at all. A few folks spotted him, asked for an autograph, and he politely stopped, chatted for several minutes, signed show programs and disappeared into the crowd.

Yeah, he gets truckers.

We heard the awe-inspiring stories of Jorge Orozco Sanchez, the 2008 Goodyear Highway Hero, and Dennis Lott, a dedicated professional driver, veteran and father, who today realized his dream of becoming an owner-operator. Arrow Truck Sales and its industry sponsors announced Lott as the winner of Arrow’s Back On The Road 2009 campaign. Check out the video of Don finding out he was "back on the road" here.

Both these unassuming men made your heart feel good just knowing that people like them do exist.

Then there are always the crazy, crazy things you see. I'm still a bit puzzled by the dude in the white tights and orange tutu. Must have lost a bet.

And, the show's unofficial end would be the announcement of the Paul K. Young Memorial Truck Beauty Competition - or as we have dubbed it, the "trophy dash."

This year's event started a little different. The folks putting on the competition recognized several people near and dear to the show truck community who have passed away recently. They did it with class and style. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

The show then shifted gears, and the hard work and commitment of professional truckers were honored. The applause, slaps on the backs, high fives and more tears - tears of pride this time - were all a part of the fun. The picture above is one of the trucks receiving honors. Suzanne Stempinski will give you a full update later.

After that, for me it's hugs, promises to keep in touch, and watching friends disappear into the sea of show goers, with a part of me counting down the days until I return before I even leave.

Shining Off

The sun has set and the last wisps of barbecue smoke have risen as an offering to the gods of grilling. As Sunday dawns, the reserved parking lots around the Kentucky Expo Center begin to empty as exhibitors and vendors load up their RVs and move out. Over the next couple of days, the Center's halls will echo with the sound of hammers, forklift motors  and backup warning beeps as the exhibits come down and return to their crates. 

For the most part the show was blessed with great weather, good news for the Pride and Polish and NAST competitors who spent days wiping and cleaning and buffing - rinse and repeat - to make a run for prizes and the amazed gapes of onlookers. 

Before I left, I spent some time draining my camera battery to share with you, as well as my friends who don't know much if anything about trucks and certainly not about truck beauty shows. The raw footage is posted in a set on Flickr. com at 

So until next time, be safe, make money and get home soon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

There Were No Losers Here

Doggone it. I should have posted this before I left the building. But no, after the Awards Ceremony for the Paul K. Young Memorial Truck Beauty Championship and Mid-America Big Rig Build Off, I had to race back out to the parking lot to take just a few more pix and grab a few more hugs before heading home. Only to find my Internet connection was down. So please accept my apologies. You shouldn't have had to wait.

It was awesome and inspiring. A tribute to missing friends - the passing of industry icon Bette Garber; show truckers and friends to many Jake Eilen, Gina Kemner, John Kimball and others. We memorialized our losses with tears and smiles. They live on in our hearts.

So much recognition delivered. Trophies in a wide range of classes for new trucks and antiques, working trucks and those that have yet to run down the road under a load.

Best of Show Working Combo and the People's Choice Awards went to Marcel Pontbriand and his amazing blue-muraled 1989 Peterbilt 379 pulling a 1992 Stoughton dry van. It is muraled and customized from end to end. He calls it the "Little Train of Happiness." It has been 20 years in the making, all of the details done by himself -- from painting murals depicting his lifelong journey to designing and making stainless and installing lights, teak wood steps and intricate carvings, stone-embedded railroad tracks, pistols for door grips and so much more. This truck is a constantly evolving work of art.

Todd and Beth Roccapriore brought home an armload of awards for their "Chopped 93," a stunning '93 purple & black Pete 379 pulling a Mac dump trailer. He pulls into sanitary landfills, and you'd be hard pressed to find a speck of dirt anywhere on his truck.

Best Limited Mileage Combo went to Paul Stanchio. His car-hauling machine has a distinctive style that's uniquely his.

Limited Mileage Bobtail went to a 1942 Autocar shown for owner Dale Blevins. It first appeared at GATS last year after a total restoration.

And the Big Rig Build Off winner by popular acclaim went to Alex & Nick Gobel's Vigilante - a way-outside-the-box flat black & gray Pete. These guys are reinventing the show truck look. Unique design elements, repeating themes and patterns throughout the interior and exterior ... it's always a treat to spend time with them. They're young, creative and excited about what they're doing. It's contagious.

Homer Schultz's 1993 Caribbean blue tow truck was the Working Truck Bobtail Best of Show winner. Customized inside and out with a stop-you-in-your-tracks style ... you wouldn't mind being on the hook behind this sweet ride.

Dean Bugg didn't bring home a trophy. But the attention he got for his eye-catching pearl white and lime green truck - chopped and lowered and sporting invisible fuel tanks made him a crowd favorite.

I could go on for days about the highlights. Every truck offered something special to delight and intrigue me.

They were all winners.

Papa John’s

There are really two truck shows in Louisville in March. One is the Mid-America Trucking Show, the official production at the Kentucky state fair grounds – where gleaming new trucks and endless booths of vendors are housed inside huge exhibition halls.

It’s flashy, fun and very commercial.

The other is “Papa John’s” – a parking lot at the nearby Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium sports complex where hundreds of truckers park their rigs each year and, for three days, convert an empty expanse of macadam into a town.

“The party in the parking lot” is the way Penny Copenhaver of Independence, MO, describes it. “You meet a lot of wonderful people” she says.

The people get out their lawn chairs and barbeque grills and everywhere there’s music drifting out from radios and CD players.

At night, there’s live music on a flatbed stag – either amateurs or heavy hitters like Leland Martin.

And, like most small towns in America, Papa John’s has a heart.

Last year, the truckers raised more than $8,000 in just one night to help pay the medical expenses of Chance Rogers, the young grandson of trucker, Jim Rogers. Chance, who was suffering from cancer, is now in remission.

This year, the aroma of brats and hamburgers draws truckers to the tent where other truckers are selling tasty food to benefit the Special Olympics and the St. Christopher Fund, a fund that helps truckers who are down on their luck.

“This is what truckers are about,” says Penny’s husband, Gregory Copenhaver.

Did I mention the dogs?

Lots of truckers or significant others bring their dog. Sue Wiese, who heads up Operation Roger (in which truckers transport pets to new homes for free) holds a contest at Papa John’s.

Truckers see if their traveling companion can capture the prize for “Best Trick,” “Most Cutest,” “Most Laziest,” “Most Ugliest,” etc. Winners are determined by the volume of audience applause and/or laughter.

At the end of three days, they all pull out of the parking lot and everyone heads their separate way.

The town of Papa John’s vanishes for a year -- only to reappear the following spring.
It’s an annual event that Penny Copenhaver says is all about “talking, laughing, joking.”

Her husband Gregory has a one word definition of Papa John’s, "camaraderie."

Forced dispatch

One of the best parts of the Mid-America Trucking Show is seeing the families in attendance - families who bring the kids.

It always brings a smile to your face to see some 4- or 5-year-old boy standing next to Dad eyeballing the new trucks. As Dad talks business with the sales reps about the latest offerings for the model of interest, little man puts on his serious face, arms bearing the "Born to Truck" logo crossed across his chest.

Yesterday in the West Wing, where the swag was flowing and crowds were wall-to-wall, I saw one such family.

They had obviously made their pass through the West Wing, bags fully loaded with the good stuff, and were ready to move on.

Well, almost all of them.

Little Man wasn't done. Now I'm not sure if it was a light-up ball, a yard stick, flashy pen or what he apparently had missed, but he wasn't budging an inch.

He stood his ground, trying in vain to explain to his dad why they should not leave the bountiful West Wing. He might as well have been saying, "But you know there aren't any loads back out there. Don't make me go there."

Alas, Dad the now-dispatcher, told Little Man that he didn't have a choice.

Little Man dropped his head and moved out.

Tough times for Trucker Buddy

Yesterday, Trucker Buddy International folks gathered here in Louisville to honor the Trucker Buddies of the Month and talk some business. Like they do every year. It's part of MATS.

This year was different than the past few years. Fewer Trucker Buddies were on hand to be introduced and honored for their efforts. In fact, Paul Abelson, our senior tech editor and a guy with a long time involvement with TBI, said there were only two Trucker Buddies of the Month who made it to MATS this year.

Paul says Trucker Buddy, like many other charitable organizations hard hit when the economy falters, is taking one on the chin. Many of the group's traditional corporate sponsors are having difficulties and "cannot be as generous as in the past."

Trucker Buddy has been around for 17 years. Those guys and gals play such a part in informing kids about the important role of trucking. TBI estimates that Trucker Buddies have shared their knowledge and love for trucking with more than a million kids. In real terms, Paul says 55,000 kids a year, 2,755 classrooms in 2009.

Did you know that every U.S. state and most Canadian provinces has or did have Trucker Buddy classrooms? Wow.

But the group says that if Trucker Buddy is to survive, it needs help. It's asking that truckers and supporters throughout the industry join Trucker Buddy Nation as either an individual member or corporate sponsor.

Its founder Gary King was an OOIDA member and old pal of mine. I recall the struggles of the organization's early years, and I saw the industry rally behind Gary and the Trucker Buddies and the classrooms of students who participated. I know Trucker Buddy can make it through these tough times.

For more info on what you can do, you can contact Doug Driscoll at 253-389-5142, or go to or call 1-800-MY-BUDDY. Doug says if you just want to send a contribution, send it to PO Box 2114, Gig Harbor, WA 98335.