Chrome sweet chrome

| March 05, 2008

Original Mafiosi (l to r) Rick “Scrapyard Dog” Stone, Bryan “Bossman” Martin and C.B. Grimes with their “Godfather” tractor, which boasts this stunning back-of-sleeper mural, the work of truck-painting whiz kid Ryan “Ryno” Templeton.

The light bulb that would burst brightly over the heads of the men who became founding members of the Chrome Shop Mafia first flickered in Joplin, Mo., in early 1998. It exploded into full brilliance in the fall of that year at the inaugural Great American Trucking Show in Dallas.

These men loved nothing more than tinkering with big rigs, and that year they created a brilliant yellow Peterbilt that looked like nothing much else on the road in those days.

“We took it to the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas and got a really unexpected reception,” says Bryan Martin, the Mafia’s “Bossman.” “The truckers really loved it – it was amazing. It genuinely surprised us. There was enough of a buzz for us to sell it right there at the show. We started building one a year, and that’s how we got into customizing as a business.”

The Mafia became a kind of artists’ colony. Whether starring in the Country Music Television reality show Trick My Truck – in which the group converted unsuspecting truckers’ rigs into customized creations – or working in their own shops, these Mafiosi are artists in their own right.

Martin owns 4 State Trucks in Joplin, Mo., which went into customizing in a big way. C.B. Grimes and Rick “Scrapyard Dog” Stone are also with 4 State. Rob Richardson, another Joplin native, has worked extensively with 4 State but has his own business, Rob’s Audio Solutions. In Seattle,the Pickett brothers Rod and Kevin run Pickett Custom Trucks. And in California there’s the one-of-a-kind truck-painting virtuoso Ryan “Ryno” Templeton.

While today all but two of the Mafia members have moved on from Trick My Truck and returned to their own customizing businesses, the CMT show propelled the group to stardom.

The Mafiosi
Martin grew up around trucks in Joplin. He never doubted his career would involve them. His father and his father’s uncle were in the business of truckstops and wholesale parts and supply, and Martin worked on trucks while he was in school, tinkering with air-conditioning, brakes, clutches and various other parts. He went into the family business just as it went into salvage in 1992.

“We started out buying a few that just couldn’t be repaired and parked them. We’d use parts from them when we could,” Martin says. “Then drivers started coming in asking things like, ‘How much for the fuel tank on that International?’ Or they’d want a steering wheel or some other part. The salvage yard really helped business to boom.”

The expanding business began to prepare show trucks, eventually creating working trucks that followed no blueprint.

“We’d go to shows, not just truck shows – although we did a whole lot of those – but bike shows, anywhere people liked to see customized trucks,” Martin says.

In his last years at school, Grimes, an artist who today can turn a stock sleeper into a work of art, had decided he wanted to be an architect. “I couldn’t live in an office today; I don’t know what I was thinking back then,” he says. His first job was with an aftermarket sleeper company. “My hobby was cars and I’d worked a bit in a cabinet shop, so working on truck sleepers fit what I knew and what I liked.”

Meanwhile, halfway across the country, brothers Rod and Kevin Pickett were also building show trucks, and, like 4 State, creating original customized works of art for big rigs in their own style.

“We grew up with trucks,” says big brother Rod. “We’ve been around them all our lives. Dad had trucks and he did all his own work on them, and helping him is how we started to learn. We loved it. We’d fix anything we could find. Whatever we got for Christmas, we’d chop it up and work on it to see what we could do with it.”

The Picketts started driving as soon as they were old enough to get CDLs and began customizing trucks professionally in the mid-’90s.

“We started doing custom work, and people we knew would come to us to do things for them, and that’s how it started,” Rod says. “My brother and I, we really don’t have any particular area of expertise. When we were growing up, we did a little bit of everything and we learned how to do it ourselves. We learned how to do lights before there were LEDs and if you put 100 lights on a truck you had to know what you were doing or you’d have a dash fire.

“Today, we still like to do our own work, whatever it is. We can fabricate, do wire, paint, polish, and work with aluminum or stainless steel. I bought my first cars before I was 16 from money I made polishing aluminum.”

The 4 State guys and the Picketts met at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., in 2002, liked each other and found they shared the same customizing philosophy. They started going to more shows together, and it was at one of those that they became overnight reality television sensations (see “Star Vehicle” sidebar on page 27).

“We were building cool trucks, and they were building cool trucks,” says Martin, “and we started hanging out on the phone and sending pictures back and forth. The truck-customizing community is fairly small, and most everybody knows everybody. But we each liked what the other was doing, we sort of had the same ideas and senses of what would work and what wouldn’t.”

Richardson is the audio guy. But he doesn’t simply install sound machines – he creates an entire interior into which they fit like a hand in a glove.

“I started out in car audio systems, just sort of dabbling with them,” says Richardson. “My family built houses, and my brother and I worked with them when we were young. That’s where we developed a lot of our imagination. I worked with wood and wiring and learned about it, and that helps today when I am trying to imagine how to do something. Cars are OK to work on, but trucks are like houses on wheels.”

But Richardson also worked periodically on trucks. His father played guitar in a blues and Southern rock band. “They had to have trucks to haul everything around,” he says. He was often along for the ride and helped keep the trucks running. He “learned a lot doing that,” he says. “I really wanted to be a trucker. I think at some time in their lives, young boys all want to be truckers when they see the big rigs out there rolling by.”

Ryan “Ryno” Templeton, a southern Californian, was the only latecomer to the truck customizing profession. In fact, the tractor he painted for the pilot of Trick My Truck was the first big rig he had ever painted. Now he’s considered the best there is.

“My folks were artistically inclined,” says Templeton, “and I started drawing when I was real little. I’ve been doing it ever since. Right before the show started I was doing choppers, cars, murals and movies, but I started out on T-shirts. Yep, T-Shirts.”

When a high school buddy started an airbrushing business, Templeton went to help out, and his passion for the art was born. He painted thousands of T-Shirts, in addition to “anything someone would pay me to paint,” he says.

Templeton literally lived like the proverbial starving artist for a few years. “I lived in my car; it was hard to make a living. While I was a teenager, painting was fun. I didn’t take it seriously until I was maybe 25. Then I found out how hard it was to make it pay. I did other things. But one day I got tired of framing houses and working for the man and getting ripped off with my artwork, so I started my own company.”

He moved from wall murals to movies with a job in Hollywood, eventually painting most of the bikes, metal and plastic in the cult hit Biker Boyz. Then he was “suddenly discovered” and asked to paint trucks in front of television cameras.

Trucks, he found, were a little different. “Well, metal’s metal and plastic’s plastic, but the size makes things different. A quart can paint a car hood, but it won’t even do the fender on a truck. Suddenly I’m working with gallons. And I had to change my designs, of course.”

The final member of the Chrome Shop Mafia, Stone, a.k.a. Scrappy, is also an artist in his own way, someone who can stand in a yard full of twisted metal, foam insulation, wiring and plastic and see just how he can slice it into manageable scrap or something a customizer can use to redo a rig.

“He’s a good old Missouri hillbilly,” Martin says. “He’s honest as the day is long, and if he thinks something, he’ll just blurt it out. He’s just naturally funny. There was a time when CMT thought of doing a spin-off of Trick My Truck that would just follow Scrappy around for a day, from barber to grocery store and so on.”

Stone descended to Joplin from 75 miles north in Nevada, Mo.

His junk yard has no new, shiny pieces, and he reigns over it with a mask and a torch as his crown and sword. It’s what he does. It’s what defines him, and he likes that. “I cut iron,” he says. “This is my profession. I’m good at it. I don’t want to wear a suit or a tie, I don’t want to work at anything else.”

Stone worked in a scrap yard from the time he could work, and his father, a crane operator, and uncle did the same. He never lost his fascination for cutting iron, even when he saw his father almost die in a scrap yard. “He was trying to release a gear that was caught. After he got it free, he fell. Must have been 30 feet. When he first fell, he landed and almost steadied himself. I saw he was about to be hit by what he had just freed, it was swinging at him. I yelled. He saw it coming and tried to jump and catch a handrail, but he just missed it and fell into a pile of cut steel. He had a horribly broken leg and other injuries.”

When Stone came to 4 State, he was put in charge of its scrap yard. “Man, it was a mess,” he says. “But all of a sudden it was my mess, and I got to work. I straightened it out, and now I run a pretty tight operation.”

The trucks
All the Mafia members are dream interpreters and facilitators for truckers who stop by their shops with drawings, plans, photos, wish lists or maybe just a vague idea of what they want.

“You have to try to understand the person you are building it for,” says Richardson, “to remember something they said about themselves or something that excited them. The clues aren’t always in what they ask for but how they ask for it. You can help them make an idea re

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