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Todd Dills | March 01, 2011

Real by Design

New trucking show on Speed Channel strives for depth through industry portraits


Robb Mariani isn’t exactly a trucker. In fact, the context in which he may be familiar to some of you might seem totally antithetical to the business of trucking. “I got onto HGTV in 2007 with my design portfolio work,” as he puts it, in the second season of the competitive Design Star show. “They couldn’t believe that I was overtly straight, did interior design and had a cabover Ford.”

Truckers News Senior Editor Todd Dills is the author of a novel, Sons of the Rapture, and blogs daily at www.overdriveonline.com/channel19. Write him at tdills@rrpub.com or http://twitter.com/channel19todd.

He’s taken his success on the show — he was one of a final four contestants the season he partici­pated — and parlayed it into a series he now hosts dedicated to the people who move America. American Trucker premiered on the Speed Channel Feb. 24. It’s scheduled for 13 half-hour episodes running Thursdays at 10 and 10:30 p.m.

Compared to the quirks defining shows like those in the Ice Road Truckers franchise and Trick My Truck, to my thinking the broadly conceived American Trucker could well be the one that finally gets trucking right. Trucking was in Mariani’s blood early. “When I was born, in the 1960s, both my grandfathers were driving, one for Yellow,” the other in an old twin-stick Mack daycab running Schlitz beer around the Milwaukee area. “I was into it from the time I could page through his Overdrive magazine,” Mariani says of the second, Grandpa Emil. “I told my parents I was going to be a truck driver.”

But he subsequently got into scale truck model building, and an obsession was born by reading Overdrive’s coverage of the Blue Mule Ford cabover in White Line Fever. Mariani actually almost placed one of his models in the magazine’s Model of the Month Club series at the time and ended up studying art and design, learning to drive Class 8s while working as a “yard dog” at a glass distributor, he says, to help pay tuition.

In 2003, after success as a designer, he turned back toward his trucking passion when he found and bought a working 1974 Ford WT9000 from a hauler in Tennessee. “You’ll probably see it on the show,” he says of plans to restore the Ford to OEM condition.

American Trucker’s preview episode tracked in a pop-culture-connected topic, continuing the story of Wisconsin owner-operator Paul Sagehorn’s B.J. & the Bear Kenworth, which I reported here in ­Truckers News through Sagehorn’s restoration of the tractor. But it also included segments about truckstop life, with a tour through Iowa 80, and Mariani’s presence and clear enthusiasm for all things trucking, not just the trucks themselves, held all of it together nicely.

When I talked to Mariani, he was “on set” filming for a heavy haul-themed episode in the passenger seat of a driver’s rig, toting a “huge electrical component” south across Ohio to an Ohio River port. “I think it’s probably the heaviest haul I could have imagined,” he told me. “The rig they have they build from scratch. It’s got 114 tires and is more than 250-ft. long. At 600,000 pounds, we’re hitting bridges at 5 miles an hour.” Among episodes noted on the show’s website (http://www.speedtv.com/programs/american-trucker) are a look at NASA rigs, an examination of the perils of snow driving (over Donner Pass) and more.

As for the future, Mariani’s got high hopes for providing viewers a genuine portrait of trucking. “I can’t host the show without the integrity — I’m not an actor, and I’m always underscoring some points: [Truckers] are clearly the backbone of America, and trucks drive our nation. That’s the thread for me with everything.”

If they get to season two, he says, he sees opportunity to “really put down the roots and get hardcore with it.” Godspeed.

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