Hotshot trucking: How to start

| December 05, 2014

The Hotshot Niche in Brief

Going into hotshot as an owner-operator is in a lot of respects no different from moving into business with a Class 8. The biggest differences lie in equipment choices and, for a leased owner-operator, getting used to operating under your own authority.

Establishing the business
When it comes to regulatory requirements, interstate hotshot businesses face many of the same regulations as those of interstate Class 8 haulers.

It’s possible to lease your hotshot to a larger entity, particularly if you’re in an area with a lot of oil drilling, but most hotshot businesses operate with their own motor carrier authority, requiring well less than $1,000 for federal and state filings at startup. The biggest initial cost, unless you’re leased, is buying at least $750,000 worth of primary liability insurance coverage, a requirement to run interstate.

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Hotshot trucking: Pros, cons of the small-truck niche

Hotshot hauling offers lower start-up costs and other advantages over running Class 8 over-the-road, but other trade-offs make it challenging in its own right.

The good news is that insurance coverage will cost less than what a Class 8 truck owner-operator typically pays. One-truck operators interviewed for this story reported a range of $4,000 to $5,500 for liability coverage.

Unless you’re able to lease to a business, you’ll need your U.S. Department of Transportation motor carrier authority and all that entails, including that primary commercial auto liability insurance, membership in a drug and alcohol testing consortium, required driver qualification filings, adherence to hours of service regulations and the like.

Operators who remain plated under 26,001 pounds can avoid filing quarterly IFTA reports and purchase fuel according to the best pump price available. You’ll need only to file via your BOC3 Process Agent in the states where you’ll be doing business.

Like the IFTA requirement, a commercial driver’s license is necessary for combination haulers using typical hotshot pickups only if the plated GCWR exceeds 26,000 pounds.

For more specifics business start-up, read our January 2014 guide to running an independent owner-operator business, including a guide to establishing authority and getting the business up and running.

Spec’ing the equipment
You won’t get the biggest amount of payload from a standard tow hitch on the bumper. The towing specs for the 2013 Dodge Ram 2500 pickups show that factory bumper-pull tow options limit you to a maximum of 17,950 lbs., and that’s with both the short cab and bed and the biggest diesel available, the 6.7-liter Cummins. Ford’s 2015 tow guide for its Super Duty pickups shows a limit of 19,000 lbs. towed, included the trailer’s weight.

If your setup is like hotshot hauler Greg Cutler’s, with a 20-ft. Doolittle bumper-pull trailer with a 2-foot dovetail at the rear, the trailer payload maximum will be under 9,000 lbs., as the trailer weights 9,100 lbs.

Spec to the load: You may not need all the pulling power that the big three auto manufacturers have to offer with their pickups. Atlanta-based hotshot owner-operator Jeff Ward launched his business with a 2008-model F450 Super Duty dually, with maximum weight up to 35,000 lbs. But he’s since downsized to a 2012 F350 tagged at 26,000 lbs. GCWR, largely for fuel mileage: the 350′s more than 4 mpg better than the 450, which typically logged about 8 mpg.

The Cadet flatbed body on the unit Ward spec’d has a gooseneck-type hitch, similar to what was on his previous 450. The majority of his moves are bulky enough to necessitate the 30-foot P.J. flatbed, but he feels the flatbed body delivers more versatility over a standard pickup bed, with more lateral space for freight. Some of his more local loads are light enough – 3,000 pounds or less – to fit on the flatbed alone, which improves fuel mileage sometimes up to 18 mpg or more.

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Geographic specialization, with Brady's Hotshot Hauling owner-operator Jeff Ward

Geographic specialization, with Brady’s Hotshot Hauling owner-operator Jeff Ward

Atlanta-area owner-operator Jeff Ward started his hotshot business with a diesel F450 cab and chassis outfitted with a flatbed body and gooseneck-type hitch.

On the trailer, Ward’s got 25 feet of wooden-deck space, with an additional five on the rear if he doesn’t need the spring-loaded dovetail that pulls out into a set of ramps for the occasional piece of powered equipment he may haul.

Maintenance costs: If you’re accustomed to the preventive maintenance intervals of a Class 8 diesel, be prepared as a hotshot operator running a lot of miles to accelerate oil change schedules and other component – and truck – replacement. Ward changes his oil every 5,000 miles at a cost of about $100 a change.The P.J. Trailer’s tandem axles are outfitted with single tires at each axle end, saving weight, and each is rated at about 7,000 lbs. of potential capacity, more than he needs given his heaviest possible load today is just 10,000 lbs. As noted, he’s tagged at a combined maximum weight of 26,000 lbs.

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‘Hotshot on steroids’: Straight Forward Transportation of Ohio

Sue and Kevin Nelson's 2012 single-drive-axle Freightliner Columbia is Straight Forward Transportation’s “hotshot on steroids,” says Sue Nelson, acquired to augment a business founded the ...

Running a non-dually Ford F250 for five years as a hotshot, Kevin and Sue Nelson of Straight Forward Transportation saw wear accelerate through the unit. “The brakes are electric, and you go through rears like crazy,” says Sue.

They’ve replaced the clutch and also have “gone through three sets of brakes since we started this business” five years ago, she says. “We had the truck for years before that and did not have those kinds of problems.”

Explore pros and cons of hotshot trucking with this feature from Overdrive’s December 2014 issue.

COMPARING HIGHLIGHTS OF THE BIG THREE’S 2015 UNITS, by Hard Working Trucks’ Bruce Smith and staff

2015 Ford Super Duty models (F250 and up), MSRP range with pickup bed: $31K-$70K

2015 FORD SUPER DUTY MODELS (F250 and up), MSRP range with pickup bed: $31K-$70K

A key Ford innovation on the company’s original 6.7-liter Power Stroke V8 turbo diesel in 2011 was its so-called reverse-flow layout designed to improve turbo responsiveness, a key to providing torque quickly. Ford engineers have built upon that benefit as they upgraded the Power Stroke. One improvement in the latest models is a larger GT37 turbocharger that replaces the previous GT32 model, enabling more engine airflow to produce more power beyond the previous 400 horsepower and 800 lb.-ft. of torque.

[small head]2015 Ram HD models (2500 and 3500), MSRP range with pickup bed: $30K-$54K

2015 RAM HD MODELS (2500 and 3500), MSRP range with pickup bed: $30K-$54K

Working with Cummins, Ram has updated its 2015 models with a more aggressive fuel delivery and turbo boost calibration to give the 6.7-liter Cummins diesel an additional 15 lb.-ft. of torque for a total of 865 while maintaining performance and EPA compliance. The Ram 3500 offers 17,970 lbs. of towing capacity and provides a hefty in-bed payload of 7,390 pounds, made possible by challenging the truck’s 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 engine with a 100-pound GVWR increase – now 13,800 pounds GVWR.

2015 Chevy Silverado HD 2500-3500 (Equivalent GMC models: Sierra HD), MSRP range: 31K and up

2015 CHEVY SILVERADO HD 2500-3500 (Equivalent GMC models: SIERRA HD), MSRP range: 31K and up

The 2015 Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra 3500HDs received a body and interior freshening that makes them quieter, more comfortable and more efficient than their 2014 and prior counterparts. Body design improvements include the doors inset into the cabs like the 2014 half-tons and better aerodynamics for improved fuel economy, helped along by enhanced cooling airflow to the 6.6-liter Duramax turbo diesel or standard 6.0-liter Vortec gas V-8. A sturdy chassis and heavy-duty suspensions contribute to greater payload and towing capabilities.

Search these trucks’ models on HardworkingTrucks.com for more detail on each.

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