Running with the Big Cats
Tom Abrams is the owner of Reliable Carriers, a 35-year-old company with a fleet of 350 rigs that is the nation’s largest specialized hauler of special vehicles from concept cars, prototypes and classics (including a contract to deliver the newest Rolls Royce models to their dealerships), especially to auto shows. He’s also owner/driver of a boat of the same name, the one Wallace hauls around the country.
“Tom was driving when I met him. I had a friend who told me I’d hit it off with Tom, and so we met in a bar, and we did. We’ve been friends for about 25 years now,” Wallace says. “We started out back then driving team, and he taught me a lot. There were only about five trucks in the fleet then, and we were doing household and some cars. Tom’s dad had started the company, and after about seven years, Tom went into the office. I stayed on the road.”
And when Tom Abrams bought his first racing boat, an 18-footer, in the 1970s, Robert Wallace pulled it.
“It was a flat-bottomed thing, and man would it shake you around out on the water,” Wallace says. “We raced that boat in poker runs, going from marina to marina out on the [Great] Lakes or around the Thousand Islands in Michigan. Tom kept getting bigger and better boats, and we kept racing poker runs.”
When Wallace would pull up with the boat in tow, he always got a reaction, Abrams says. “Robert would drive in with the boat on a trailer, and, man, did he turn some heads,” Abrams says. “It had a huge impact because no one else used big tractors.”
The pair kept racing, and they kept getting better. In 2001 Abrams piloted a 46-foot boat Wallace had hauled to New York City down the Hudson River at 170 miles per hour, a record for the run, and won the King of the Hudson race.
The boat Wallace pulls today has a gross weight of nearly 10,000 pounds, and the Pete is pulling about 30,000 pounds. But the boat just squeezes under the 12-foot mark in width, so no escort is needed on the road.
“The boat is not hard to pull. It sounds simple, but all you really have to do is keep it between the white lines. When I first started pulling race boats, I was really very nervous. It was new to me, and the permits and scales and hours and all sort of new things to worry about. I learned very quickly that you have to pay attention to what’s back there. But once I got used to it, it was really smooth sailing most of the time,” says Wallace.
With the company’s backup Kenworth W900 subbing for the old Pete, the Reliable Carriers’ No. 20 Super Cat is lifted off its trailer by a crane for launching at the 33rd Street Pier in Marathon, Fla.
“The trailer axles are underneath the boat, so if I need to I can roll with some of the boat riding out over the shoulder and the trailer wheels still on the road, not on the loose metal of the shoulder.”
Truckers rarely miss a chance to call a race boat hauler on the CB or come up to a parked truck. Comments like “take that right to my garage” or “meet me at the boat ramp and we’ll go fishing” are everyday occurrences. And in the South, says Wallace, more and more truckers refer to the racers as “real big bass boats.”
And of course there are endless questions about how drivers can possibly back the boat down a ramp and into the water. “We couldn’t use a ramp if we wanted to; the Super Cat’s too heavy to float off the trailer even if we could find a big enough, deep enough ramp,” says Wallace.
While wives don’t generally flock to the races (“It’s a lot of hot, hard work with engines and boats,” says Wallace, “not really very glamorous or fun for a lot of them.”), Wallace often takes wife Annette and daughter Kirsten, 14, along for the ride. At the Marathon race he managed to sneak some time off and take them as far south as you can go in America, Key West, and gave them a tour of the famous little island, “complete with some truly bizarre sights.”
Abrams is a fourth-generation trucker. “I drove for seven years. That was my first real job, it was all I knew how to do,” says Abrams. “Driving was what I did, but then I had to move into the front office. It was really hard making that move; I was a driver.”