For Love of the Game

“I always tell people once you go to that first show and get that trophy, that’s it, you’re addicted,” says Pride & Polish legend Darian Stephens.

Stephens’ addiction began in the world of vehicle detailing and showing on the car side. He brought some of the standard show tricks to truck beauty contests as he began to compete with Keystone J.R., his purple 1995 Freightliner Classic. By all accounts, his signature traits – obsessive cleaning and detailing, and adding something new for each show – raised the bar for all truck beauty show participants who followed.

But despite his success, Stephens is quick to point out what he deems to be the most important benefit the competitions deliver: “It’s a good opportunity for guys to represent the industry and give a positive twist on things, show pride in what they do, and in their equipment and profession,” he says. “And maybe even be successful and get that trophy.”

Truck beauty competition is much like a sport: It’s nice to win, but there’s more to playing than taking home a trophy. Friendships, accomplishment, fun and pride all play a part.

“I like meeting the people,” says Darian Stephens, owner of the purple 1995 Freightliner Classic, Keystone J.R., and winner of a record seven Overdrive Pride & Polish Best of Show honors, as well as numerous other trophies. “The competition gives you an opportunity to get your truck into shape, but I like helping people out so they can do well, too. I like to see them happy to win.”

“I could care less if we ever won a trophy,” says Neal Holsomback, who with his wife, Barbara, has won five Best of Show trophies with their 1988 Peterbilt 379, Plum Classy. “We’ve had that much fun, and we’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of friends at truck shows. It’s something that Barbara and I can do together.”

And like any sport, it’s not something you can pick up overnight and expect to excel at.
Years of dedication, hard work and often lots of money go into developing and maintaining a competition-worthy truck.

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Norman and Rhonda Pike have been working to perfect Ole Rag, their Midnight Metallic Mist-colored 1998 Peterbilt 379, since they bought it in 1997. “We just started putting stuff on it a little at a time,” Norman says. “And before you know it, it’s where it is today.” The Pikes’ persistence has paid off. The couple has won their class in every Pride & Polish they’ve entered, save one, since their first in 1999 and took home Best of Show at the 2002 Pride & Polish in Dallas.

But success comes at a price. Norman doesn’t even want to speculate about how much the couple has invested in Ole Rag. All he’ll say is: “Lots of Rhonda’s Wal-Mart money went into it.”

Russ and Debbie Brown multiplied the Pikes’ investment times three. The couple made their first foray into truck shows at the 1997 Mid-America Pride & Polish with their 1997 Kenworth W900L, Pure Attitude. “Our friends Rod and Kim Grimm did truck shows and had been after us to do one,” recalls Russ. “We realized really quick we weren’t even in the neighborhood of readiness, but we changed that real quick.”

Fast enough, in fact, to take home several trophies at the Las Vegas Pride & Polish two months later. But Pure Attitude was only a starting point. The couple went on to show Razors Edge, a 1999 Kenworth W900, which earned them three Best of Show Bobtail awards, and most recently, the Harley-Davidson-themed American Thunder, a 1999 Freightliner Classic.

“We did so-so with Pure Attitude,” Russ says. “I was always chasing after Darian Stephens. With Razors Edge, I ordered the truck and did everything with showing in mind. Now with American Thunder, I basically did it to prove to myself that Razors Edge wasn’t just a one-hit wonder.” The Browns, who are talking about moving on to a fourth, as-yet-unnamed show truck, won their class with American Thunder at its first show, the 2004 Dallas Pride & Polish. “I took an old Swift truck and made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” Russ says.

Building a thing of beauty out of even a plain-Jane rig is easier today than ever before, veterans say. “You can order more stuff straight from the dealer than when I first started to show,” Holsomback says. Even custom touches, such as lengthened frames or stainless fenders, are easier to come by. “There were only four people in the country when we started,” says Karen Zander, who has been participating in truck beauty shows with her husband, Harvey, for eight years.

And while building a show truck may not be as tough as it used to be, the hard work of cleaning and detailing hasn’t changed. To prepare for judging, Stephens and other successful contestants dress and letter their tires, color in their mudflaps to match their truck colors and lie underneath their trucks to touch up chipped paint. “You don’t just go out and spend 10 grand on chrome, run it through a truck wash and wonder why it doesn’t win,” Stephens told Overdrive after winning his third consecutive Best of Show title in Louisville, Ky., in 1998.

Jeff England, a longtime Pride & Polish participant, agrees. To prepare for last year’s Pride & Polish in Dallas, he and four helpers hand-rubbed the entire trailer, “sides, underneath, every inch.” The extra effort paid off when his 2002 Peterbilt 379 extended hood took home Best of Show Combination, as well as several other trophies.

Truck show veterans who win – and keep winning – do so in part because they continually strive to differentiate themselves from the competition, Pike says. He tells of being at truck beauty shows and having another contestant pull in with a rig almost identical to his. “They copy what wins,” he says. “I can’t blame them. They want to do good.” Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a big reason why Pike says he keeps making small changes to Ole Rag.

Contestants don’t influence only each other. Neal Holsomback, for one, believes truck beauty shows have spilled over into other parts of the industry. “There’re more good-looking trucks on the road now than there’s ever been,” he says. Compared to the 30 or 40 show-quality trucks around when he started, “Now you see trucks running down the road that could clean up and win,” he says.

And that’s good for the image of the industry. Pike says the attention his truck gets on the road is like “a truck show everywhere you go.” For example, a DOT inspector who pulled him over told him: “I should’ve had my sunglasses on when I came up alongside you,” Pike says.

The pride contestants take in their own rigs doesn’t keep them from building strong friendships – even among fierce competitors. Harvey and Karen Zander, who have won multiple trophies with Icy Blu and Icy Blu 2, consider Mike and Bonnie Burns, who own Dream Catcher, their best friends. “People ask: ‘How can you be best friends and compete?’ ” Karen says.
“It’s because we’re always in each other’s corners – a true friendship,” Harvey says.

Sometimes tragedy brings the truck beauty show community together. Neal Holsomback recalls his first show, the 1997 Pride & Polish in Atlanta, where fellow contestants Mark and Andrea Yeats left early when they learned their teenage son had been killed in a car accident. The contestants took up a collection for the Yeats family, forging a bond that remains today. “We still see Mark and his wife at all the truck shows,” Holsomback says. “The ones who were there in 1997 have all become real good friends.”

Pride & Polish veterans say the friendships they’ve built and the pride that comes from driving a head-turning rig motivate them to keep showing. And if their creativity and hard work pay off with a few trophies, so much the better. It is a competition, after all.

“You don’t want to feel like you’re bragging,” Holsomback says.

“Yes you do,” Barbara says with a laugh.

But in the end, for those involved, owning a working show truck goes beyond taking home the most trophies or getting on a calendar or the cover of Overdrive – the equivalent of a sports hero making it to a Wheaties box or a Sports Illustrated cover. More times than not, the work outweighs the glamour, but it’s worth it.

“It’s truly a lifestyle, not a job,” says Heather Hogeland, longtime contest veteran with the 1999 Kenworth W900L, Total Obsession, she owns with her husband, Roger. “It’s about our love for our truck and showing it off for our industry.”
Laura Crackel contributed to this article.

Before winning their first Best of Show Combination award, Neal and Barbara Holsomback and their son Jay spent two days cleaning the tractor and trailer, including 13 hours underneath and seven on the outside of the trailer. But whether or not he’s getting ready to show Plum Classy, his 1988 Peterbilt 379, Neal says he cleans underneath it once a month.

Fanatic? Maybe. But Neal says he learned everything he knows about proper pre-show preparation from fellow show truck enthusiast Victor Verret, owner of a 1994 Kenworth W900 named Blew By U. Because they help each other clean even if they are both competing in the same show, they’ve worked out a compromise. “If he wants to show his truck in a show, we both work on it,” Neal told Overdrive after Plum Classy won Best of Show Combination at the 2002 Pride & Polish in Dallas. “If we want to show our truck, then he helps us show ours.”

Russ and Debbie Brown’s American Thunder boasts a Harley-Davidson look inside and out.

The 1999 Freightliner Classic features 7-inch headlights from a Harley motorcycle, a hood pull designed by Russ to resemble Harley handlebars and stainless step boxes with Harley foot pedals. The interior has orange cabinets, stitched Harley patches in the upholstery and Harley emblems in the middle of the steering wheel and on the gauges. Curtains made of Harley flags hang on stainless shower curtain hooks. The transformation took a mere three weeks last year, just in time to compete in the 2004 Pride & Polish.

And the Browns are not necessarily finished – with this truck or the thought of more show trucks. “I think I’ve still got another truck or two in me,” says Russ, whose previous entries, Razors Edge and Pure Attitude, are among the classic Pride & Polish winners. “I’ve got ideas on a new theme, new truck, when I get bored with this one.”