Hollywood, Indiana

For two days, the ICT shop floor doubles as a TV studio. The gray exterior of the 120-inch customized sleeper will be painted later.

On a rainy afternoon, as Amish buggies rattle past on state Highway 9, three people walk onto the shop floor at Indiana Custom Trucks to admire a new sleeper – over and over and over again. “Bonnie, be like a couple feet ahead of them,” says director Todd Lewis. “Rod, you should be laughing at Rob. Action!”

Once more, Bonnie Amaden of ICT leads two stars of “Trick My Truck” into the shop: Rod Pickett, the tattooed, Goth truck customizer, and Rob Richardson, the rumpled, amiable audio expert.

“OK, let’s get one more, just to play it safe. You guys should be like, ‘Yeah, all right, that looks cool!'”

Just off camera, they’re watched by a dozen ICT employees and friends. ICT President Elwin Eash has the same wide-eyed expression as 11-year-old Nelson Grate, whose dad drives a wrecker. Watching every minute of a TV shoot isn’t always exciting, but knowing that 21 million CMT network viewers will see the result certainly is.

“My work force is just electrified,” says ICT’s Mike Baxley. “Todd just has to whisper a request, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can do that,’ and jump to it. I told him, if he was here every day, our productivity would go through the roof.”

When the scene is finally done, Baxley asks Amaden, “How does it feel, being on camera?”
“It doesn’t really bother me,” she says. “Except when I have to say the same thing five times, and make it sound as if I really mean it this time.”

“Trick My Truck” is a reality series in which owner-operators get their rigs renovated and customized under the direction of Bryan Martin of 4 State Trucks in Joplin, Mo., and Rod and Kevin Pickett of Pickett Custom Trucks in Marysville, Wash.

In every episode, Martin gives his Chrome Shop Mafia team its assignment. A half-hour later – or 20 minutes, not counting commercials – the proud trucker has a beautiful truck, and the Mafia congratulates itself on another job well done. Off camera, it’s far more complicated.

For example, a conversation between Pickett and Richardson has to be repeated three times: once for the two-shot, in which both men are visible, and once each for the singles, or close-ups. Editors make the final version look like one simple back-and-forth.

Pickett, Richardson and a four-man production crew are at ICT in LaGrange, Ind., in mid-July to shoot scenes for the show’s second season, which debuted in September. The eight-episode first season drew such high ratings, even in reruns, that CMT first announced a 12-episode second season, then increased the order to 24.

To fill that order, Los Angeles-based production company Varuna Entertainment expanded its staff of seven to more than 40, its crews putting in 14-hour days. At the time of the ICT trip, 12 of the new episodes have been shot, six have been partially shot, and six haven’t begun.

“It gets to be stressful sometimes,” says crew member Sam Holder. “But it’s a fun crew, and everyone gets along. Plus, it’s always good to get out of L.A.”

The producers knew the show would be a cult success among truckers and gearheads, but had no idea it would be a hit with women and children, Lewis says. Fan reaction was phenomenal, he says, not only at the Mid-America Trucking Show but at the CMT Music Awards.

The stepped-up production schedule means some work has to be farmed out beyond 4 State Trucks. For this episode – the details of which are confidential until it airs Nov. 24 – $80,000 worth of sleeper work has been done at ICT, most of it finished by the time the TV crew arrived.

While Richardson is inside the sleeper, showing off its features on camera, Lewis halts the shoot long enough to seek out Baxley and double-check some terminology. He says it repeatedly: “Two-door Tundra freezer-refrigerator.”

“Eighty cubic feet,” Baxley adds. “That’s big, for a sleeper.”

Lewis nods. “Two-door, 80-cubic-foot Tundra freezer-refrigerator.”

Baxley calls after him: “You might want to practice opening that, too, because it has a latch on it. You don’t just pull it.” He adds, jokingly, “Tell him there’s a case of beer in there, and he’ll get it open.”

For much of the second day, all wait for last-minute work on the sleeper to finish so they can get their shots. While waiting, Richardson and cameraman Bradford Whitaker discuss trends in custom trucks. “Flames are really hot right now,” Whitaker says.

Richardson snorts: “Flames have been hot since the beginning of flames.”

Eash, who co-founded ICT in 1990, calls the “Trick My Truck” shoot “great exposure” for his company but is doing his best to stay out of camera range, especially on the shop floor. Eash describes himself as an idea man. “If I pick up a tool, people look at me funny. If I pick up a power tool, they run.”

ICT prides itself on figuring out a way to do whatever a customer wants done: heated floors, mirrored ceilings, central air. “What this series is about is stuff we’ve been doing for 15 or 16 years,” says ICT’s John “Woody” Wood. “Taking someone’s factory sleeper, gutting it, relining it, outfitting it.”

“It’s very satisfying and gratifying, seeing the finished product go out,” Eash says. “Sometimes, though, it’s frustrating to get to that point – frustrating not with the customers, but with the process.”

He could have been talking about television. On the second afternoon, the “Trick My Truck” cast gathers around Lewis, awaiting confirmation via his cell phone that their shoot is finished.

When the call finally comes, the crew can see from Lewis’ expression that re-shoots might be in their future. Everyone groans. Everything hinges on Lewis’ opinion of an animation that the home office is e-mailing to ICT, but downloading that e-mail is taking a long time.

“I knew this was going to be a hassle,” Lewis says into his phone. “Is there any way we could just use what we shot?

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