American Trucker host parlays childhood passion into customized role
Who is trucking’s biggest fan? Arguably, Robb Mariani would be a shoe-in for the title. His energy and enthusiasm for trucks, truckers and the trucking lifestyle are unmatched.
Within a minute of pulling in the lot of Bill’s Truck Repair in Sanford, Fla., Mariani is showing off his pride and joy, a black 1974 Ford W9000. But his enthusiasm isn’t limited to his personal property. He is just as pumped as he introduces me to the shop’s owner, Bill Goolsby, and chief mechanic, Lew Bailey. He chats about the trucks in the shop for repairs and shows me the back lot of older trucks and trailers.
While Mariani, host (and one of three executive producers) of television series American Trucker on the Speed Channel, isn’t a trucker or a certified diesel mechanic, his passion for all things trucking is well received. Truckers seem pleased to have someone carrying the torch for them, and American Trucker has been picked up for a second season with new shows airing this month.
So how did the 43-year-old interior designer and artist become the chief ambassador for trucking? Well, it’s not exactly a straight path to overnight success. Just like a trucker who shows up for delivery across the country, Mariani traveled a road chock-full of curves and obstacles.
Mariani credits Truckers News’ sister publication Overdrive magazine, trucking movies like White Line Fever and Smokey and the Bandit and an adventurous upbringing as the foundation for his love of trucking.
“Growing up in Milwaukee, I had a grandfather who drove for Schlitz and another grandfather who drove for Gateway and Yellow,” Mariani says. “One of my grandfathers had a subscription to Overdrive that I read religiously and that fueled passion for trucks and truckers. That was my inspiration.”
Mariani’s grandparents often would take him to the Union 76 truckstop in Oak Creek, Wis., for pie and ice cream. Quickly gobbling down the treat, the youngster, armed with a 110-speed Kodak camera, would fearlessly stroll up and down the rows of trucks chatting with truckers.
Cross-country trips in his parents’ 1968 Lifetime motorhome also gave him opportunity to talk to big rig drivers when the family stopped for gas and coffee. “I’d jump out and run up and down the lined-up trucks with my copy of Overdrive and yell things like ‘Oh, my God, that’s a Peterbilt 359,’” Mariani says, laughing. “I would knock on the doors of trucks and talk to the drivers about what kind of engines they had. They would let me inside the trucks to look around and take pictures.”
Building 1:25 scale models was also an outlet for Mariani to get his truck fix. At $25 apiece for a model kit, he collected recyclable materials from his grandmother’s tavern and worked odd jobs like mowing lawns and cleaning garages until he had enough money to visit the hobby shop. “I would take my money and go buy a kit,” he says, “and then I would have to figure out if I wanted to paint it like it was on the box or like I had seen one in Overdrive,” he says.
Cementing everything for the young Mariani was the popularity of trucker movies and television series in the 1970s. Hence the desire to one day own a 1974 Ford W-series like the Jan Michael Vincent character, Carol Jo Hummer, in White Line Fever. And then when Smokey and the Bandit came out …
“My grandmother and I went to see Smokey and the Bandit five times in the theater,” Mariana says. “That was probably the apex of the 1970s trucking movies. Then came along B.J. and the Bear. All things trucking were cool and revered. It was in the pop culture. I thought I was ahead of the curve. It was the golden era for me.”
While a career as a trucker would seem to be the next logical step for someone with such a hunger for trucking, his creativity got in the way. Since about 4 years of age, Mariani had been drawing trucks and engines, and his artistic talents steered him in another direction. After being recognized in a state art contest in Wisconsin, as well as a national competition, he went to college in Milwaukee to study graphic design. Still, he didn’t completely let go of trucking. He worked for a trucking company on the loading docks while in college.
Even while working in the video gaming industry and later doing interior design, he still found himself lured onto Internet sites, combing through photos of trucks. In 2003, he finally found the truck he had wanted since he was a kid. The ’74 Ford cabover is a rare find, considering it has only 53,000 miles on its original 290-horsepower Cummins engine. That’s because it had been used by law enforcement to haul equipment.
While getting the truck ready to restore, he keeps the Ford at the Sanford shop, where he feels he gains valuable truck expertise from Bailey and Goolsby (a former trucker) and the latter’s two sons, Keith and Dean.
Mariani’s idea of a television show spotlighting trucking gained momentum after that purchase. While he had the concept in mind, it was a hard sell to television producers. But just like any good trucker who comes across a roadblock, he found a detour.
One day while watching the HGTV Network, he saw a casting call for a reality show called “Design Star” that promised the winner his or her own show. Mariani sent in a video of his portfolio the day before the deadline. He got a call from the producers the next day.
“They said, ‘Let me get this straight,’” Mariani says. “’You are overtly straight, you have a cabover Ford and you do interior design?’”
Mariani finished in the final four in the second season of the show. It turned out to be the catalyst he needed. “I’m so glad I didn’t win the show,” he says. “I didn’t want to win the show. My whole agenda was to get to the other side — to get someone to listen to me about a trucking show.”
The person who listened was Steve Beebe, a freelance film director and producer. Two years later, the Speed Channel picked up the show, which debuted in February in the 10 p.m. (Eastern Time) slot on Thursdays.
“It’s been great,” Mariani says of the first season. “I’m looking forward to the upcoming season. And it’s amazing to get letters from people who are not truckers. People who say they are lawyers and have always been crazy about trucks.”
But the bottom line for Mariani is to tell the story of the truckers and trucks that make the industry unique.
“Trucking has changed in many ways,” he says. “But in many ways it’s the same. The road is still the road. It doesn’t matter if you have a Qualcomm next to you or just an AM radio. It doesn’t matter what decade of trucking you started with, the aspect of the road and the wheel and the freedom is still there — it’s still intact.” ●
TN: Favorite color?
RM: Too many of them. I’m an artist.
TN: Favorite food?
RM: Italian food.
TN: Favorite song?
RM: Old Merle Haggard songs.
TN: Best trucking movie?
RM: Tossup between Steel Cowboy and White Line Fever.
TN: Trucking-related person you’d like to meet?
RM: One of the truck designers who did the Ford W-series.
TN: Favorite things to do in your downtime?
RM: Look for trucks.
TN: Something that’s always in your fridge?
TN: Do you have pets?
RM: Two cats, Salvador and Trixy.
TN: Greatest inspiration in your life?
RM: My grandmother, Molly Moran, a.k.a. The Wad. She ran moonshine in the ’30s. She was a truck driver. She had a creed: ‘A person is only as good as his word.’ She was my mentor.
FILMING AN EPISODE AT GATS
Robb Mariani and the production crew will be filming an episode of the American Trucker at this year’s Great American Trucking Show in Dallas, Aug. 25-27. The show will revolve around Mariani’s participation as a judge at Custom Rigs’ Pride and Polish Truck Beauty Contest.
First-season episodes included the restoration of an original B.J. and the Bear truck, NASCAR haulers, Mariani getting his commercial driver’s license, as well as a segment on his own truck. The second season begins this month. For more information visit www.speedtv.com.