Big winners at Large Cars & Guitars: Minds, hearts, elemental trucking camaraderie

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Updated May 15, 2024
Trucks facing Large Cars & Guitars stage
As in past years, some of the custom rigs on hand were positioned in a semi-circle around and pointing toward the big stage, where an array of musical acts performed. Those included Overdrive's own Long Haul Paul Marhoefer and the great Tony Justice himself, along with well-known artist Darryl Worley. Past Trucker Talent Search winner/current owner-operator Taylor Barker had been scheduled to perform but couldn't make this year's event. We hope he's doing well.

A big congrats is in order for the Mann family of Maryland and their White Pine Paving breast-cancer-awareness 1998 Peterbilt 379 dump truck. At this weekend's Large Cars & Guitars event at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, Tennessee, I-40 exit 407, the truck earned the single award offered up at what's a big event for owner-operators and drivers all around the Southeast and beyond for trucks, camaraderie, music and so much more. 

Bryant D. Mann, longtime White Pine company owner, and that "Ribbon Runner" dump truck took home the Kids' Choice award at the third-annual event. Attendant to the first Large Cars event in 2022, we told the story of how Ribbon Runner came to be what it is today after serving some time in the Maryland small fleet, with Mann influenced by a longtime friend, Debbie Schaefer. He and the team designed and built the rig in honor of her, after which names of individuals touched in some form or fashion by cancer continued to be added to the truck as requested.

The video below features a conversation telling parts of that story -- and previewing Bryant Mann's plans now brought to fruition a couple years later -- recorded in 2022 at that inaugural Large Cars event.

Yet while the Manns may have bagged Kids' Choice, I'll personally tip my hat to concert-tour-hauling owner-operator John Highley, a past Kids' Choice winner himself with his big-bunk W9, for the most-engrossing-trucking-conversation award. (Yeah, Large Cars organizer Tony Justice and team don't officially give that one out, though maybe that gives him an idea for the future.) And that's amid plenty superlative attractions and no shortage of conversation about them to choose from. 

Semi-Casual custom shop's pair of custom 2024 Pete 589sBrian Bourke and company were on hand with these two custom Peterbilt 589s built by Semi Casual, headquartered on the site of Fitzgerald Peterbilt in Crossville, Tennessee, due west on I-40 from the Large Cars site. Bourke noted the trucks and many custom adds Semi Casual developed for the 589 (now available through the company for 589 owners) debuted at the Mid-America Trucking Show this year. There, I caught up with Paccar and their Genuine Accessories line for the 589 but somehow missed this pair there, not at all far from the Genuine Accessories booth. (Bourke and company utilized some of the Paccar Genuine line in the interiors of both of these trucks, actually.) Nonetheless, glad I caught them and Bourke here. Keep tuned for more on these two slightly different takes on a custom 589, with the orange one tricked out front to back, the black model with a less intensive approach -- on the exterior, anyway. (But wait till you see the dash and doors inside.)

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 Rob and Karen Hallahan in custom golf cartNext time you run into small fleet owners Rob and Karen Hallahan (pictured here in a custom golf cart painted to match their Joke's on You Pete 389), ask the past Small Fleet Champ finalists how they got into (quite recently) hauling livestock.

Chris and Landon Helton and their 2005 InternationalVirginia-headquartered coal-haul small fleet Topher Trucking is helmed by Chris Helton, who collaborated on this unique dump build with his son, Landon (also pictured).2005 International PayStar coal dumpThe truck is a 2005 International 5600 PayStar with a number of nice touches that came straight from the creative mind of 10-year-old Landon, including the American flag tarp up top. The double-bumper treatment up front was unique to the whole show. Hats off to the Heltons on this build.

2005 International PayStar at nightLooks great at night, too -- Helton shared this photo of the truck taken during the Large Cars light show.Chris Helton

Pair of uniquely colored Peterbilt 389sThis pair of perfectly unique-colored Peterbilt 389s in the father-son fleets of Mack (Mam-Zak, the 2019 on the right) and Myles (the West Lawrence Logistics 2023 on the left) Parker were up from Town Creek, Alabama, where the companies are headquartered. Both were being showcased by their respective drivers, past TMC flatbedders on board for a hopefully longer-term small fleet home within the father-son companies.Jarad MullinxFlorida-based former police officer Jarad Mullinix pulls in the 2023.

Lee NurseAnd at his first-ever truck show, with just barely three weeks on the job for Mam-Zak, Lee Nurse out of Conyers, Georgia, was stoked to be behind the wheel of what he called a "real truck" after prior experience.

Tony JusticeWhile I didn't get much time to catch up with this busy Large Cars organizer, he's important enough to have a personal name tag on his golf cart, I do believe, here shown on a live-stream drive-by of sorts.

There was a lot going on to say the least (here's another quick tip of the hat for best pizza to the White Pine, Tennessee, mobile brick oven-style pie purveyors on hand). So why tip the ol' hat to John Highley. Well, part of it has to with his dog, Scooter, rescued some years ago at a truck stop where the pup was dumped malnourished, skinny as a rail, yet ready to be loved, Highley said. 

John Highley's dog, ScooterScooter and I had a little conversation of our own, as you can see. (It was a good-natured bark, don't worry. Just saying what's up, as it were.)

Did Highley and I talk about the creeping "commoditization" of even specialized freight markets in this ongoing down period -- markets where, like generic vans and reefers are often viewed, freight negotiators seem to want (nay, demand might be better) carriers compete only on price? 

Did we talk about solutions therein? 

[Related: Efficiency or die? In a tough market, 10 mpg never looked so good]

Did Highley proffer a resurrection of 1980s-era anti-drug campaigns -- Just Say No! -- as a principal way owner-operators can take such matters into their own hands? 

Did we talk about the tide turning toward the better, just when that might occur, and come to no new real resolution beyond what others have been saying? (Though didn't Highley note that at least on a westbound trip out across I-40 with stops in Amarillo, Texas, then in Kingman, Arizona, space in the parking lots at the truck stops there did in fact give him hope demand would turn soon?)

We did talk about all that and more, but who doesn't? Who hasn't over the past year and more of exceedingly difficult business conditions for truckers of all stripes. 

This conversation -- and this show in general, too -- did more for me. Reminding me of just what we all too often forget or pay only scant lip service to in the storm and stress of the big stories of the day. Highley spoke to things elemental to the trucking profession, and a desire to consistently remind younger generations of them -- most importantly, doing more than just "sharing the road," as the saying goes, with the nonprofessionals around you. 

Owner-operator Highley had it hammered into him from a very young age that the professional trucker's duty is to go much farther. At its most basic, he said, "the job is not hauling freight. It's protecting the people around you on the road. And it's the ones you hate the most that it's your duty to work the hardest to protect." 

He'd recently come upon an example of just that -- the four-wheeler who's in a hurry, passing a tractor-trailer fortunately in the left-hand lane but unfortunately fast coming to the very end of his lane in a construction zone with Jersey barriers up ahead. The rig on his right, Highley noted, didn't downshift, didn't hit the brakes, didn't bother to make any move whatsoever to help the four-wheeler not do what would certain well end in disaster -- hitting those barriers or running up under the trucker's trailer even, in an emergency evasive maneuver. Results here could easily have been catastrophic. (Fortunately in this case, the four-wheeler was able to correct himself with a plenty dramatic slowdown and risky merge behind the truck, Highley saw from his view from behind the scene.) 

Why didn't the truck's driver do more to mitigate the situation? Chance he never saw the four-wheeler, though Highley doubted that from his vantage. Holding speed in that kind of situation out of pure principal -- I had the right of way -- is certainly the wrong call, Highley said. "Come on, that's just not who we're supposed to be out here."

It's chaos early and often on the big road, for sure, he suggested, yet it's part of the job reign that in, the keep it at bay, to actively pursue those goals. I feel like, too, that's what shows like Large Cars & Guitars are designed to do, of a fashion. Jury's out as yet on the final tally for its drive to raise money for cancer survivor and research support, yet I suspect we'll find an ever-increasing haul in that regard if past results are any indication. The laid-back nature of the competition here, with kids' votes the sole deciding factor, is simplicity, anti-chaos in action. Locals come from all around the region there to talk a walk through the chrome and the paint, the pride and the polish, that's right. Music soothes the soul, excites the mind and heart by turn. 

Here's to Highley for a long swapping of stories, and to Large Cars more broadly for just being what it is, a low-key but affecting gathering of some of the best trucking's got to offer. 

Best wishes to them for continued success next Spring, and I hope to see you there. 

[Related: Nominate an exemplary owner today: Overdrive's 2024 Trucker of the Year award]