'Every day it hurts to get up': Owner-op overcomes physical challenge for successful career

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Steve Massat's 1989 Marmon 57P
Steve Massat bought this 1989 Marmon 57P in 2014 with the intention of it basically being a toy and something he takes to truck shows. Two years later, however, after restoring it, he decided to make it his daily driver. He's since put about a million miles on the rig, which still boasts its original 425-hp B-model Cat.

Owner-operator Steve Massat got his start in the business like countless others -- he was raised in it.

His father was a truck driver who drove and took care of equipment as part of Massat’s grandfather’s construction company. When Massat was around 9 years old, he was taught how to properly grease the trucks, check the oil and other tasks. By the time he was 11 or 12, he was changing tires and fixing flats to make a little extra money -- $3 a tire for every flat he fixed.

Massat’s father’s great uncle was also in trucking, owning a hazardous waste hauling business in the Chicago area.

“He and my dad were close,” Massat said. “He’d come down to the yard after work, have a couple beers and talk" with Massat's dad. "He admired that I was working, so at 8th-grade graduation, he asked me to come work for him.”

That summer, Massat took a job working on his fleet of Macks. He did that until he turned 16, balancing school and work. At 16, Massat got his Class D chauffer’s license and started driving for the company after school, from about 3-10 p.m. every day. He’d drive an F-Model Mack into downtown Chicago to the hospitals to pick up hazardous waste.

He did that for a couple years, and when he turned 18, his dad encouraged him to invest in the future. If he was going to keep driving a truck, he should go buy one and be an owner-operator -- like as his father had been, the elder Massat told him. At just 18 years old in 1988, Massat bought his first rig -- a 1978 Mack. He and his dad rebuilt the cab, repainted it and put a wet kit on it, and he went to work hauling gravel and dirt around Chicago.

He also received some life-changing news when he turned 18 that would have ended the careers of many. He was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis just a month after he bought that first truck. A year later, the Mayo Clinic "came out and gave me all this paperwork for disability," as Massat tells the story. "I said, ‘No, get that away from me. I’m going home and going back to work.” 

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Steve Massat with his 1989 Marmon 57PSteve Massat, now 53, has been trucking as an owner-operator for most of the last 35 years, despite having been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis just a month after buying his first truck.Now, 35 years since buying that first truck and receiving the diagnosis, Massat has been a successful owner-operator throughout, save for a brief two-year stint as a company driver. Even through that time, though, he kept his own truck plated and insured to stay active as an owner-op.

Massat said it’s been a rough road for him physically at times through his career, particularly in recent years. He was on a good medicine for a while that “did wonders for me,” he said, but now, “every day it hurts to get up, but you do it. I love my job.”

That perseverance, both in business and personal realms, led to Massat being named Overdrive’s Trucker of the Month for August, making him a semi-finalist for Overdrive’s Trucker of the Year award for 2023.

2023 Overdrive Trucker of the Year logoOverdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year program recognizes clear business acumen and unique or time-honored recipes for success among owner-operators. It seeks nominations of owner-operators whether leased or independent throughout the year. Nominate your business or that of a fellow owner (up to three trucks) via this link.

Trucking through the years

Massat ran that first ’78 Mack around Chicago for three years. After he'd turned 21, he got a job offer from one of the companies he had been hauling for, so he took it and parked the Mack. That job lasted for two years until the owner of the company passed away from cancer unexpectedly, at just 48 years old.

The company shut down, so Massat went back to his Mack, which at that point needed work. He spent a couple weeks on rebuilding efforts, then drove it for another six months, making pretty good money on a big job in the city, he said.

He wanted to buy a new truck, and he had always had a thing for Marmons, dating back to when he was a kid. He talked to the Chicago Marmon dealer and found one he liked that would fit his needs. By the time his bank's loan was approved, a friend of his who had owned a nice Mack offered to sell him his truck and trailer combo.

Massat talked to his dad about the deal, and they decided that would be best, since he would also get the trailer. In the fall of 1993, he bought a 1989 Mack R-model with a 1991 HilBilt Mongoose end dump. Three months into working it, construction season shut down for winter. He "sat back doing some things waiting for spring to start,” and one morning he went to the yard to find the truck was gone.

“Somebody stole the tractor," he said. "Left the trailer, but stole the tractor. We never did find it.” The Marmon remained in the back of his mind, yet the dealer didn’t have anything that would work for him at the time.. He used a new bank loan on an International.

[Related: A stolen truck, a freight scam lead to big re-evaluation on the road to small fleet success]

“I told my dad I’m going to pay it off quick and spec out a new Marmon,” he said. “About two months before I was ready to do that, I opened up the pages of Overdrive magazine” and saw an article informing readers that “Marmon Motor Company was closing their doors.”

A couple years down the line, he finally did spec out a new rig, but it was a 1999 International that would be his bread and butter for the next 17 years. The first exhaust-gas-recirculation systems, which Massat saw at the Mid-America Trucking Show around 2004 via demonstrations, made him forever reticent to go that same brand-new route again. He'd asked a Caterpillar engineer there at the show how it all worked, and when he was told the exhaust is pumped back into the clean motor without a filter, he felt certain it would cause problems.

“A couple years later, instead of buying a new truck, I built a big garage,” he said. That garage is where he’s done all of his maintenance and other work on trucks ever since.

A new toy becomes a daily driver with solid maintenance plan

Steve and Wendy MassatSteve and Wendy Massat together run Mandy's Trucking, leased to Manteno, Illinois-based T Max Transportation. Steve handles the driving, while Wendy handles the back-office paperwork.Around 2013, Massat told his wife, Wendy, that he needed a toy. He saw friends with motorcycles, snowmobiles, boats and things like that, “and all I do is go to work.” But he wasn’t interested in those kinds of toys. He wanted another truck “to put it in the garage, tinker with it and take it to truck shows.”

In 2014, Massat was transitioning out of the construction business. He sold his trailer and found a 1989 Marmon 57P that he wanted to buy. “Half of the money [from the sale of the trailer] was for [his wife, Wendy] and the house. I got the other half for my Marmon” to “grease the skids a little bit,” he joked. He drove the truck back to the Chicago area from Alabama, “never really intending to run it.”

After spending a couple of years fixing or replacing components like belts, hoses, air lines and brakes; adding automatic slack adjusters; and more, he started running the truck full time in 2016. He also did the paint work in his garage. “It’s not the greatest paint job, but it looks good from 50 yards away,” he said.

To keep a 34-year-old truck running for the approximately 140,000 miles a year Massat runs leased to T Max Transportation, he changes the oil in the 425-hp B-model Cat -- the truck’s original motor -- every 10,000 miles, and he greases all the necessary parts every two weeks. In 35 years as an owner-operator, Massat said he’s never had an oil-related problem on any of his trucks. When he sold his 1999 International in 2016, with more than a million miles on the odometer, it still had the six original slack adjusters on it. “There is a testament to maintaining your vehicle,” he said. “If you take care of it, it will last you.”

He replaces shocks every four years and batteries every three. And as long as the outside temperature is above 5 degrees, he tries not to idle the truck on nights he doesn’t make it home with the goal of prolonging engine life.

[Related: Work-life balance as an owner-operator, small fleet owner: You have to built it]

With T Max -- hauling empty soda cans, five-gallon buckets, 55-gallon drums and Behr paint to Home Depots in an area encompassing 12 states -- Massat is usually home every night or every other night, with his sweet spot for a run being five hours out, five hours back. Chicago to to St. Louis, for instance. T Max operators are also home every weekend, so Massat dedicates Saturdays to working on the Marmon to make sure it’s ready to run the following week.

Mike Olenick, owner and still driver for the 11-truck fleet, has known Massat for about 15 years. Having him as part of the company is “indescribable,” he said. Of his nearly a dozen drivers, Olenick said he’d “take one of him for every three guys working for me.” With 42 years in trucking, Olenick knows guys like Massat are “very few and far between, that type of caliber.”

The owner-operator's knowledge about the trucking business writ large, truck maintenance and more makes him the success story that he is, Olenick added, noting that Massat’s Marmon “is more reliable than the 2023 that I’m currently driving.”

The only downfall to driving the antique is the fuel mileage. Massat said he averages around 5 miles to the gallon, sometimes up to 5.5, depending on the freight and how the wind is blowing. “If I’m going South on I-57 and the wind is blowing up out of the South, you might as well drop a gear and run 55,” he said. “Sometimes you have to use your head and say ‘it ain’t worth it.’ You might be a half-hour up the road [by not slowing down], but I’m not going to burn an extra 40 gallons of fuel.”

He has added an extra fuel tank to his truck, though, so he carries 375 gallons when he fills, allowing him to be more choosy on when and where he buys fuel. He also has a fuel card through T Max that offers discounts at the pump.

Managing, inside and out of the business

Massat’s wife, Wendy, handles most of the paperwork for their Mandy’s Trucking business, named after their daughter. T Max pays out weekly, and Massat’s checks are deposited into his business account. Wendy then writes a check for his and her salaries, filing taxes as a S Corp for the profitable, debt-free business.

“Without a good woman by your side, it’s a hard business,” Steve said. Wendy also makes sure bills are paid on time and that license plates, insurance, and IFTA are kept up. There's more to her role than that, too.

“Any time I need a part or something and I’m coming home late, she’ll go to the local Peterbilt dealer or wherever and pick up a part for me," Massat said. "It saves me time when it comes time to fix something.”

And while it does cost a little more to keep an older truck running, with higher costs for both fuel and maintenance, Massat said he’s averaging between $12,000 and $20,000 a year on maintenance, not counting his time. He said that’s “very close to what I spent” when he had the International, but he also had a trailer at that time, meaning more tires, brakes and other costs.

“It’s a little more expensive to run it, but I don’t have any emissions problems,” which he said he sees with other trucks in the T Max fleet. “It’s almost impossible to make it as an owner-operator with a new truck” because of emissions systems. Even with a warranty, “a warranty doesn’t pay for downtime.” If you’re sitting for a week waiting for a sensor, “that’s a week out the window. ...

“I’ve had two brand-new trucks in my life -- it’s nice to have a brand-new truck. But to have that much stacked against you, I’ll take my old truck any day, and I know what I got.”

[Related: 'Destined to fail': Trucking sounds off to EPA on new Phase 3 emissions regs]

Massat has been a participant in the Special Olympics Convoy local to him every year but one since 2009 -- and that year his truck happened to be down on the weekend of the event -- making sure that he’s home and off work to attend. “I always make that one, for sure,” he said. He attends local events that support military veterans, suicide awareness, the Shriners and more. He’s been a member of the American Truck Historical Society since he bought the Marmon in 2014 and attends local chapter events.

“It’s good to give back,” he said. “I’ve been lucky and fortunate to do the job I love. I’ve never worked a day in my life, and it shows, because even my kids now ‘want a job like dad has,’” -- not in the sense of driving a truck, but they tell him, “I want to do a job like you where you’re always happy, you’re always in a good mood, you’re always having fun. You’re working long hours, you’re out working all weekend in the barn, but you’re always happy, always in a good mood.”

Massat said he believes that’s key to getting through life, but especially trucking, where drivers “get so much stuff thrown at you between a shipper or receiver,” wrestling with traffic and so much more.

He’s also been taking a little bit more time off “and trying to enjoy life a little bit this year,” he said. 

[Related: Owner-operator Crystal Rives makes hay of car-haul work in Texas]