Haul of Fame
Trucking reality shows give drivers a chance to show off their skills
By Katie Neal
“In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d ever be on TV,” says Wayne Pelletier. From an early age, he knew he would drive for the family logging business, Gerard Pelletier, Inc., in Millinocket, Maine, just as his six older brothers had.
But nearly 20 years after he went to work with his family, a local TV producer approached the Pelletiers about filming them for a reality show. Soon, viewers were tuning in to the Discovery Channel’s American Loggers to watch Wayne and his brothers do a job that is regularly classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as among the most dangerous.
“Being in the business we’re in, and so far from civilization up here, I never thought people would be interested in what we do,” he says.
And they might not have been if not for the surprise popularity of the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers. Now in its fourth season, the groundbreaking show follows a group of drivers who transport goods north of the Arctic Circle on a harrowing journey across roads covered in ice and snow.
“It’s a thankless job — hard and cold. I wouldn’t recommend it,” says Hugh “The Polar Bear” Rowland, who’s starred on the show since its inception. “But it’s nice when people say they love your job and enjoy the show. That makes it worth it.”
Ready for their close-up
The stars of TV’s trucking shows were trained to do a very specialized job — not perform for the camera. So it wasn’t easy to adjust to having a crew filming their every move.
“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” says Kelvin Locklear, whose K&J Chrome replaced the Chrome Shop Mafia in the latter seasons of CMT’s hit Trick My Truck. “In my mind, I couldn’t make any mistakes. But by the second week, things were flowing. By the end, it was really fun.”
Pelletier has also relaxed as American Loggers prepares to enter its third season, though it can still be nerve-wracking to do a dangerous job with the cameras trained on him. One thing he’s still getting used to is adding another element to an already complicated job.
“In my day, every minute counts. The mill closes at 6, and you never know what problems will arise,” he says. “The crew kills some of my time.”
Earning the public’s respect
Pelletier, Rowland, Locklear and their castmates present a markedly different image of truckers in pop culture than the last time the profession captured the public’s attention. In the 1970s, films like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit glamorized the life of a trucker as free-wheeling and rebellious, sticking it to “the man” and going his own way. Country music hits like “Six Days on the Road” reinforced the modern-day cowboy comparison.
While the trucking TV shows of today certainly capture a spirit of adventure, it’s not exactly romantic to watch Rowland narrowly avoid spinning out or Pelletier handle a double trailer. True to the “reality” moniker, the shows offer the unvarnished truth about the demands of skilled labor and its place in today’s economy.
“It was cool to have friends of mine who never had any interaction with trucking call me and talk about Trick My Truck,” says Locklear. “They used to only see a truck as a big obstacle as they tried to get across town.”
The challenges of the job have surprised and impressed even friends and family of drivers on the show — Rowland says his wife is more nervous about his safety on the icy roads than ever, and Pelletier recalls his mom giving him a big pat on the back after the first episode aired.
For an industry that has battled negative stereotypes for years, it’s refreshing to see the public perception start to change.
“People see a truck going up and down the road and think it looks easy, but there’s a lot of work behind it, a lot of testing your nerves and your skills,” Pelletier says. “They respect us more now. I’ve done this all my life and it’s finally being recognized.”
A boost for recruitment
More than just improving the image of truckers, trucking reality shows may also be attracting more people to the profession. Though the economy has been tough on owner-operators, trucking companies are still reporting a shortage of drivers, especially for long-haul positions.
“Since the show started, I’ve had more applications for drivers than I ever have in my life,” Rowland says. “I’ve hired a couple drivers from them, but it’s not like I need that many! I’ve talked to big trucking outfits who say they’ve been swamped with calls, too.”
It also may help shore up the sagging maintenance side.
“That is a dying breed — we don’t see enough young men and women coming into the mechanic or accessory side,” says Locklear, “It’s really important for them to know it’s a field you can be very successful in.”
The idea of seeing truckers at work has attracted so many viewers that the genre continues to grow. A spin-off of the Pelletiers’ show, Swamp Loggers, has proved just as popular and will return for its third season this fall. IRT: Deadliest Roads also recently debuted, taking several ice road truckers on a death-defying mission in India.
But the success of the shows doesn’t mean you’ll find their stars ditching the driver’s seat anytime soon.
“I think more than other industries, trucking isn’t just a job,” Locklear says. “It’s a passion and a way of life.”
Indeed, most days, customers are still greeted by Locklear when they walk into K&L Chrome. The Pelletiers are grateful for the small boost in business, but their on- and off-camera days are pretty similar.
“People think I’m a rich, retired movie star now,” Rowland says, chuckling. “But right now I’m standing in work boots and shorts, buying parts. I’m just going to keep doing what I do.”
Reality or Made for TV?
It’s a question for the ages: Just how real is reality TV? The stars of TV’s trucking shows say it’s a pretty accurate portrayal.
“That’s real,” says Rowland of the dramatic rivalry between him and fellow driver Alex Debogorski that makes for compelling television on Ice Road Truckers. “It’s been going on for 30 years. He used to be a bouncer and he’d get me thrown out of bars.”
Pelletier says some events, such as when his brother Danny’s truck caught on fire, were reenacted because the film crew wasn’t there to film the actual event. But nothing is invented for dramatic effect.
“We’re not actors — I don’t have any lines,” he says, laughing. “I don’t change my ways at all. I just go and do my job.”