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HOT SHOT TRUCKS


The Class 7 Sterling Acterra is a popular expedite truck.

At first they were a secret - or so one operator thought. In 1978, a Miami-based specialized carrier had begun running 1-ton "dually" pickups as road tractors, pulling 40-foot dropdeck flatbed trailers to haul high-cube commodities. Shippers paid the same rate as if the cargo went on a big rig, but the dually and lighter-weight trailer cost less to buy and operate, so the fleet made more money. However, the company wanted no publicity on the innovation because it didn't want its competitors to find out.

Never mind that hundreds of owner-operators were running the same kind of truck throughout the central states in a then-new phenomenon called "hotshotting." The name was taken from the use of big dually pickups to haul suddenly needed drilling supplies to oil fields.

The business became known by the more descriptive term, "expedited freight," and grew as manufacturers quit stocking huge quantities of production materials in favor of just-in-time truck deliveries.

When JIT wasn't enough or factory managers didn't guess right on what assembly lines required the next day, they rush-ordered pallets of panels or boxes of screws or whatever the lines suddenly needed in a few hours or by morning or they'd have to shut down the factory. So it continues today, because emergency shipments still cost less than warehousing.

Auto parts formed the nucleus of expedited freight hauling, but it expanded to include everything from human blood and other medical supplies to presentation materials that a sales executive forgot to take with him to the airport.

As the small, but active niche within trucking grew, so did the size and heft of its trucks. Pickups soon broke down under the loads they were called on to pull. Big-block gasoline engines and light-duty drive axles weren't made to take the constant pounding that drivers subjected them to, so by the mid '80s most trucks and tractors were based on stronger medium-duty chassis.

For a time, imported cabovers from Japanese builders were popular because of their commercial-grade diesels and overall quality and reliability. As domestic builders dieselized their midrange conventional-cab products, they gradually took over the business. Straight trucks with van bodies and sleeper boxes became common sights along interstates throughout the central and eastern United States, where much manufacturing is concentrated.

"Service is everything" in this type of trucking because one shipment is picked up fast and delivered quickly - usually overnight and sometimes the same day - by the same truck and driver, says Lawrence McChord, general manager of ExpeditersOnline.com, an online clearing house for truckers and businesses that cater to them. Last month, his company sponsored its fifth annual Expedite Expo, a two-day gathering of people and products near Detroit. Dealers who specialize in trucks for "emergency" freight showed off purpose-made vehicles, many of them premium medium-duty straight trucks with huge, nicely appointed sleepers and cargo boxes of various sizes. Engines of 250 to 300 horsepower and Allison automatic transmissions are the common powertrains.

Lots of 3/4- and 1-ton Ford, General Motors and Dodge cargo vans have made money for their owners, and even smaller vans are used for courier-like duties. Some are set up with sleeping accommodations - usually limited to a bunk and some drawers and shelves for spare clothing.

Now the hot smaller truck is the Mercedes-built Sprinter van sold by Freightliner and Dodge dealers. Some Sprinter owners testify that they get 23 mpg running 80 mph while carrying a ton of freight, sometimes twice the fuel economy they got with their cargo vans. And the larger volume of a high-roof, long-wheelbase Sprinter sometimes commands a slightly higher pay rate.

A typical expediter's truck is a Class 7 chassis with a sleeper and a 22-foot box, driven by a team of two - "everybody wants teams" - said Jeff Jensen, editor of the news sections at ExpeditersOnline. This is a "D unit" - part of a classification system set up by the old Roberts Express - and is considered by carriers as capable of carrying a load of 13,000 pounds. A C unit - a Class 6 or 7 truck with a 16 or 18-foot body - can carry a 5,000-pound load. A and B units - mini and cargo vans, respectively - obviously carry lesser loads. An E unit is a Class 8 tractor-trailer that might tote a 40,000-pound load, but often much less.

Pay is still good, though not what it was in the heady late '90s, when rates were $1.50 to $3 a mile and more. Owner-operators now typically gross $1.30 a mile, McChord said. "And I just talked to a guy who took a load from Cincinnati to Denver and back at $3 a mile, both ways, in a medium-duty truck."

Why would anybody want to run an expensive big rig and make 85 cents a mile when he could spend half the big rig's purchase and operating costs on a midrange truck and make two or three times the money? Because driving a big rig is macho and driving a small truck isn't. That helps explain a trend among expediters toward Class 8 trucks. More and more of these are appearing as owners seek longer vehicle life, more room and comfort, and the satisfaction of driving a near-big rig, said Jensen.

Some operators believe that a midrange chassis is not meant to run constantly over the road. They're willing to pay a premium price- not to mention the 12% federal excise tax on Class 8 vehicles - for a truck that will easily last 10 years, whether or not they actually keep it that long. A properly spec'ed medium-duty truck will go seven years.

Expedited freight is a small niche, with fewer than 5,000 owner-operators active, said Jensen. "It's a shadow area for people who do the numbers on trucking and transportation." O-o's are leased to companies like FedEx Custom Critical, the successor to Roberts Express, as well as to Landstar Express America, Express-1, Panther II, All Types, CTX, EGL and others.

Perhaps hundreds more drivers work for big fleets that carry truckloads of emergency freight as part of their team-driver divisions.

Schneider National, for example, dispatches a standard tractor-trailer to pick up a load of "distress" freight and carries it long distances, said Dave Geyer, vice president and general manager for truckload services.

Schneider also brokers loads it can't handle itself, plus less-than-truckload or short-haul shipments that might well be picked up by one of the expedited companies.

Teams driving for the TL carriers earn good money because they keep moving, Geyer said. Expediter drivers make money through higher rates, but they spend more time sitting. Expediters can wait for days if they end their runs in places where the freight ain't; while that's not unusual in trucking, it happens more often in expediting. Wise operators learn where the freight is running - almost like fishermen following their prey - and get there to be in position to grab the next load.

In any case, people more concerned with financial success than self image tend to enter the expedited freight business. Some folks find that it's a cheaper way to see the country - or at least the industrialized part of it, as few loads go coast to coast - than owning a motor home. Many of them come from other lines of work and are new to trucking, so are not as impressed with huge equipment. And they're happy to avoid the physical limits that vehicle size and weight put on their personal lives. Because with higher pay, if they don't thumb their noses at big truckers, they could.

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expediter medium duty midrange straight truck