Want to win big? 8 tips to create a show-stopping Semi

The world of competitive show trucks is a big one, with the passion for perfection running high. Top tier events are regularly held around the country with show fields ranging from just a few dozen trucks to over a hundred. It’s tough to stand out from the convoy of custom builders, single-truck operators and fleet competitors who participate in the thrilling points chase on the way to be crowned champion.

Every competitor understands the importance of cleaning every inch of their rig. The process takes hours and typically involves the driver’s family members and friends. (Photo by Matt Avery)

It’s not just eye-level judges are looking at. They’ll get under the hood and even up high when evaluating a vehicle. Every nook and cranny needs to be clean.

Chat with a champion

To find out exactly what goes into creating a winning rig, I caught up with Steve Sontag, the owner, and operator of Always Haulin Auto Transport.

Steve is no stranger to big, custom trucks or trophies, having garnered the 2018 AMCAN Grand National Champion for his ‘Dreamsickle’ Peterbilt, taking the honors in the Limited Mile Combo class. His experience isn’t limited to just the one truck: at the AMCAN Wisconsin event, he brought out his fleet of ten head-turning car haulers. Each is one of a kind, being customized and personalized to stand out.

8 Tips to Create A Show Winning Semi

From my conversation with Steve, he gave me the scoop on what’s hot, what’s not and what it takes to win. Here are eight tips and trends that go into top-level, trophy-taking builds.

1. Wrap-around Bumper

Up front, the face of semi-trucks are dominated by the thick, chromed slab that is the front bumper. While the factory will bolt on bumpers that are effective, they’ll be lacking in fit, finish, and pizzaz. Swapping it out for a taller, aftermarket bumper will tighten the gaps between the bumper and the body. In addition, stock units end in sharp, creased edges, whereas aftermarket ones will wrap around the sides, drastically improving the truck’s look. They can be custom tailored to match the radius of not only wider, replacement fenders, but the front tires, too. For even more drama, drivers will add LED button lighting.

2. Retro Paint Schemes

What’s old is new again with retro 1970s and ’80s splashy graphics and paint schemes making a gnarly comeback. Big, bold patterns with bright colors are in. A few years ago, Peterbilt even offered customers the option to add these groovy getups right from the factory. Many of the designs that drivers apply aren’t vinyl wraps, but rather painted on.

3. J-Bracket Headlights

Swapping out the headlights makes a bold statement and many Peterbilt drivers, like Steve, are installing what are known in the hobby as ‘double J’s’. These slender, chromed brackets give off an old-school hot rod vibe. They also allow for a newer, dual bulb setup, complete with LED lighting, adding to improved nighttime driving safety.

3. Watermelon Lights

A red hot trend is adding domed ‘watermelon’ lights to truck cabin’s interior. These clear cones come in a variety of bright colors and add vivid accenting. Typically, their LED hues are color-coordinated to go with the rest of the truck’s overall theme.

5. Fiberglass Floors

While it may not be as cozy as carpet, top-level builds will change out the floor for a fiberglass unit. That’ll allow painters to go wild, applying glossy, candle apple coatings that can be matched to the truck’s exterior. The move also helps with functionality. Drivers report the new floors are easier to clean, with a few squirts of Windex doing the trick.

For day-to-day use, bath mats are put down to protect against workboots’ scrapes and scratches.

6. Shaved Frame

One slick way to spruce up a semi is to ‘shave’ the frame. From the factory, different heavy-duty bolts will be run through the frame to add strength to various cross-members and internal components. The bolt heads are left visible. Advanced builders will go about removing them in order to give the frame a clean look.

Along the way, other brackets that have stamping or embossing on them will be filled in, too. The process is quite laborious, involving numerous rounds of welding, sanding, and sealing, but when complete, it takes a truck to the next level.

This type of intense mod isn’t cheap. For a typical length of frame, the process runs from $15,000 and on up – and that doesn’t include paint.

7. Interior Overhauls

Just as nothing is left untouched on a custom truck’s exterior, a show winning cabin will be fully gone through. Exterior design themes are frequently brought in and usually include bold, bright colors. From the headliner to the floor, no component will be left untouched. Materials will be upgraded, getting exchanged for leather, polished steel, suede and more. Technology isn’t left out with LED accent lighting, speaker systems and TV’s also getting installed inside. All of this isn’t just for the front row but will be carried to the sleeping and cargo area, too.

8. Unique Name

When it’s all said and done, a custom truck needs to have, and display, a proper name. That’ll help give the build a unique personality, making the special ride all the more memorable to those who see it. Usually, humor shows up, such as a truck that once hauled dairy products getting the moniker, ‘Milk Money’.

For an extra touch, many drivers will swap out the truck’s factory-installed badging for custom crafted ones, bearing the truck’s new name.