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Bob and Shelley Brinker look at this year’s MATS as another time to shine

By on March 4, 2015

There’s no isolation booth, no bouquet of roses or tiara, and not a swimsuit in sight, but the winners of a truck beauty show are just as pleased as any Miss America is at her crowning.

And well they should be. Turning a regular 18-wheeler into a runway model isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires not only a great idea, but the time, patience and money to tackle everything from engine-block painting to undercarriage maintenance.

Just ask Bob and Shelley Brinker, fixtures at the Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) Paul K. Young Truck Beauty Championship and other shows on the circuit for more than a decade. Their “Legend of the Black Pearl” Freightliner Classic XL has been scooping up trophies from coast to coast, and they say that once you dive into the lifestyle, it’s hard to give it up.

“We used to love seeing trucks in the late 1970s and early 1980s that had these gorgeous murals painted on them,” Shelley says. “So we got a mural painted on our own truck. A big truckstop near where we live in Grayling, Michigan, had a show every year, and we decided to enter our little Freightliner. We took eighth place, which was really exciting to us. Then we looked at the trucks that were winning and decided we needed to do something different and more involved.”

That was around 2000, and their first effort was a dragon theme that kept them in beauty-contest hardware for about five years. After their daughter passed away in 2005, they decided to honor her memory on the next truck. Since she was a big Johnny Depp fan, they went all-out on a Pirates of the Caribbean theme, which they debuted in the fall of 2006. It’s been a rolling tribute to their daughter and the Disney trilogy ever since.

Treasure chests, octopi and second looks

Creating the “dragon truck” meant tearing the vehicle down to the metal, then gutting the interior as well as exterior. All that work went by the wayside for the even more comprehensive “pirate truck” overhaul. A ceramic floor came out in favor of a bird’s-eye maple version, and all-new cabinets and airbrushing were completed to create a captain’s quarters for the cabin. Airbrush artist Al Proulx created the look and feel of the theme, working closely with the Brinkers after the three met at a trucking show.

“We talked it all through, and he more or less laid it all out,” Bob says. “We liked all his ideas, and then we offered a few changes here and there to add to it. Then we drove the truck to where he’s based in Ontario and left it for a couple of months while he did the work.”

While Proulx was pulling and repainting the engine, among other massive chores, Bob drove company trucks so he could stay on the road. A few weeks later, it was time to head to Canada and collect the finished product.

“We couldn’t believe it when we saw it,” Shelley recalls. “A lot of artists don’t do well with faces, and he did an excellent job with all the faces and characters on the truck, including putting our daughter’s face on the hood.”

Other details, done then or completed in the following years, include adding the names of all the movies, painting octopus tentacles and cannons onto the hood, and swapping out red velvet for blue on the interior curtains and dash covers. Lanterns have gone up in the cabin (as well as being painted under the hood), and the engine continues to double as Davy Jones’ chest, a central focus of the movies.

The revamped truck got the couple even more heavily embedded into the truck beauty-contest circuit, even though it’s no small chore to get their vehicle competition ready.

“It’s a working truck, so it takes a while to get sand and stuff off it if we’re hauling up here in the Snow Belt,” Bob says. “If we’re going to a show, it’s going to be five or six days to get it cleaned up. We are careful about where we park, but even so we’ve had some damage done over the years. When that happens, we just get it repaired as quickly as we can.”


Friendly competition

Given the time and money invested in these trucks, it would be easy to think of the pageant circuit as one filled with sneaky tricks and crafty competitors. While it’s true everyone wants to win, when the Brinkers talk about their show friends, they mean their direct competition as much as anybody else.

“They’re all good people,” Shelley says. “Everybody wants to win; it’s just about who can work the hardest and the longest. It’s all about cleaning the truck. You can have the most beautiful one in the world, but if there’s a speck of dirt on it, you won’t win.”

She ticks off the trouble areas. “Underneath, U-joints, drive shafts, back of tanks, inner drums, under fenders, rims — spots you wouldn’t think about looking for dust, you’ll have 15 judges who will.”

“When we were new to the game, we thought it was ludicrous to clean underneath the truck,” Bob adds. “Then we got to the show and saw those judges with mirrors getting under there. We realized we would have to do all that. And while every judge is different, you’ve got to be clean no matter what. They’ll look everywhere, so you better be ready.”

That’s why, when asked about their favorite part of a contest, they both say “rags down.”

“That means we can’t touch the truck any more,” Bob explains. “It’s rough work, and we’re not getting any younger, so it can be tough at times. We did have our teenage grandchildren help us at one show, but it cost us more in food and lodging than it was worth.”

Hauling home the hardware

brinkers-trophyAs one might expect, the Brinkers no longer finish eighth. It’s rare that they even come in second, and over the years that translates into a lot of statuettes being toted back to Michigan. From a national championship down to local shows, they’ve collected hundreds of trophies. Some are in their home, others have made it onto nearby mantels.

“We keep the really beautiful ones, like Best of Show ones, here at the house,” Shelley admits. “But there’s only so much room for even the first-place ones.”

So they pass the loot around. A local business they frequent has about 200 of the trophies on display, and many others were given to the artists, craftsmen and others who contributed their time and talent to the truck.

“If we win something specific, like an award for the interior, we give that to the guys who did that work,” Shelley says.

Next up: trout?

The pirate theme isn’t going anywhere soon, at least not while the Brinkers’ grandchildren have a say, but the two do admit to some thoughts on the Freightliner’s third incarnation.

“We say it’s going to be a ‘camping and fishing’ theme, because we have a fifth-wheel camper that we have not touched since 2002,” Bob says. “It just sits there, because our summers involve truck shows, not camping and fishing. Every year we pledge that we will take the summer off and go fishing, and every summer rolls around and away we go to a show.”

The Paul K. Young Truck Beauty Championship is always one of the big attractions at the Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) every year.
MATS 2015
March 26-28, 2015
Kentucky Expo Center
Louisville, Kentucky

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