Makeover mobsters
Ozark chrome shop turns rust buckets into raving rides

Aaron Ladage
staff writer

Picture this: you're parked at a truck stop, minding your own business, when six guys from the mafia roll up and offer to make you the star of your very own reality show. The only catch? You have to let them give your heap of a truck a world-class makeover, worth tens of thousands of dollars, at no cost to you.

Talk about an offer you can't refuse.

For this mafia - better known as the Chrome Shop Mafia, headquartered at

4 State Trucks in Joplin, MO, - turning old beaters into competition-worthy beauties is what they do every day.

From crumbling Kenworths to pitiful Peterbilts, the Mafia has been one of the players in truck beautification for the past 15 years.

But that level of secrecy and ambiguity is all about to change.

Feb. 3, the Country Music Television network was scheduled to begin airing "Trick My Truck," a new weekly series that documents the "boyz" as they give jaw-dropping makeovers to the trucks of eight owner-operators. They include two OOIDA members, Darlene Swift of Taylor Ridge, IL, and Jeff Crane of Gardiner, ME. Check local television listings for specific airdates and times.

"It's a little mix of everything," said Todd Lewis, producer and director of "Trick My Truck." "We're not going to be screaming and yelling at each other like, say, an 'American Chopper,' and we're not going to be making these completely useless machines, like a 'Monster Garage.' Ours is a mix of 'American Chopper,' 'Pimp My Ride' and 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.' We try to go for the good feel."

That "good feel," as Lewis described it, is what he said separates "Trick My Truck" from the rest of the reality-makeover-show crowd. Well, that, and the fact that no one's ever attempted to install plasma televisions, in-cab waterfalls and bone-jarring stereo systems in 10-ton-plus vehicles on national television before.

Although most of the show's episodes hadn't aired as of press time, Land Line got an exclusive sneak peek at one of the trucks, owned by OOIDA member Darlene Swift, while her episode was being filmed in Dec. 2005.

Details about the rig's modifications are hush-hush until after the episode airs, but the modifications include a spectacular paint job that depicts one of Darlene's favorite pastimes. There are also plenty of amenities to help her relax inside the cab, and enough high-end electronics to stock a small Best Buy store.

The total cost? Lewis wouldn't be specific, but to estimate into the upper-five or lower-six-digit figures would not be unrealistic.

Despite all of the extravagance, one characteristic remains true in every truck the Mafia cranks out - usability. After all, Lewis explained, these aren't meant to be show trucks or collectibles. When the episode is done filming and the truck leaves the shop, it still has to be put to work on a daily basis.

"These trucks have to run," Lewis said. "We can't make a truck that can't run, because these people still have to make their livings as drivers."

With a crew of about 25 people spending six to eight weeks - about 450 man-hours - renovating each truck, another concern was raised: The trucks' owners still had to work while their vehicles were in the shop. Western Star stepped in and donated several trucks, which kept the truckers in business while their trucks received their facelifts.

Watching the Mafia work, it's hard to believe that the show almost didn't happen.

Lewis's production company, Varuna Studios, had already come up with the idea for a truck-makeover show, but he and his co-workers were struggling to find a group of specialists who could turn each owner-operator's dream into a reality.

"We're based out of Los Angeles, and we went up and down the coast, talking to different people, people that should have their own television shows," Lewis said. "But there was something about it that just didn't feel right."

It wasn't until Lewis and his crew gave up on the Hollywood scene and ventured inland making a very important stop at TruckerFest at Hot August Nights in Reno, NV. It was there that he first discovered the Mafia, decked out in gray T-shirts emblazoned with their signature Tommy-gun logo.

From that moment on, he knew that the Mafia would be the star of his show - even if it meant relocating an entire film crew to Missouri for several months.

"Joplin's been unbelievable," Lewis said. "We couldn't have done a trucking show in Hollywood, because there's nothing there for truckers. But in Joplin, you've got 4 State Trucks, and (some) of the most traveled highways in America. We couldn't have done it this well anywhere else."

Five of the show's cast members - Bryan Martin, shop manager; Scott St. Germain, upholstery; Rick "The Scrap Yard Dog" Stone, demolition; C.B. Grimes, chrome; and Rob Richardson, audio/video - are Joplin natives. However, painter Ryan "Ryno" Templeton of Southern California, and brothers and fabricators Rod and Kevin Pickett of Marysville, WA, were flown in to work on the show.

"You look at some of the other shows, and it's like they found the shot, but not the personalities," Lewis said. "We got so lucky with our cast. Each one of them on camera is just a different personality, and you know distinctively who you're looking at each time. These guys aren't actors, they're shop guys . so you're seeing the real thing."

Many of the show's cast members, including Richardson, weren't actors before "Trick My Truck" came to town. The audio and video specialist started his career at a car stereo shop in Joplin.

"It takes a little while getting adjusted to having a bunch of cameras in your face, and knowing that when you're building something that they're going to have to film this, and laying it out in stages and steps," he said. "That way, the people watching it at home can see exactly how we do each and every one of these projects."

Although he began working on four-wheelers, Richardson said growing up in such a trucking hot spot made installing audio and video equipment into trucks a natural progression.

"Being here in Joplin, there's a lot of trucking going on, so you grow up with that always around," Richardson said. "The big-screen TVs are the ones that just blow me away. It's kind of funny to know that you've got TVs in some of these trucks that are bigger than the ones most people have in their houses."

By the time the Chrome Shop Mafia's finished with a truck, an enormous television isn't even its most eye-catching feature.   

From bumper to bumper, every inch of a "Trick My Truck" is chrome-polished, paint-sparkling perfection. But Lewis said the real star of the show isn't the truck - it's the truck's owner, who works hard every day to create a positive image of the trucking industry.

"We want to show people out there that these truckers are basically responsible for everything that you have in your house. At some point, it was on a truck," Lewis said.                 

"These people go home maybe a week out of six months, so maybe two weeks a year. They have families to support, and are very deserving of a show like this and what we're doing to these trucks."



Big Honkin' Truck Makeover

With a crew as ambitious as the Chrome Shop Mafia, building enough custom trucks for an entire television series just isn't enough. So when filming wraps up on "Trick My Truck," the boys will set to work on the winning truck from the Big Honkin' Truck Makeover contest, sponsored by Castrol Tection Extra.

   Jeff Fields, an OOIDA member from Tully, NY, was chosen as the grand-prize winner of the Big Honkin' Truck Contest at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas on Aug. 27, 2005. His baby-blue 1979 Peterbilt cabover - complete with broken headlights, rusted rims and blistered paint - will receive a $50,000 makeover from the Chrome Shop Mafia crew.

   The truck's transformation will be revealed in March. Keep an eye on Land Line for photos of the makeover, as well as coverage of the Mafia's efforts on the "Trick My Truck" series.