Big doings in the Hill Country outside Austin: Auto writers putting full-size pickups to the test, and coronating a new king every year.
Tim Spell has noticed a peculiar condition that affects Texans’ mental, physical and automotive well-being.
“I call it ‘truck-itis,’” says Spell, former automotive editor for The Houston Chronicle. “People in Texas will buy trucks even if they’re not going to haul anything heavier than raindrops. I was interviewing one guy. He had a 4-by-4. I said: ‘You live in Houston. Why do you have this 4-by-4?’ He says, ‘Well, I own a bar, and 4-by-4s are higher, and I can climb up on the cab and change out the letters of my marquee.’”
Whether for high-up urban letter-switching or more rural and rugged purposes, pickup trucks are to Texas what cowboy boots and oil derricks are to the state — a potent part of the brand. No other state has a bigger influence on the marketing of U.S. pickup trucks.
Texas is No. 1 in the country for full-size pickup trucks. More of them were sold in 2015 in the Dallas and Houston areas than in the entire state of California, according to the research firm IHS Markit. The Texas-edition truck is a product of the state’s pull on the truck world. Some truck styles are sold and marketed only in the state as Texas editions, ensuring that pickup trucks, like a lot of things in Texas, are different here than elsewhere.
“I like to say that you almost can’t overmarket Texas to Texans,” says Fred M. Diaz, a Nissan North America executive and a native Texan.
I met Diaz at the supreme manifestation of the state’s truck mania: the Texas Truck Rodeo.
It is the Oscars for pickup trucks. The auto journalists who make up the Texas Auto Writers Association steer dozens of trucks and SUVs through rocky, muddy off-road trails, critique the vehicles’ appearance and performance, and vote on the winners. There are numerous categories, but the top prize is the Truck of Texas.
Each year, the auto writers group blesses a truck brand with the title at the end of the two-day rodeo, and the winner takes out billboards, runs TV and magazine ads, revels in the industry buzz and shows off the sterling silver trophy at car shows and auto plants.
“I have seen manufacturers cry when they’ve won — literally — and I’ve seen manufacturers cry when they lose,” says Sue Mead, a freelance journalist and member of the auto writers group.
The 2016 rodeo, held in October at the Longhorn River Ranch in Dripping Springs, in the Hill Country outside Austin, left me with a new appreciation for the word truck-a-thon. Spell, a former president of the auto writers group and a founder of the rodeo in the early 1990s, drove 38 vehicles in 48 hours. At one point, I was at a cocktail social with auto executives and at another I was gripping the grab handle inside a Ford F-150 Raptor as it chewed up the countryside doing at least 90 mph.
The Nissan Titan XD had been named the Truck of Texas in 2015, and there was a lot of chatter at the rodeo about whether it would repeat, but my stuntman-style ride with Ford engineer Seth Goslawski gave me a bias toward the Raptor. It kept me alive. I liked it a whole bunch.
In 2011, Mead and her co-driver sped a Raptor 6,000 miles through South America and won their class at the Dakar Rally, the world’s longest, toughest off-road race. I, on the other hand, had trouble making my way back to the hotel in my sedan on Day 1 of the rodeo and smacked into a deer. We both survived, but let’s just say there was some nervousness at the rodeo as I got behind the wheel of a Ram Power Wagon and a Nissan Titan.
I was worried about damaging the trucks until Nissan’s Diaz told me that a rodeo journalist once took an SUV off the off-road and plunged it, purposely, into a river. Indeed, my time on the most rugged hilltop trail was surprisingly luxurious. We could have towed 18,000 pounds, but with our leather-wrapped heated steering wheels, chrome grilles and computer-controlled driving aids, it seemed we were selecting the Yacht of Texas.
At the outdoor awards ceremony, everyone gawked at the two-handled Truck of Texas trophy. In the end, it went to the 2017 Ford Super Duty. A mere 5 voting points separated the Titan from the Super Duty. John Rieger, Ford’s Super Duty brand manager, gave the trophy a long kiss in the glow of the headlights.