When Alex Debogorski laughs, your first instinct is to seek cover. It’s the laugh of a tickled giant, a giddy Zeus. Thunderbolts, you’re sure, have dislodged boulders on a mountaintop somewhere and they are about to fall on you right now. Seek cover.
That laugh is one of the many Debogorski characteristics that make him exactly that: a character, one that makes him a fine fit for reality television. A regular on History Channel’s reality show Ice Road Truckers, he’s managed to return for seven seasons and ride the wave of whatever level of celebrity a reality show star can reach.
Dobogorski has other defining characteristics that make him a highly entertaining character to watch: opinionated with a unique way of phrasing his words, funny and intelligent, passionate and tender when needed, flawed and human in a very relatable way.
That’s your first lesson if you want to become a celebrity trucker.
“If you wanna be on reality television, you gotta be a character. You can’t be bland, you gotta have something,” he says point blank. “If you want to make a reality show, they don’t want to hear the story or the idea, they want to know who the characters are. It doesn’t matter if you are a poet or a musician, it’s about playing people; you gotta make them laugh, you gotta make them cry, you gotta make their emotions go up and down.”
Reality television has found a character goldmine in the land of blue collar professions (or the complete opposite of that: rich, bored housewives and Hollywood husbands). Thing is, your chances of becoming a reality television star are slim to none. You’d need to be in the right place at the right time and own the right personality.
But if there is an industry where a segment of workers are more prone to becoming celebrities, it’s trucking: provincial associations have their Driver of the Year awards, industry magazines collect cash and prizes so they can award a lucky trucker every year, and truck manufacturers recruit drivers to represent their products and brands at trade shows and dealer events. Carriers, too, will elevate their best drivers and trot them out at recruiting events. These drivers become local celebrities for a time, often called upon by mainstream or local media for stories on the industry.
And while that level of celebrity is perhaps nowhere near the level of an Ice Road Trucker, it’s not that far off and it’s still a pretty swanky deal.
Last summer Freightliner invited trade media to the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas during the Great American Trucking Show. Fat shrimp, fancy cheeses, tasty meat, and some fine wine and beer greeted journalists, along with a small contingent of owner/operators.
The O/Os were part of Freightliner’s Team Run Smart program, a group of hand-picked owner/operators whose job is to share tricks of the business with other truckers, attend trade shows and dealer events, and blog regularly.
Before dinner was served, each driver got up and gave a small speech, not on Freightliner trucks, but rather on what they knew best: fuel economy, fitness, business operations and so on. For the O/Os, this was a big deal.
“These guys are kind of journalists now and they get to go to events that they normally do not get to attend because of their status,” explains Mike McHorse, marketing segment manager, on-highway, Freightliner Trucks. “And to some of them, honestly, it’s a bit intimidating and I was impressed that they were able to get up in front of you people and talk. That was a big deal for them and they aren’t used to doing that. They love these things but they also fear them a little bit too.”
Team Run Smart member Linda Caffee echoes McHorse: “Giving that talk at Dallas was so far out of my comfort zone it was unbelievable. We’re truckers and we’re not real social. It pushes us outside our comfort zone and it’s thrilling.”
Companies want drivers. It’s good for business when Volvo picks up Ice Road Trucker Lisa Kelly to represent its brand, and good for Manitoulin Transport when Debogorski flies its colours for an entire season.
Take a quick look at the trucking community on Twitter and you’ll see numerous drivers vying to be picked up by a company, the proverbial “For Sale” sign hanging around their necks.
“I’m not looking for people to talk about how they love their Freightliner,” explains McHorse when asked what characteristics he looks for in driver representatives. “I’m looking for people that are successful at the business and are willing to share their success and how they achieved it.”
He wants to see passion for the industry, a willingness to share and be involved.
So what do these gigs pay? Not enough to quit your day job.
McHorse says they compensate Team Run Smart members for any downtime due to industry events, and they also get a Freightliner truck, but it’s a lease deal, not a free truck.
“It sounds like you get a pot full of money but by the time you’re done with a couple of agents and Revenue Canada, when you knock everything off at the end, it’s not any really big deal,” Debogorski explains. “It’s better than working two months on the winter road here, but I can’t stop working – I live in Yellowknife! My costs are $15,000 a month here. If I was like Lisa or some of the other people with a mobile home downtown, I’d be doing great, but I don’t: I’ve got equipment and payments on that equipment. If you’re not here all the time, then you lose your business. People aren’t going to wait for some celebrity truck driver to come back. Every time I come home I’m basically waiting to do a job.”
(Still, he admits, it has improved his financial situation to a degree).
By all accounts, being a celebrity trucker is more like having two jobs.
“Last year Lisa and I did five truck shows in the United Kingdom. I was in Louisville again this year. I did a six-week, 42-stop book tour with the longest tractor in the world. So that’s a lot of things people wouldn’t be doing otherwise,” Debogorski explains.
“It’s worth the investment to go to truck shows and learn about new products because it’s good for business,” Caffee notes. “But yes, it is a time commitment and sometimes it is inconvenient to do some of these things but the payback in our own personal growth…it’s not a get rich program but it is an intangible asset. It brings excitement and diversity to what we do, it keeps our minds focused and active by talking to people and learning about our equipment.”
No matter how big of a celebrity you are, there’s a responsibility, Debogorski says.
“I’ve had the opportunity to touch people all around the world. There’s seven billion people in the world, that’s a book with seven billion pages and you have a page in this book. And if you make your page a better page, you make it a better world. And a lot of times we’re responsible for other pages, and if you can lift somebody else up, we make a couple of more pages better pages.
“I was in Wisconsin a couple of years ago meeting 850 people a day for two days in a row: I’ve got 30 seconds to make eye contact, a connection, give you some advice, tell you a joke, lift you up, say something to the kids and maybe take a picture and try to leave you better. Sometimes people say ‘You made my month,’ for what-ever reason. Well that’s a big thing. I’ve improved the world for a few days for somebody.”