Towing operator enjoys spotlight of Heavy Rescue: 401

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Gary Vandenheuvel and the Preferred Towing crew are among those featured on the Discovery’s Heavy Rescue 401.

SARNIA, Ont. — Gary Vandenheuvel enjoyed watching the exploits of Jamie Davis on Highway Thru Hell, a reality TV show based on the same kind of heavy recovery operations he conducts at Preferred Towing. But he never thought about doing his own job in front of TV cameras. No thank you very much.

Then the phone rang.

“I’m from the Discovery Channel,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “and we’re thinking of doing a new series in Ontario.” Soon a camera crew was on location, and Vandenheuvel became a reality TV star in his own right.

That was a year and a half ago. Vandenheuvel and Preferred Towing are now among the operators featured in Heavy Rescue: 401, a show focused on towing and recovery activities along the province’s 400 Series highways between Sarnia and Toronto. It’s now in its third season.

Heavy Rescue 401’s Gary Vandenheuvel has been recognized as far afield as Costa Rica.

The 27-year industry veteran admits to being nervous as the first air date approached. “I was sweating it. I was worried what I would look like, how you’re perceived,” he says. But the feedback was positive, and the shows continued. He now admits to being recognized outside of the truck, not just in Sarnia but further afield. When he and his wife recently vacationed in Costa Rica, he was even spotted by a beach vendor. The show is aired in 170 countries around the world.

Episodes feature an undeniable air of melodrama, accentuated by everything from beating drums to voiceovers talking about “smashing” or “slamming” equipment. Slipping wheels are accompanied by “whoas” just before commercial breaks. But Vandenheuvel stresses that the show still offers an accurate look at the recovery efforts required when trucking goes wrong.

‘Nothing is made up’

“It gives a very accurate depiction of what we do out there. Nothing is made up. What you see happening out there happens. It’s not dramatized,” he says. A three-member crew from Great Pacific Media films the towing company’s activities from December to April. Larger recovery operations have included as many as eight crew members, drawing from similar teams in London and Toronto.

Even Vandenheuvel finds himself watching episodes “again and again and again” to critique his own recovery work, to see what he could do better. “They do drone shots and things like that that you just never would see,” he says of the added perspective.

Heavy Rescue 401 also features a second generation — Collin Vandenheuvel.

The most memorable experience, though, is having the chance to watch his son Collin establish himself in the towing industry and become a businessman in his own right.

Vandenheuvel believes the series also helps to strengthen the towing industry’s public image. “I’ve always been a very strong advocate of the industry, and I believe in the profession, and this show is really helping that,” he says. “We have a lot of people come up and say, ‘We respect what you do there, and we have a better understanding.’”

The general public’s understanding is certainly important in the push to convince motorists to slow down and move over when coming across a recovery operation.

Preferred Towing has 15 units on the job, supporting light-duty and heavy recovery jobs.

In the midst of it all, his primary business continues to be Preferred Towing and its 10 staff members. The Sarnia-based operation runs 15 units ranging from light-duty towing equipment to the heavy recovery trucks. There’s work involving float and roll-off services in the industrial community, too.

‘Everybody is free to run their business’

Producers don’t place any restrictions on the way that’s run. “Everybody is free to run their business as they do,” he says.

Any future restrictions are more likely to come from the province itself. A quick clearance committee has been revived, and along with industry associations it is exploring the potential of new rules that could help to address challenges like inflated towing costs, especially in the Greater Toronto Area.

“In any industry there is the good and the bad,” he says, when asked about peers who have been the focus of complaints. “I make sure for our company we do all the fair practices that we need to do. It’s a tough industry and we certainly have a large commitment in clearing these roadways up.”

The latest season of Heavy Rescue: 401 premieres on Jan. 8 at 10 p.m. EST on Discovery.

Click here to read how to control the cost of on-road breakdowns.

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • I really get into watching ” Heavy Rescue 401 & Highway thru Hell ” All these guys deserve alot of praise . Don’t EVER cancel these two programs, great TV watching !!!!!