There are sure to be stifled smiles and half-hearted words of disappointment all around when contestants at the 2018 Shell Rotella SuperRigs competition realize that Bill Rethwisch decided not to enter one of his trucks. Or engines. Or interiors.
Relief? That will be real.
Rethwisch, 43, with wife Sayra, built Rethwisch Transport, of Tomah, WI, into a 12-truck, hazmat-hauling fleet that earned Best of Show, Best Engine and Best Interior honors with a 2016 Peterbilt 389 at Shell’s annual event—held in Tulsa, OK, this year. Rethwisch earned $15,000 and a spot in the 2018 SuperRigs calendar with his 2017 three-award sweep, which adds to the trophies he also took home for Best of Show in the 2014 and 2015 SuperRigs contests.
For winning at such a pace and representing the trucking industry so splendidly, American Trucker has chosen Rethwisch as its 2017 Trucker of the Year.
Yet in terms of defending his multiple SuperRigs titles, he said it’s probably time for a breather.
“We’ve grown so big, with 12 trucks, and it’s still only myself and my wife,” said Rethwisch. “We’ve got two young kids; I’m just kinda tapped out. Until we get an office staff and mechanic, and get free time, I almost feel we can’t compete on that level. And I’m not going to a show halfway. If I go, I go to win.”
That mind-set has served Rethwisch well over his trucking career, which began when he started driving in his early 20s. He knew early in life what he wanted to do.
“Growing up [in Lansing, IA] as a kid, I always loved trucks,” he said. “I did a lot of trucking around with relatives when I was younger and always wanted to have a cool truck. When I started driving, whatever truck I had— whether it was a Peterbilt, Kenworth, Freightliner, whatever it was—my trucks were always clean. I kept them up and took pride in what I was doing. And I told myself if I could ever own my own truck, I would keep it clean and customize it and go over the top with it.
“Well, one truck turned into two, three, four, five and now we’re up to a dozen. It’s allowed me to put my mark on this industry and show that you can still have fun in this day and age when so many people are down on trucking. We can still go out there, make a good living, look good doing it, and make a kid smile when he goes by in a car and looks up from his iPad.”
It’s one thing to be a driver, save up to buy a truck and move ahead that way. It’s quite another to be able to take truck engines and turbochargers apart, fix what’s wrong, and put them back together. That and everything else a trucking business needs is what Rethwisch does.
“I do 100% of the work in-house,” he said. “Everything from basic brake jobs and tires all the way up to rebuilding engines and transmissions, right here in the shop. If we don’t have any of that going on, then we’ve got a very nice truck-wash operation with high-quality soaps and waxes and pressure guns mounted on tracks on the ceilings, and I’ll wash trucks all day. I’m not above doing anything.”
It is performing the complicated engine work that saves Rethwisch the most money.
“I’m a self-taught mechanic. It’s a little easier when you own all your own equipment and have enough trucks to where if you screw one up, it’s ‘oh well.’ When I did my first engine overhaul, I thought, ‘If I screw it up, I’ll just take it and get it done the right way somewhere else.’ But I didn’t screw it up. It’s still running strong.
“I did a complete overhaul on a Cummins 600 ISX with all new parts, new head, everything. Cost me $11,000. The quote I got from the dealership to do it was $27,000. Took me two weeks working on it part time.”
The urge to turn trucks into veritable pieces of art has always been within Rethwisch. His business success provided the financial might to do so. And competing was the next logical step.
“Orange is my favorite color, so the orange truck is the one I ordered for myself, which is still my truck,” he said. “A driver here chose the green one. Now, whenever we buy a truck, we let the driver pick the color.
“Years ago, I never thought about competing. I just wanted to have cool trucks. I did always want to go to the Shell SuperRigs Show. They always had that great calendar. A friend of mine invited me to go to the show in Tennessee a while back. I went and won that show.”
Thus began the regular competing and winning. Rethwisch does a lot of the detailing himself, with 10-year-old son Luke helping out, but when it comes to inside the cabs, he needs a pro.
“That’s a huge expense,” he admitted. “We do a lot of it, but not upholstery. I don’t have the mind-set of the guy that does that for us. I just say make it look cool, and he has ideas all over the place. It can be pretty easy to wrap up thirty grand in an interior.”
Other than getting some of that cash back by winning Shell Rotella competitions, Rethwisch stressed that his customers appreciate the beautiful trucks, and that’s good for business.
“We haul petroleum, gasoline, diesel and ethanol,” he said. “I haven’t knocked on a door or gone to find work in five years. I have more work come my way than I can handle sometimes. We take very good care of our customers, and they take very good care of us.
“They’re always interested in what we’re doing. We go to a lot of upscale gas stations, and they like to see upscale equipment coming in to unload at their stores. The owner of the biggest company I haul for lives 40 miles from me. I tell my drivers I don’t ever want that man to drive by one of his stores and wonder what that pile of junk is doing there. Keep the truck clean and keep yourself clean.”
Rethwisch encourages his drivers to let people have an up-close-and-personal experience with his trucks if they so desire.
“That happens all the time,” he said. “People like to take pictures. We’re proud of what we do. Little kids want to sit in the trucks. I will always make that happen for them.”
With all he’s got going, it’s not a huge surprise Rethwisch has decided to take a break from the 2018 show truck competition circuit.
Or has he?
“I’ve got a couple of antique trucks here, old cabovers,” he revealed. “When you see me back on the show circuit, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be with one of those. Something with limited mileage, an antique, with new touches but period-correct. A not over the top but really, really clean, cool old truck. I’m hoping to work on it this winter and get it out within the next year.”