AT CHAMPION TRAILER, they don't churn 'em out en masse with a cookie cutter.
Somebody has to do it that way, because so many end users need the products that require mass production and uniform specs. But Marc Kennedy, president and CEO of Champion, is just glad he's at a place where variety is a way of life. Every trailer is different, because every customer's needs are different.
By the end of this year, Champion probably will have built 24 trailers at its 80,000-sq-ft facility in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville. Most of the customers will be race teams from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), International Hot Rod Association (IHRA), Indy Racing League, and NASCAR, but Champion gets special requests from a variety of entities interested in a high-end trailer.
“It's a fun business,” Kennedy says. “You never know who's going to walk through that front door.”
Champion designs and builds race-car transporters, corporate hospitality and exhibit trailers, mini-semi, tag-along, gooseneck, single- and double-expando display trailers, and specialty motor coach trailer conversions.
Customers coming to Champion for the first time frequently ask for a list of available options, not knowing that the word “options” is not part of the company's lexicon. Champion's question to the customer is, “What features do you want?” The recent requests have included expandable sides, deep-drop-wheel axles, all-hydraulic, “no-chain” rear liftgates, and “dead-quiet”, tractor-matching, contoured-generator-box packages.
“With a lot of companies, 80% of their product is what they want to do,” says Mike Brotherton, executive vice-president of sales. “You may get to pick a few items, but they're pretty inflexible.
“This company has always been recognized as one that will work with you. When these trailers used to cost $100,000 and you couldn't get them in a timely fashion, you kind of took what you could get. But now some tractor-trailer combinations cost $400,000 to $500,000, and if you want certain options and the manufacturer is not willing to do that, then you look for another manufacturer. We try to give our clients exactly what they ask for.”
Numerous Features Possible
The interiors can include high-quality, durable aluminum cabinetry, designer European laminate cabinets, leather sectionals, central air conditioning, Corian and marble countertops, hand-laid tile floors, and state-of-the-art audio-visual and computer systems.
“Everything's a one-off situation,” Kennedy says. “I'd like to standardize some things, and we may do that in the future. But almost everything we build is totally customized. The customer has maximum input. In some cases, they bring their interior decorators and we work with them on how they want to structure their lounge and the type of wall coverings they want.
“We have to think about how sophisticated the trailer is, especially when we're committing to delivery. The more input the customer has, that obviously creates more difficulty in getting the trailer produced in a reasonable length of time. Design-wise, we have to ask ourselves: ‘Have we done something like this in the past? How close is it to something we've already built?’ We'll look at it and say, ‘OK, this is only a little bit different,’ or ‘This is something totally new that we need to really do testing on.’”
Last year, one customer chose laminate that is shipped from Italy only two or three times a year — meaning that if the timing of the order does not match the shipment, there can be delays. When Champion informed the customer that the trailer would be delayed by at least two months, the customer chose to wait, rather than chose another laminate. Champion was planning to display that trailer at the Performance Racing Industry Show in Indianapolis, but it never made it to Indy.
That's just one of the necessities of the niche in which Champion operates.
‘Big Horn’ Trailer
Champion has produced some intricately designed trailers, but none more so than the one for “Big Horn.”
“Big Horn” is a 19,000-lb, 9½' high, 27' parade float and motivational tool used by Hyler Bracey, a nationally acclaimed consultant, author, and public speaker. It features the world's largest horn and whistle museum on wheels, including a Verdin Bell Carillon, Tangley Circus Calliope, 55 antique steam whistles, 46 air whistles, 18 train, boat, submarine, and truck horns, four ship horns (including the world's largest air horn), 21 fire alarms, emergency, railroad trolley, fire truck, carillon and train bells, two US Navy destroyer steam sirens, and one fog horn.
Bracey first became fascinated with horns when he worked as a tugboat deck hand in Port Arthur, Texas, during his high school years. He put a boat horn on his first RV and started scouring the country for horns and whistles, adding to his RV's fascinating exterior. After his life dramatically changed in 1970, when he was badly burned and nearly killed in a NASCAR Late Model Sportsman stock-car racing accident in Mobile, Alabama, he decided to build a vehicle that could be used as a tool to inspire people to make their dreams come true. His final creation was “Big Horn.”
But how would he transport it?
After hooking up with Kenworth at The Gator Nationals in Florida in 1999 — and ultimately choosing a T2000 powered by a Detroit 12.7L Series 60 with 430 to 500 horsepower — Bracey turned his attention to the trailer.
Bracey wanted full living quarters in the front section — something Champion had never done.
He also had a 19,000-pound vehicle with only 7" of ground clearance and only 3/4" to spare on each side, so Champion was commissioned to design a system that could load the vehicle. The result: two eight-ton winches had to be centered, and 3½" high ramps were made out of 1/4" steel. With the ramp having a lip on each side, they put lubricated plastic between the width, pinching the outside of the front tires and the inside of the back tires to guide the vehicle up the ramp.
Six large hydraulic jacks were installed on the trailer, so that when “Big Horn” was loaded, air would be let out of air bags in the trailer and remain in the tractor. The back door would be lowered to a flat end, and winches would go to work and jack up the rear of the trailer. Four jacks were put under the rear suspension and two under the front.
In addition, Champion designed a utility bay on the side of the trailer for all sewer dumps, air, water, and a 50-amp plug, so that Bracey's RV-driving friend could hook up. Champion also installed a propane system, which Bracey says he hadn't seen anybody else do.
In the living quarters, Champion answered one of Bracey's requests — to find a way to install a TV without using up a large chunk of living space — by installing a Sanyo True SVGA compressed XGA LCD projector with 1250 Lumens and a 43"×57" tensioned cosmopolitan electro automatic electric projection screen.
Bracey says that after he took the trailer back to Georgia, he discovered some technical glitches. What happened next was what impressed him: Champion immediately repaired them at no charge.
Trailer a Godsend
Bracey doesn't mince words. He says Champion has “helped me live my purpose” on this planet, which he says is to “inspire people to live a healthy, joyful, productive, spiritual life.”
He says the final cost of the trailer — $350,000, part of a $515,000 expenditure that included $140,000 for the modified truck and $25,000 for graphics — is something he doesn't have to justify to himself.
His first reaction when he saw the paint job: “Breathtaking.”
Champion doesn't cut corners anywhere, particularly in the paint process. When race teams pull their trailers into tracks on the high-profile circuits, the exterior is what everyone first notices. To produce a sharp, eye-catching exterior, you need a modern paint facility. And Kennedy says Champion has an 80-ft-long, down-draft, heated facility that can accommodate any tractor-trailer combination.
“We're very fortunate,” paint specialist Jeremy Miller says. “I don't think you're going to find too many booths like we've got. A lot of times we try to get quick turnaround times where we'll clear one today, and then we need to sand it and re-clear it as soon as we can. If we didn't have the bake cycle on the booth, you're talking about a three-day process before we could even sand it. Since we've got the drying capabilities, we can paint it, bake it one day, sand it the next day, and clear it on the third day.”
Champion uses House of Colors, a vibrant scheme that Miller describes as “the neatest paint in the world.” But he also says it's the most “finicky.”
“It's hard to find automotive shops that will work with House of Colors because it can be difficult,” he says. “And we're doing it on trailers. You can't rush anything in the process, especially when you're dealing with House of Colors. It's a really technical product. It was a challenge when we first started using it. Now it's no big deal.”
Smooth Sides Facilitate Paint
Champion's construction process makes the paint job easier and far more attractive. They produce smooth-side, rivetless trailers by taking a flat piece of aluminum, breaking off the corners and huck-bolting them together, and putting the side posts on the inside. They also use a thicker material, which prevents the sides from producing a rippling, waving effect.
“A riveted trailer doubles the times it takes to paint,” Miller says. “If a stripe goes across a rivet, you have to cut the tape and use paper tape to push up inside the rivet.
“The paint work can only look as good as what you put it on. A lot of times in collision work with cars, if you've got a body man who does a so-so job, the paint job's never going to look right because you're always going to see the waves.”
If they are artists — and there certainly is some evidence to suggest that — Miller says they have the best canvas on which to work: the smooth-side trailer.
The five-step process starts with the entire trailer being sanded with 180 grit sandpaper. Then they spread one coat of VP-54 sealer over the bare aluminum and two or three coats of base. Champion's paint supplier is Valspar.
Then they apply two or three coats of clear.
With graphic elements, the job gets much more complicated. For example, if the buyer's design contains a yellow stripe, they actually paint the entire trailer yellow, then go back with blue fine-line plastic that curves easily, covering the portion that is going to remain yellow. It's a lot easier than guessing where the yellow stripe's going to be.
After finishing the intricate painting of the design, they add three coats of clear, cure them, and then sand it back down.
“You're basically stacking paint on top of paint,” Miller says. “You can feel an edge. So after we put three coats of clear, we sand everything flat. As you sand it, you can see a shiny edge where the two pieces meet. You sand it until that shininess is gone. We go back in and re-clear coat the trailer to make the stripes less noticeable.”
An Intricate Process
There is no such thing as a small mistake. For example, the paint job they did for a trailer designed for Arnie Martel Jr, who races in the NHRA's Super Stock class.
In this case, Champion's supplier shipped some recycled thinner — not the 100% pure thinner it normally uses. It contained some contaminants and would have been fine for cleanup, but not for paintwork. The result? The paint blistered.
Miller says that the paint job that most pleased him was the one for the Martel trailer — blue and yellow lightning bolt-type shapes with red trim. “Big Horn” was the most difficult, because unlike Martel, there were exact places where the tape had to be laid.
Lighter Weight a Huge Factor
While aesthetics are important, so is weight. Kennedy says the trailer, with the exception of the suspension box and fifth-wheel area, is aluminum.
“Everywhere we can, without losing the integrity of the product, we're weight-conscious,” Kennedy says. “If we can take a pound out here or five pounds there, that's what we try to do.
“Every race team carries a lot of equipment, to the point where in many states, they're overloaded. If they're going to California, they may stop in Phoenix and rent a storage building and store some of the six or seven engines they carry, or the spare crankshafts or cylinder heads. Or they'll go together with three or four teams to rent storage and say, ‘OK, we're going to California, where the weight laws are stringent. We can't afford to get caught there because not only will they fine us, but they'll park us until we unload.’ So 5,000 pounds, even 2,000 pounds, is a major deal.”
Kennedy says the beauty of the operation is that they don't need a lot of sophisticated machinery. They can do everything on a Cincinnati press brake (175-ton, with a 10' bed) and Cincinnati shears (12' bed, shears up to 3/8" steel).
Champion was founded in 1986 by Harold Peck, a former sprint car racer who was frustrated by the cookie-cutter mentality of the industry.
Brotherton says its reputation was good from the very beginning. And he should know. He's a former IHRA and American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) world champion who also raced on the NHRA circuit during his eight-year career from 1987-95.
Brotherton obviously operated out of numerous trailers during his racing career, so he developed some strong ideas about what worked and what didn't work. He believes his experience and knowledge is a bonus.
“I get to see a lot of people I've had long-term relationships with and they understand when they come to me that I've used the equipment and I know what it's like to be stranded when something's broke,” he says. “I also know what it's like to have to use something that wasn't designed to do the job.
In the beginning, Champion serviced only the NHRA market, building trailers for legends Kenny Bernstein and John Force. But in the wake of the company's sale in May 2000 to Indianapolis-based Durham Whitesell & Associates, it has expanded its reach and continues to search for new markets.
In 1999, it built a promotional trailer for Mopar that was taken on the NASCAR circuit. To date, it is the most expensive trailer Champion has ever built: $600,000.
It recently built a trailer for Heritage Racing, a team on the IndyCar circuit with owner John Mecom III and driver Jeff Warden; and Jasper Racing on the NASCAR circuit with driver Robert Presley. Champion has built NHRA trailers for Joe Amato and Monty Bailey Trucking/Square One Graphics and recently completed two trailers for Jernberg Racing, a newly established team with driver Tom Beecham.
Kennedy describes it as a “seeding process.” He says that because Champion's trailers carry a price tag that is $15,000-$20,000 higher, the company needs to get a few trailers into previously untapped markets so people can see them and notice the difference.
Kennedy says that many of the promotional trailers traditionally are not purchased directly by the end user, so the easier avenue is through promotional companies that have key contacts, advertise in the right magazines, and attend the right shows. Champion's highest visibility comes at the yearly PRI Show in Indianapolis.
Kennedy says the key element in recruiting new race teams is the understanding that their primary focus in life is racing — getting a car to go as fast as it can. They need a trailer to get their car to the track, but nuances of the trailer take a back seat.
“You have to deal in their world and in their time frame,” he says. “There's only a limited amount of time they devote to sitting down and spending the uninterrupted time it takes to figure out what they want.” Whitesell believes that recent acquisitions will have a dynamic effect on Champion and position it to take advantage of the resources it has.
After Whitesell and Tim Durham acquired Champion under Durham Whitesell & Associates, they formed a private equity fund, Obsidian Capital, which included another managing partner, Jeff Osler.
Since then, they have acquired additional companies and in August performed a reverse merger into a publicly traded company, Danzer Corp. After the first shareholders meeting, they anticipate the name will revert back to Obsidian.
Other holdings include Danzer Morrison, a utility service body company in Hagerstown, Maryland; Pyramid Coach in Jolton, Tennessee, which owns 40 Prevost motor coaches for leasing to the entertainment industry; US Rubber Reclaiming Inc in Vicksburg, Mississippi, which recycles 90,000 lb of rubber inner tubes daily; and United Express Line Inc, which produces 9,000 enclosed cargo trailers a year for snowmobiles, race cars and motorcycles, with plants in Bristol, Indiana, and White Pigeon, Michigan.
An agreement also has been signed between Champion and Angola Coach, a provider of highway coaches outfitted for family motor home use, corporate hospitality units, or race teams. Champion is a direct factory representative for Angola to the racing industry.
“United serves a large proportion of the race-car industry in all segments, whereas Champion has served the high-end transport market in NHRA, IndyCar and NASCAR,” Whitesell says. “United supplies a lot of smaller teams that race for enjoyment and additional cash, not in the high end.
“That just reinforces our involvement in the racing industry and exposes a different grouping to our people. It allows us to provide trailer products to race teams, whether it's transporting a sprint car or a professional team that's traveling in NASCAR, and the ability to provide show-car trailers, or trailers for merchandising. It also exposes us to a lot of markets and satisfies a lot of the requests Champion gets.
“We now have a full range of product offerings, whether it's through United or Champion. So if Champion gets a contact needing an enclosed trailer that United builds, we have that avenue. If United gets a request for a larger, custom-built trailer, we can satisfy that. It's a nice integration between the two.”
Says Kennedy, “If we're as successful as we believe, we'll have to find another facility, because we'd be maxed out.”
But that's a problem they can deal with.
The Lowdown on ‘Big Horn’
- 53' × 102" × 162" smooth-side aluminum
- Custom color exterior, Imron 6000 chrome yellow
- Exterior vinyl graphics by Square One, Indianapolis IN
- 24' living space, 29' cargo bay
- Michelin XZA2 275/80R22.5 tires
- Dexter axles equipped with Neway air-ride suspension, air brakes
- Exterior marker and running lights all LED
- HWH 3 10 series 4-point leveling system
- Roof top solar panel
- Trace engineering Legend Series 11, inverter/charger
- Yanmar-powered, 22.5 kw Martin diesel generator
- 5-ton Marvair/Airxcell Inc, ModPac 11, wall-mount air conditioning
- Suburban Mfg Co/Dynatrail propane furnace
- Two 8-ton warn winches to load cargo
- Two 2-ton winches for cargo door
- Air compressor
- Kenworth T2000
- Powered by a Detroit 12.7L Series 60, with Pacbrake
- 320" wheelbase
- Eaton Fuller automated 10-speed transmission
- Alcoa wheels with Bridgestone R299/M71 I tires
- Full chassis fairings
- Custom color exterior, Imron 6000 chrome yellow
- External visor with integral marker lights
- 200-gallon fuel capacity
- Smartwheel Multiplex 18" steering wheel
- T2000 main dash instrument panel
- Full gauge package
- T2000 new style interior, Graystone 11
- Black carpet interior
- Folding upper bunk, liftable lower bunk
- Alpine AM/FM CD stereo
- 100-volt Duo Therm 3/4-ton AC/heater
- Keyless entry
- Thetford toilet
- Galaxy CB
- Dual Kenworth mirrors, motor, heated
- T2000 75" sleeper, cloth, Diamond
- 340-cu-ft dromedary storage box
- Front-loading refrigerator/freezer
- Sleeper floor-mounted Duo Therm 3/4-ton AC/heater
- Intercom to trailer living quarters
- Fuel transfer pump to fill generator tank in trailer
- 80-gallon auxiliary air tank for ship horn and train whistle
- Accele rear-view TV
- 110-volt power in sleeper
- Shore Power Plug for I 10-volt accessories in sleeper
- Natural oak cabinetry
- Hardwood floor throughout
- 52" ceiling fan recessed in suede leather ceiling
- 3' × 8' slideout with leather couch/hide-a-bed
- Sanyo LCD projector, 1250 Lumens
- 43" × 57" automatic electric projection screen
- Sony/DIRECTV Plus digital satellite receiver
- Datron/Transco Inc, DBS 3000 Mobile satellite television system
- Denon DCM-370 stereo CD player
- Denon DVD 1500 video player
- Denon AVR 1800 surround sound receiver with Jamo speakers
- 12-cu-ft side by side refrigerator-freezer/LP gas and electric
- Gaggenau two-burner cook top
- Sharp carousel convection oven
- Ceiling and floor rope lighting throughout