Most major sports end their season with a big game. Hockey has the Stanley Cup, football has the Superbowl, and college basketball has the Final Four. NASCAR, on the other hand, starts their season in February with their biggest race – the Daytona 500. Following the lead of NASCAR, the truck show season starts in March with the biggest one, too – the Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS) in Louisville, KY.
In the early 1970s, Paul K. Young, a former Kentucky Motor Transport Association President, talked with a few industry friends about an idea he had to develop a truck show in the eastern part of the United States. They wanted to make it similar to the largest truck show at the time, the International Trucking Show in California, and make it more accessible than the North American Truck Show held in Boston, MA. After discussions with industry contacts Paul had developed over the years with the KMTA and as a tire salesman, he felt there was enough interest to do it.
In 1972 the first Mid-America Trucking Show was held in Louisville, KY at the Kentucky Exposition Center. The show occupied a portion of the West Wing and had 83 exhibitors and 4,000 attendees. This laid the foundation for the show that would only grow from there. The next 12 years showed slow but steady growth, and in 1984 the event moved to the East Wing and had 270 exhibiting companies. That year Dale Sommers (The Truckin’ Bozo) hosted his show live at MATS for the first time. In 1987 MATS surpassed 400 exhibitors, had over 30,000 attendees, and saw an increase in international participation.
The South Wing A was brought on-line in 1991 and was immediately filled – that year, the show had 650 exhibiting companies and over 35,000 attendees. This increase established MATS as the largest trucking trade show in North America. MATS continued growing and, in 1997, it now included outdoor exhibits and demos. This marked the first year MATS had over 1,000 vendors occupying over a million square feet of exhibit space. After this, they hosted over 1,000 exhibitors for 20 of the next 23 years.
In 2001 the truck beauty contest held outside of MATS each year was officially renamed the Paul K. Young Truck Beauty Championships in honor of the event’s founder. That year, the competition included a $30,000 prize to the truck that won! Each truck had to qualify at a show the year before to earn the right to compete for the mega prize. The attention to detail that year on the trucks was incredible. That year, Mack celebrated its 100th anniversary, as well. 2003 marked the first year that 10-4 Magazine displayed at MATS. Sharing space with their friends at Double JJ Enterprises that first year, 10-4 has had a booth at every MATS since.
In 2006 the South Wing expansion was completed, which added 167,000 square feet of space to the Expo Center. The space was quickly filled and helped 2006 break all previous records for attendance, number of exhibitors, and total square footage of space. That year, Peterbilt showcased their new 389 and officially retired the 379 after 20 years of production. In 2009 Women In Trucking held their inaugural “Salute to Women Behind the Wheel” with Anne Ferro, Administrator of the FMCSA, as their speaker. Ellen Voie started this much needed organization with a mission to encourage employment, address existing obstacles, and celebrate the successes of woman in our industry.
Travel Centers of America hosted its Citizen Driver Award, to recognize drivers who earn the public respect, in 2013. In 2014 Utility Trailer debuted its special edition Legacy Museum trailer, commemorating their 100th anniversary, and Peterbilt celebrated their 75th with an Anniversary Edition 579. In 2015 there was 81,768 attendees. Kenworth marked the 25th anniversary of the W900L with the introduction of a customized limited edition premium truck – the ICON 900. That year, Freightliner also unveiled their futuristic prototype Super Truck. In 2018, our friend from California Rick McClerkin won Peterbilt’s 1 millionth truck built – a 567 Heritage – for his dedication as a Peterbilt Super Fan.
Showing your truck in March in Louisville is always a gamble regarding weather. I’ve been there when it’s been beautiful, when it’s been rainy and cold, and yes, even worse. In 2018 a record 7” of snow fell that left competitors with a very different kind of clean up for the competition – snow removal! No one ever thought they would need a snow shovel to clean up around their truck for a show, but now they do.
Back in the early years, one person who was at the show and taking pictures of all the trucks as they came in, during the show, and after the show, was Bette Garber. She would set up shoots for the trucks that caught her eye and got many of the stories she loved to tell at this show. I can remember all that she put into getting ready for MATS, including shopping for the right outfit for nights out and preparing for any and all types of weather. Our dear friend Suzanne Stempinski has a great picture of Bette at Louisville, in the rain, in her little rooster cruiser golf cart. She would even rent her own high lift to get the overhead shots of the entire show!
In 2001 Darien Stephens put on a tuxedo and a top hat and raised the level of showmanship for everyone up a few notches. To this day, people still talk about Darien in that tux! It was this year that I had the honor of being chosen as Dave Sweetman’s “Pick of the Litter” award – which he defined as someone that goes the extra mile to be a good mentor, not just a competitor. As a competitor, this award meant more to me than any other I ever won with a truck. Back then we were all competitors, but we were all friends, too.
Kenworth sponsored Alabama for 15 years to play free concerts at MATS in Freedom Hall. If you had a CDL you got free tickets, and it was always a great show! In 2007 Alicia Hardwick gave her husband Trevor (our resident “Poetry in Motion” monthly article writer) a trip to MATS as a gift for his 30th birthday. He had a great time seeing all the people and trucks in person that he had only seen in pictures.
It was 2001 when Bud Farquhar (who runs the truck beauty competition outside) thought it would be a good idea to have a slide show at the awards. He asked Suzanne Stempinski if she could do that and she replied, “Sure I can.” That year they recognized all the sponsors and had pictures for all the 1st place winners in their class and Best of Show projected up on a big screen. This was a great deal! Previously, when the winners were being announced, there were a lot of people asking, “What truck is that?” The next year (and beyond), pictures were included for all the winners as they were announced. And it was always very special to see your truck up there on that big screen!
Eventually, the slide show evolved into the first ever fully printed program being put together during a show. Cheri Kimball took pictures of everyone as they entered the show in 2012, and then her pictures were used to produce a printed “Championship Report” of the entire event. This program was put together in a matter of days, during the show, sent out for print, and then handed out at the awards ceremony on the last day. It included several pictures of each competitor, along with any awards they earned, and became a coveted keepsake after each show. Thanks to the entire team that works so hard to put on the PKY Truck Beauty Contest at MATS.
Chris Fiffie with Big Rig Videos did the first “Lights After MATS” parade in 2015. That year, Chris rode around the outer loop of the fairgrounds and filmed the trucks cruising around the Expo Center all lit up, and it was a big success. I got to participate in 2016, running alongside John Jaikes and his “Only Class” purple Kenworth, and it was amazing – what a rush! Since then, weather permitting, Chris has hosted this unofficial after-MATS event each year. In 2017 he produced a video he called “Unstoppable” that played before the awards and included drivers working on their trucks, trucks cruising around, trucks parked on display, and spectators enjoying the trucks! It’s still awesome to watch these videos and relive the good times we had all those years.
Over the years, Louisville has also become the place that major companies debut new trucks and products. If you have a truck-related product or service, it’s a pretty good bet you will have a booth at MATS. If you have never been to this show, it’s time to go, and if you have, it’s time to go back. The 50th anniversary MATS event is set for March 24-26, 2022, and Show Management has stated, “It will be the best ever with more trucks, exhibits, events, education, and entertainment than ever before. It’s a great place to see old friends, meet new ones, and make some great MATS memories in the process.” So, mark your calendars now, because the 2022 event is going to be epic, and you won’t want to miss it – we can’t wait!