There is no question that the light truck has been the subject of more than one customization trend.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the compact pickup truck was the prime object of affection for many an 18- to 25-year-old male. They slammed them, lifted them, hyped them and, occasionally, folded, spindled, and mutilated them. I remember profiling a customized S-10 that was so low to the ground and so loaded with oversized tires that you could barely turn the steering wheel three turns before fender rubbing was a real concern.
In Canada, though, the small pickup was always less popular than the full-size, and that ushered in another era: full-size customization. Bring on the running boards and light bars. (I personally found out how much damage you could do to your fingers playing around with all that metal.)
Now, while the accessorization trend has continued with far more user-friendly, and more attractive, options for the truck owner, the latest trend has landed itself firmly under the hood and without the benefit of spark ignition.
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that bracket racers grew tired of having their tow vehicles sit idly by while they did passes with their sport compact or classic muscle car. Or maybe it was the UPS “We want to race the truck” NASCAR campaign. Whatever its genesis, it has turned a utilitarian decision to increase towing performance into a genuine enthusiast trend.
And it has all happened fast. Only a little over five years ago, when the Specialty Equipment Market Associa-tion published its 2000 Light Truck Market Study, the word “diesel” didn’t even appear.
Now, mention light truck performance, and it tops the list of what the market is talking about. The most recent data from SEMA reports that while only a relatively small sampling of enthusiast magazine subscribers surveyed had diesel-powered trucks–38 out of more than 1,100–among that group there was a very high penetration of performance enhancing products. Air intakes, performance chips and programmers, and exhaust systems components were key upgrades that were either already installed or were in the purchase plans of the owner.
And, while the survey sample was small, sales trends across the board seem to agree. Diesel performance has become an increasingly mainstream idea.
“Our business, in the last year, has grown by over 50%. At least from our side of things, that gives you an idea of how fast it is growing,” says Mike DeFord, who handles marketing and PR for Bully Dog. Bully Dog supplies a number of diesel performance products, notably the Triple Dog reprogramming downloader and the Outlook controller and monitor.
DeFord says that the increase in interest in diesel performance is akin to another fast-growing trend from a few years ago.
“I was involved in the import compact market before coming to Bully Dog, and it is a lot like that market was in the late 1990s, with the strong growth rate and new companies opening up.”
He says that there is simply a lot of buzz about what consumers can do with their diesel trucks. “That is going on more heavily now than in years past.”
So, what is driving the market then? Surely it must be more than just the latent desire to get more out of the racecar hauler.
“I think it is a number of things. These vehicles have always been popular with a certain demographic, but those demographics have broadened. At first people were interested in diesel because of better mileage and the cost of fuel. That’s not really a lot of it anymore.”
He divides the market into two groups: the person who needs to haul his toys around and needs added towing power, and the enthusiast who has no real need for extra performance, but sees the potential.
“You can add 240 hp with as little as $500. You can’t do that with anything else. The diesel computers are locked down to the point where the power has always been there, but there has never been a way to free that up in a safe manner,” says DeFord.
And now there is, which brings up some of the technical issues that have added to the general popularity of diesel power, and the ability to harness that technology. Plugging in and reprogramming is something that even the most neophyte performance enthusiast can get his head around, but even that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for some important changes in diesel engine technology.
“The advancements in diesel engine technology–common rail diesel systems, advanced turbochargers–have led the way in renewed consumer interest,” says Thom Miles, marketing manager, After-market Division of BorgWarner Turbo Systems North America. “This advanced technology has helped to produce a higher performing, more reliable, and quieter diesel engine, which has replaced past engines that were sluggish, smoky, and noisy. Additionally, diesel engines are offered in many more pickup trucks than ever before. This fact has helped to create a fast-growing diesel performance marketplace.”
Of course, there are limits.
“Diesels are air-limited engines, and respond very well to anything that gives more air to combust fuel. Most engines limit fuel injection quantity based on available air because excess fuel causes black smoke emissions. A more responsive and higher-capacity turbo will produce a more responsive, higher-power engine,” says Miles.
The reprogramming approach typically advances the timing of the injection pulse, and increases its duration. This boils down to providing more fuel, and doing so earlier.
In the case of any diesel enhancement, a limiting factor is the exhaust gas temperature, which should be kept to less than 1,200 to 1,300 degrees F. The watchword is safe, reliable performance. Whether boosting turbo performance or reprogramming, more performance could be squeezed out of a diesel than parts suppliers offer, but that would compromise longevity, reliability, and, by extension, customer satisfaction.
The growth in this type of truck performance market has also been easier to take advantage of for industry players who are accustomed to handling hardcore performance, as opposed to accessories that formed the basis for much of the resurgence in light truck customization.
“The hardest part that we saw as a performance warehouse was the size of the truck products,” says Steve Ager, with Karbelt Speed & Custom. He says that when that trend hit a few years ago, it was difficult to stock, pack, and ship and still end up with a profit at the end of the day. “The only person making any money was the shipping company. Thus we took ourselves out of the truck market, which was a tough thing to do because it was growing and growing and growing.
“Now, with diesel performance, there are products that the performance guy can sell and it is much easier to get a hold of.” Simply put, whereas the shipping cost for some bulky accessories may have been nearly equal to the cost of those products, reprogrammers and the like mean that an order worth thousands can be shipped for less than $10 across the country.
“The people that do things well in the accessories business can still do that, and those of us who do well in the performance industry can still do what we do.”
He says that the reality is that many bracket racers are either leaving the racecar at home and racing the truck, or racing the truck between passes with the car. In either case (or even if the need is just about hauling a trailer more easily) the growth in diesel performance has had a dramatic effect on the performance business overall.
“It has really put us back in the market for the truck business,” says Ager, and by extension it has also done so for the performance shops his firm sells to.
“They can stop turning sales away. This is completely opposite to the import market–it was very specific and a completely different clientele. The client who is coming in now for the truck performance has probably been your customer for years for his racecar or his performance car.
“Now he has a $40,000 truck sitting there and he is wondering what he can mess with.”
He says that this is an easy transition for the hardcore performance retailer.
It is important to note that the growth in underhood performance is in addition to, not in place of, the accessories growth.
“While we don’t have specific data that directly correlates the two, we do know that diesel owners, and even diesel owners who enhance their performance, do accessorize in other ways,” says Jay Lusignan, Lund International, which supplies a wide range of truck and car accessories.
“The key becomes finding new ways to directly reach them. More and more, new magazines, Web sites and others are popping up that specifically address this growing audience, with circulation increasing at a decent rate.”
Lusignan says that while the light truck diesel owner is an accessories customer, they have some specific traits they look for in products.
“While it may vary, typically those with very specific towing needs will be funneling their dollars toward those types of products first before purchasing other types. They’ll focus on accessories to make their tow more safe and enjoyable before purchasing other cosmetic accessories.”
“It’s definitely a growing market overall,” says Brian Troyer, sales and marketing administrator, Superchips. “People are stepping up to the diesel, but the light truck market overall is a profitable one for everybody in the industry for accessories.”
He says that a key part of performance enhancement using reprogramming is that a customer doesn’t have to get his hands dirty, and can switch back and forth between programs for performance and stock.
“It’s just a matter of plugging in, saving the stock [settings] and putting our program in the vehicle’s PCM. Any time you have to go back to the dealership, you pull it back out and reprogram back to stock settings.”
And while all major suppliers of programming for performance have units capable of programming vehicles from any of The Big Three, history has shown that while there were always exceptions, customer preferences can drive their decision-making. For example, Ford owners preferred Superchips, GM truck owners went to Hypertech, and Dodge truck owners got the vote from Bully Dog.
“Word of mouth was probably the biggest thing that pushed that. That was before my time with Superchips, but we sell a lot of light truck and diesel. Now it’s pretty much spread across the brands.”
Regardless of the finer points, it is a segment of the performance market that is expected to continue to grow, driven by the desire to improve fuel mileage, towing capacity, and, yes, on-track performance.
In short, one can’t help notice how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Adding Stopping Power Important When Adding Horsepower
One area that is often neglected when performance enthusiasts boost horsepower is how to reign in that extra performance, says Ben O’Connor, from Baer Brake Products.
“In years previous, although there has been a demand for better braking on trucks and SUVs, there has never been sufficient room to fit a larger brake within the smaller wheels that they typically ran. Now that they are running 18-, 20- and 24-inch wheels, that’s twofold. There is more room to put brakes in, and also there is more demand for better braking because of the weight of the larger tires and wheels themselves.”
He says that the effect that the additional rotating mass can have on braking is not always appreciated.
The addition of the EradiSpeed +1 product to the Baer product line of systems allows the stock caliper to be relocated to accommodate the larger brake disc–from 12-inch to 14-inch, for example–and not only saves customers money but also simplifies the installation. And it can easily be swapped out for winter use with smaller wheels.
“You don’t even need to disconnect the hydraulic lines, so it is a very simple installation,” says O’Connor. There is also a caliper upgrade program, but the goal for all is improved stopping. The improvements can be significant–20 feet or more–and even more so with larger wheel and tire packages that extend stopping distances.
“The biggest part of our efforts is to educate the consumer on that aspect. A lot of people don’t know that it affects braking that much. The wheel and tire reseller, almost from a liability standpoint, wants his customer to know that it is going to take longer to stop.”
There are certainly a number of options from a variety of suppliers that can be discussed with prospective customers on the braking front, ranging from upgrade systems that use stock calipers such as the aforementioned Baer system, to complete brake system change-outs that add multi-piston calipers and even larger rotors.
And, while it may seem less exciting to some customers looking to upgrade their light truck performance for show, track or towing capacity, adequate brake performance should not be overlooked as an important safety element for the safe enjoyment of those upgrades.