Diesel Towing

Dec 2, 2009

Sales of diesel pickup trucks have been on the rise for years. At the turn of this century, Automotive Intelligence reported that 47 percent of all pickups sold had diesel engines, a rise of 6.34 percent from 1999. Chris Crecelius, national sales manager for Hypertech in Memphis, Tenn., says diesel truck sales started a big climb 3-4 years ago because diesel fuel was cheaper and diesel trucks get better fuel economy. “You still see marginal sales increases,” he claims, but the reasons for continued high sales have changed. They’re quieter now and have OE-improved power-an improved drive train for even better fuel economy-but the reason people buy diesel trucks these days has more to do with their towing power.

Christian Roth, in product development for BD Power in Vancouver, BC, Canada, wouldn’t go so far as to call it the decade of the truck, but he believes people need trucks because they carry and haul more stuff than ever before. “You don’t see two-car families any more; one vehicle is usually a truck.”

Not only a truck, a diesel truck. Roth cites the fuel economy as a significant factor affecting the diesel truck market, but he credits the desire for better mileage and torque while towing for converting gasoline engine truckers to diesel truck owners. Brad Ekstam, president of FASS in Marthasville, Mo., attributes the versatility of the diesel engine with its increasing popularity. “It has evolved since 1989, when they put a Cummins engine in a Dodge. It changed the market.” FASS’s vice president, Stephanie Spencer points out the expansion of the number of diesel-specific magazines as an example of the growing popularity of diesel trucks. Perhaps more important, she says they’re reading the magazines as part of their research for aftermarket parts to add to their trucks.

Tow Heads

Life may be a journey, but when it comes to towing, it’s all about the destination. “People are in a hurry to get there; the drive is the worst part. We need to make it enjoyable,” Roth proclaims. Nothing spoils fun more than a tow vehicle lacking torque, speed and power. The race for horsepower and speed is on, with diesels now producing 350 horsepower and up. Roth says it’s a macho thing. “Trucks are getting bigger and more powerful.” So are the things being towed behind those powerful diesel trucks, which places even more demand on towing capability.

Matt Bozarth, with ATS Diesel Performance in Arvada, Colo., says approximately 75 percent of truck owners in his area are doing at least some towing with their truck, with the majority of them what he considers, “light or occasional towers who just want to own a diesel even if a gas truck would pull their boat or trailer comfortably. Most customers are pulling average loads/trailers such as a boat or a small to midsize trailer loaded with either work equipment or weekend toys. Many customers are pulling larger 5th wheel style trailers that often weigh between 15,000 and 18,000 lbs and may be either double- or triple-axle. In more extreme cases, the customer may be using the same truck or a second truck to pull a competition weight transfer sled (sled pulling). This puts much more strain on components versus normal towing and requires a more specialized upgrade package.”

Crecelius estimates that 80 percent of Hypertech’s customers use their trucks for towing “everything.” That’s why their product is geared toward what the vehicle is designed to do: tow everything from fifth-wheels to campers, boats and racecars. “Every truck has a gross combined weight rating (GCWR),” Crecelius explains. By simulating towing loads while tuning on the dyno, Hypertech can adapt tuning to match the maximum GCWR capability of the truck. For example, Hypertech is able to provide a Ford F250 or F350 with a power gain of 100 horsepower that won’t void the warranty or tear up the transmission.

Hypertech’s Max Energy Tuner features three stages, or power levels: Level 1 – 40 horsepower; Level 2 – 80 horsepower; and Level 3 – 100 horsepower. This offers the customer a choice of driving in a higher setting. Alternately, Crecelius explains that some drivers prefer to use a lower level for better fuel economy. “If you’re a lead foot, use Level 2.”

However they like to drive, Spencer contends that diesel truck owners cover “all uses” when it comes to towing-whether hauling hay and animals to shows and rodeos or dragging jet skis and boats to recreational areas or transporting vehicles to shows-but she views specific types of towing as regional. “You see a lot of farm towing in the Midwest,” she elaborates. “On the coast, it’s boats and jet skis. In Colorado, you see four-wheelers.” Ekstam adds that RVs are common in Phoenix.

Crecelius figures that around 70 percent of diesel truck owners have real-world uses. The other 30 percent are average enthusiasts looking for power and performance. Roth agrees that the majority of truck owners use their vehicles to tow, “everything from utility trailers to RVs. That’s why they’re buying full-size trucks!” Some are lawn care companies or other small businesses; others are sportsmen towing boats or “racecars across country…If you can think of anything that’s towed, they’re pulling it.” They may be traversing the country, but Roth says they’re avoiding urban areas. “You don’t see someone towing a 35-foot fifth-wheel in New York City.”

What may be surprising is not where they’re towing or what they’re towing, but who is doing the towing. Trevor de Jaray, in sales and marketing at PacBrake, Vancouver, BC, Canada, claims that increasingly, women are in front of the tow hitch. “Women are the key to this industry,” he believes. “They control 50 percent of the wealth and influence the other 50 percent.” Additionally, he says, women live longer and are better at business, which is why widows often run companies – companies with towing needs. His advice to retailers is to, “get the pin-ups off the wall; the sexy stuff should be chrome.”

While it’s never appropriate to ask a woman her age, Crecelius estimates the median age of the average towing customer (both genders) at 30-plus, all “with money.” That second figure may play a more important role than the first number. “Guys spend $65,000-$70,000 on a truck,” Roth calculates. “They have bigger budgets and are willing to spend money on services that make life easier. A twin turbo kit for a Dodge runs about $5,500; they don’t blink at that. Trucks are higher priced, luxury vehicles today. The diehard truck guy needs his truck, but the rest want a luxury vehicle with DVD, video, GPS…”

Ekstam concurs. “The typical diesel truck customer has a college education and enough money to comfortably pay $55,000 or more for the truck, plus the cost of the toys it pulls.”

Bozarth adds that the younger end of the 35-60 range typically pulls a work-related trailer or toy hauler, while the older crowd is more likely to pull a travel trailer.

Adding emphasis to the greater importance placed on the type of towing rather than the gender or age of the operator, de Jaray says the diesel truck owner has a higher-than-average income, but the diesel truck recreational owner has a very high income. Recreational towing needs are numerous: springs, wide mirrors, accessories and brakes. And because the recreational towing crowd “plays in clusters,” de Jarray says, it’s important to remember that word of mouth plays a significant role in the retailer’s business.

Tow-Away Zone

Roth sees “massive potential” in towing sales for jobbers and retailers. He believes visibility is the key. “Think about it; you see lots of trucks towing trailers on the streets, but you have to go to the track to see drags.” In the same way, sell parts where people are likely to see them. Developing relationships with RV and OE dealerships can enhance visibility. “You have to get to places where trucks are sold: be visible.”

The problem, de Jaray says, is that many customers are unaware of what they need and what’s available. He estimates that a mere 3 percent of the diesel truck market has exhaust brakes and only 10 percent even know what exhaust brakes are. Diesel engines, unlike gasoline engines, don’t slow down simply by taking your foot off the accelerator; they rely on service and supplemental brakes. An exhaust brake is a form of a supplemental brake, which work differently than their conventional counterparts. “That means that 90 percent aren’t asking for them.”

That also means the retailer or jobber needs to educate the customer. Customers are more sophisticated today, but too often they’re receiving a lot of misinformation on the Internet. Face-to-face business deals earn confidence and respect, de Jaray believes. “Don’t oversell; don’t sell stuff guys don’t need. However, if a customer is putting a fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch on, you’re leaving money on the table if you’re not selling exhaust brakes and rear helper springs,” de Jaray warns. “Plant seeds.”

But before the retailer or jobber can successfully up-sell, he has to be educated as well. They need to know the market, the industry and the competition. Your competitors are exhibiting at RV and horse shows: why aren’t you? Jobbers need to involve themselves in the market, become members of associations and participate in the industry.

As Bozarth says, becoming familiar with the diesel market and the different needs of each style of truck is the best way to sell upgrades for them. Also, attending events that are either competition- or industry-based is a great way to see new technology and products. Relationships really are important. “When choosing a source for upgrade parts to sell, it is a great advantage to locate a company that provides a full array of products. This makes it much easier to build a customer’s vehicle with compatible and supported parts. This also means that the supplier or manufacturer will have a good idea of what components might be necessary to support a particular upgrade.”

The key to developing a customer base and forging important industry relationships is product knowledge. “You need to know the product and why you sell that product and why you don’t sell other products,” de Jaray instructs. “You need to know how to handle it when a customer asks for a product you don’t carry.” When that happens, you need to know how to “un-sell” a product you don’t carry and sell a product you do carry.

That’s a lot easier to do, de Jaray contends, if you develop a reputation as an expert. “Customers want to trust an expert. As an expert, there’s opportunity for recommendations. You need a truck in your fleet with your best stuff on it so you can personally recommend items to customers who want the best.”

Another way to establish an expert reputation is to offer a towing class or clinic, covering topics such as proper hitch alignment, trailer alignment, how to properly load a trailer, turning ratio, maintenance and how to winterize an RV. “People are lost about this,” de Jaray says. “There’s a great opportunity during the March-April pre-season.”

Opportunities abound in the towing market for retailers and jobbers, particularly when you cross-market. Penetrate new markets, Crecelius advises. “Take me to somebody who sells lots of trailer hitches, but not tuning. They’re leaving money on the table.”

He suggests attracting customers with “basic stuff,” then selling tuning. Conversely, “if you’re selling tuning, go after the towing market: add on sales of hitches and related products. Fuel economy is big-time right now: cold air intakes, exhaust systems, tuning – all go hand-in-hand and all are easy bolt-ons. They increase fuel economy and performance, make the engine more efficient and increase towing power. If you’re not selling all three, you’re missing sales.” Unfortunately, Crecelius admits, it’s a challenging feat. Although Hypertech stands behind the jobber and the product, a lot of dealers quit selling tuning because of problems with either the product or the manufacturer.

PacBrake’s de Jaray says he has experienced similar relationship issues. “We can’t get the OE or the RV dealers to sell exhaust brakes because it’s viewed as a negative, as if we’re saying the vehicle is deficient.” In addition, because most trucks are financed, customers want to be able to roll the cost of accessories into the financing at the dealership.”

Another obstacle is perception. Bolt-on accessories are very visible; chips, exhausts and brakes are not, so customers often don’t perceive a need for them. However, de Jaray notes, the problem doesn’t go away if you ignore it, and in his experience, customers aren’t happy with their truck or trailer without exhaust brakes. “Sell brakes with air springs, helper springs. Now the truck is equipped as it should be.” It also extends life up to five times, he adds, pointing out that the customer is likely to be out of the truck before needing a brake change.

Roth realizes it’s tough to get truck owners into speed shops, but says once they’re in, sell them performance products. “Sell the standard things: exhaust; intakes; exhaust brakes for towing heavy loads, getting up hills quickly and decelerating quickly. Start with accessories, then up-sell. Safety is a good fallback, with brakes and exhaust, but it’s always about performance and horsepower, and now, it’s also about fuel economy. Everyone wants better fuel economy; it’s easy to sell,” Roth reveals. “Five or 10 years ago, it was not so easy to sell.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing the market well enough to effectively tailor the product and the marketing to the area. For example, Roth explains, the California market could be equestrian, not ice fishing. You need to know what to sell in your area. Once the retailer understands the product and the audience, it’s important to, “sell the experience. Make it enjoyable. Look for common problems and how to make the experience better.”

Tow In: The Latest Products

For the heavy towing market, Bozarth advises retailers to start with products such as HD transmissions, intake and exhaust parts, an E-Power Tuner, gauges and a higher output turbo system such as the Aurora kit. The Aurora MST Compound Turbo System, which ATS introduced at the 2007 SEMA show, gives the Dodge Cummins motor a high volume of airflow with the lowest possible exhaust gas temperatures. This allows for effective power usage while towing a trailer behind a truck with upgraded power and performance.

In addition, ATS offers a full spectrum of products for Dodge/Ford/GM diesel pickup trucks, including packages for everything from light towing to competition usage.

ATS offers products that increase performance, reliability, efficiency and economy, such as: HD Billet Transmissions and Five Star Torque Converters, Aurora Turbochargers, Pulseflow Exhaust Manifolds and Protector high-capacity transmission pans and differential covers.

BD Power, in the diesel business since 1985, features its own engineering department, where it develops products such as stainless steel exhausts, air intakes and exhaust brakes. Because customers want performance, horsepower and better fuel economy, their performance chips are popular, particularly because they increase horsepower as much as 45 percent and mileage by as much as 2-3 mpg.

The biggest sales of chips occur when the new model trucks come out, says Roth. “People love to accessorize trucks because nobody wants to see an identical truck sitting next door, but the vast majority buys accessories within 90 days of the sale or not at all.” That’s why BD Power releases products within the first 90 days of the new model truck release.

Spencer’s figures are even tighter; he reports that truck owners spend about $4,000 in parts in the first 30 days after purchase. That’s why he advises retailers to push clean performance by selling the FASS (fuel air separation system). By taking air out of diesel fuel, FASS provides an immediate increase in fuel mileage by about 1 to 3 mpg along with an increase of 15-20 horsepower.

“It’s an excellent pump because of the high torque, life expectancy, and quality” Ekstam advertises. “It meets fuel demands better than stock, providing filtration by taking water and dirt out and producing lower emissions of both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Ekstam and others are trying to educate the market because the EPA has recently taken a keen interest in the diesel performance industry.

“We don’t need black smoke; however, a lot of performance guys think black smoke is power,” says Spencer. “Europe runs mostly diesel and they do it without the opacity (black smoke).”

Ekstam believes FASS is best known in the industry as a performance product, however many do not know that a FASS systems help to improve emissions, lower opacity, and improve everyday drivability, relating to the everyday driver.

Hypertech knows that products must be efficient, says Crecelius. He also knows the customer is concerned about the integrity of the vehicle and warranty voidance. “We offer the most powerful tuning available in the market, but the customer can tow in a high power setting and be safe. We’re different. We’re able to tune to offer incrementally high horsepower gains without tearing up the transmission or overhauling the engine. We don’t need back-down settings for safety.”

No matter how efficient the tuner chip, though, brakes remain a safety concern when towing. In business since 1961, with a background in commercial trucks, PacBrake tracks the market’s needs. “Safety is a big issue for horse guys. Maintenance savings is a big issue for construction fleets.” Unlike a typical exhaust brake, which requires high RPMs to work properly, PacBrake claims the PRXB is, “as effective at 1,200 rpm as it is at 2,500 rpm.”

They have the ability to be left on all the time, making it ideal for steep, downhill grades. “Going down a 5 percent grade in 110-degree weather,” de Jaray visualizes, “you won’t be on the brakes; you’ll only have to just touch them. The brakes are cool when needed.” That’s because, he explains, PacBrake’s exhaust brake is air-activated, with its own compressor and air tank.

Making the ride more comfortable is the new line of air springs recently launched by PacBrake, which allow drivers to easily level out a truck’s stance for any towing or hauling situation, with the ability to adjust the amount of air in each spring. The air suspension system of the supplemental springs can be operated from the driver’s seat if onboard air is added.

Tapping The Market

For approximately five years, late-model GM and Ford gas trucks were the top market for Hypertech, but Crecelius says there’s been a shift. “The diesel stuff is creeping up into the top 5 of our product line.” Similarly, Ekstam says four years ago, FASS was building 30-50 units per month, but today it’s cranking out more than 1,300 per month and expected to push over 2,000 per month by this time next year. “There are few companies in this market now,” Spencer says, “but the competition is growing fast.”

Bozarth sees continued strong potential in the market, due to the type of customer it attracts. “The customers who are using their diesel to tow their boat or trailer are willing to invest significantly in their work and/or pastimes. The diesel pickup owner has already spent a great deal of money on their truck initially and is looking to then customize and upgrade it to suit their needs. In many cases, the performance and aesthetic upgrades available for a truck are nearly endless.”

Diesel truck customers put a great amount of value on being able to tow with increased torque and the best possible fuel economy. Crecelius believes diesel fuel prices are driving the bigger demand. “We’ve tailored the market around fuel economy runs. People are looking for more power to merge and pass. When they get that, plus increased mileage, they never want to tow stock again.”

That opens up tremendous opportunities for jobbers and retailers. But as the market and your business grow, de Jaray offers a few final words of wisdom. “Your business has to be about the sign on the store, not the individual. You need a life and the business needs to run successfully when you’re not there. It can’t be about you.”