Avoidable Contact #122: You can always rent a truck, until you can’t

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AC_Cummins_Tow_Lead
Jack Baruth

I don’t remember what I was dreaming—probably something about a Titanic-era Kate Winslet, a Radical SR8, and the most expensive hotel room in Monaco—but the dream ended in a hurry when I realized my wife was standing next to the bed, leaning over me, and shaking me in a fashion I can only describe as “nonplussed.”

“I need you to get dressed and come downstairs,” she said, in a completely neutral tone. My first thought was something along the lines of Homer Simpson’s “I gotta think of a lie, fast!” until I remembered that I’m now 49 years old and very much settled down. So this had nothing to do with any misbehavior on my part … right?

Three minutes later, I was watching a wrecker dump my 2017 Silverado LTZ Max Tow into my driveway, minus most of its face. Here’s what happened: At 6:15 a.m., my wife had left the house for American Endurance Racing’s Friday-morning qualifying session at Mid-Ohio. Approximately 20 minutes into her trip, a deer had run across the freeway, below her field of vision, and had been collected by the Silverado’s front grille at a considerable rate of speed. She’d tried to call me for help. The police had tried calling me. The tow truck driver had tried calling me. I had slept through all of those calls, because it was her qualifying session, not mine, and I am a night owl who enjoys a little Grey Goose with his Call Of Duty: WARZONE. Thus the nonplussed wake-up and the rather startling arrival of a completely totaled half-ton pickup truck.

The good news? After 78,000 miles, my truck was still worth $36,000 of the $55,000 I’d paid for it four and a half years ago, validating my previous statements on the issue. The bad news? We no longer had a tow vehicle, and wouldn’t have one until all the paperwork and payment got sorted out. The worse news? We had two race cars that needed to be ferried around in the week to come, and an SCCA race at the end of the week for which both Danger Girl’s MX-5 Cup and my Radical PR6 were registered in advance.

My first idea was to use my Lincoln MKT Ecoboost for all those tasks. While I’ve never towed with the MKT, I did win a couple of races in 2009 using my non-turbo Flex Limited and a U-Haul trailer, so I knew it would probably be alright, more or less. But we needed to do more than just tow. We also needed to haul. A dozen wheels and tires. A rolling toolbox. A 130-pound quick-lift jack for use in the paddock, 6 feet x 2 feet x 2 feet in its collapsed state. Four Hunsaker fuel jugs. You get the idea. Getting all this stuff into a crew-cab with a 6-foot-4-inch bed is like a life-or-death version of Tetris. Doing it with the Lincoln? We’d end up driving to Nelson Ledges and back four times.

Luckily for me, the Internet is full of very smart people, and the young autowriters who use social media to dispense their “hot takes” are presumably among the very smartest of them. For years now, they’ve been telling me and everyone else that NOBODY NEEDS A BIG FASCIST HILLBILLY PICKUP TRUCK, because YOU CAN ALWAYS JUST RENT ONE IF YOU NEED ONE. I decided to put their advice to the test.

I started by calling all the usual suspects: Hertz, National, and so on. Told them I needed to pull a 5000-pound car-and-hauler combo across the state with about 600 pounds in the truck bed. Every agent with whom I spoke told me I would be in direct and actionable default of my rental contract if I tried doing that with one of their trucks. One of them threatened to put me on a list so I couldn’t rent any pickups in the future, for any purpose. “Call U-Haul,” I was told.

U-Haul told me that I would have to rent a box truck and use one of their car haulers. I know from experience that the splitter on my wife’s car won’t clear a U-Haul trailer. And the Radical, with under 3 inches of ground clearance? Not even my 6-foot RaceRamps can make that work. And the cost of doing it U-Haul’s way? It came out to over 1000 dollars. To drive some raggedy assemblage of abused equipment at 60 mph or less, while enduring bolt-upright vinyl seats and an 85dB aural assault.

I was about ready to give up when I realized that there was another alternative: Enterprise Truck Rental. Pretty much alone among the big rental-car players, Enterprise has a dedicated division that rents nothing but serious-business trucks. And there was an office in Dublin, Ohio, just nine miles from my house. The young man at Enterprise was named Weston and he was a dyed-in-the-wool car guy. Knew exactly what I would need and made it happen: a nearly-new Ram 2500 with the Cummins diesel. He had two of them available on short notice, even. This was a dream come true, right?

Cummins Ram 2500 Heavy Duty pickups parking lot
Jack Baruth

In a way, it was, and initially I thought it might justify all the socialist bloviating I see on Twitter about renting pickup trucks. The Ram pulled our rigs and carried our junk with insouciant ease. Even in the hill-infested twisties of Southeastern Ohio, the Cummins returned 14.6 mpg while doing a very good job of pretending to not even notice my ATC car hauler avec MX-5 Cup. Sure, the seats were dire and the radio was worse—this was the unlovable “Bighorn” trim, not a Limited like the astoundingly good half-ton Ram I drove across the country last year—but the truck absolutely did all of the job and more.

Okay, “Car Twitter,” you’re dead right.

Until, that is, someone does the math.

My wife and I were operating in what Samuel Johnson called “the best of all worlds.” We had access to a great Enterprise location down the street with a first-rate representative and plenty of stock. But even in that exalted situation, we were still looking at $140 per day, plus tax, plus 39 cents a mile over the first 150 miles. Since their office isn’t open at, say, midnight on Sunday, we’d need a four-day rental for our club race. Including tax and mileage, we’d be close to 900 bucks.

This number is strangely familiar to me, because that’s about what it cost me to finance and insure the Silverado on a monthly basis. And it didn’t cover all of our needs. We would still need to return and store the race cars on Monday afternoon. Make it five days and over 1000 bucks, why dontcha.

Did I mention that this was our second SCCA race of the month? Had we needed to rent for both of them, we’d be looking at an estimated $2170 in rental expenses for October. Just for fun, I did some back-of-the-envelope math on running a whole SCCA and NASA season with a rental truck. I assumed that we’d always be able to get exactly the truck we needed, on the days we needed it for. That’s a big assumption, of course. The total was north of $13,000. For the racing we’d done in 2021.

So I went back and did the same math on my Silverado. Four years of depreciation, insurance, and maintenance. It came to about $5780 a year. So I saved seven grand by owning my own truck. Based on the raw numbers alone, I’m not a candidate for truck rental.

But wait, as they say, there’s more.

Cummins Ram 2500 Heavy Duty race car towing rig
Jack Baruth

We didn’t just use that truck to haul the race car. In 2021, I drove it everywhere from New Mexico to New Hampshire, with 20-something states in-between. I drove it in bad weather, good weather, you name it. Helped friends move. Carried bicycles hither and yon. Hauled dirty wheels and tires all over the place. Last but not least, my wife used it to hit a deer of a size, and at a speed, that would have been a very bad day indeed had she been driving her 30th Anniversary Miata or her NC-generation MX-5 Club street car. Owning a truck allows us to save her Miatas for trips that don’t happen in bad weather at six in the morning. (Let the record show that she was almost entirely unharmed, save for some airbag burn, and that she picked up a third place in her weekend race despite losing her Friday qualifying slot and starting from the back of an 11-car pack.)

Listen, I’m not without empathy, as Dave Chappelle might say. I understand that the mere existence of $60,000-and-up luxury trucks is an affront to a generation of young people who don’t feel they’ve had the same kind of access to wealth and success that my generation had. I understand that a lot of people are struggling right now and that it doesn’t ease their burden to see some old-timer in an F-150 Platinum Limited King Lariat Edition PowerMax Diesel blast by them on the freeway hauling nothing but an 8 x 6 x 3 box of air. I felt the same way when I was a kid riding a bicycle to work at a grocery store and some yuppie in a BMW 318i drove through a puddle next to me. We live in an era of unprecedented economic inequality. (Maybe not totally unprecedented, although I think the gap between me and Jeff Bezos is greater than the gap between a French peasant and the Sun King.) It would be irresponsible of me to not acknowledge that fact and to further acknowledge that today’s megabuck trucks don’t do a lot to ease the resentment that occurs as a result.

(Why don’t the Internet socialists resent Audi RS6 Avant owners as much as they resented me in my Silverado LTZ? That’s an exercise for the uncommonly self-aware among us, I think.)

All of the above being said, however, it’s still obvious to me that JUST RENT A TRUCK amounts to little more than empty rhetoric. I’m far from the only person out there who wouldn’t be able to make the numbers on truck rental work in his favor. The freeways of this country are filled with people using their trucks on a regular basis to tow, haul, and work. Sure, there are folks who do none of the above, the same way some people own Porsches but have never won, or even competed in, a single club race. So what? At worst, those cowboy-Cadillac types are just breaking in and paying depreciation on vehicles that will eventually find an honest working home.

Needless to say, I’ll be shopping for a new pickup in the weeks to come. What I need out of a truck: the ability to haul a Radical and a Miata at the same time. What I’d like out of a truck: massaging seats, Merino leather, and enough sound-system power to make Pete Townshend weep. I’d be delighted to get your advice in the comments. In the meantime … keep on truckin’, all of you. I sure as heck will, no matter what the smarty-pants crowd says.

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