At the Texas Truck Rodeo, picking America’s best pickup between the horns

About a year ago, I was at a swank hotel in Santa Monica on an automaker junket when one of my colleagues from the Texas Auto Writers Association approached me. He was there for the same reasons we all were: The free food, free drinks, test-driving a new convertible and to attend the L.A. Auto Show.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?" We stepped aside. "A lot of us at TAWA are really upset about that thing you wrote,” he said.

I knew what he was referring to. A few weeks earlier, I’d gone to the Texas Truck Rodeo, TAWA’s big annual event, because I thought it would be fun to go off-roading in a bunch of trucks. And it was. Really fun. But it was also strange. At one point, someone from TAWA had pulled me aside, just like now, and told me that I should probably vote for Ram's new pickup in the annual balloting because it was “their year.”

Now, Ram did have the best trucks, or close enough, and I was probably going to vote for them anyway, but I was a little disturbed by the soft persuasion. I put that scene in my write-up. TAWA didn’t like that. So at the next opportunity, they approached again.

“I know you were just kidding about that piece,” said my fellow TAWA member.

“I mean, not really,” I said.

“Still, I’d really appreciate it if you would write the TAWA board a letter letting them know that it was all a joke.”

The last thing I needed was to spend a year catching flak from the administration of my regional automotive press group. So as soon as I could, I went back to my room and sent off a short apologetic email that said, “I was just having a little fun with the piece, which was meant to be satirical in tone.”

That, I figured, was enough. After all, was TAWA really any more venal than the automotive journalism racket at large, where hundreds of people, mostly men, are flown all over the world on automakers’ dimes, treated to first-class accommodations and luxury driving experiences? Not particularly. At least with the Texas Truck Rodeo, journalists were footing the bill for the boodle.

Yet my modest apology email wasn’t enough. A few weeks later, I got a call from another TAWA board member, who was equally upset. He demanded a retraction, which I refused to write. “You shouldn’t have said all that,” he said. “We’re really working hard to change things at TAWA.”

We talked for an hour, a conversation I didn’t want to have. Did I really care that TAWA was trying to change? This car journalism thing was just a temporary affliction for me anyway.

But the months moved along, and I kept writing about cars. I went on regional press drives, got to know my fellow TAWA members, and learned the fuller story. For years, TAWA had been the provenance of a small coeterie of white middle-aged men who took their auto-journalist fiefdom overly seriously. They wore archetypally big belt buckles to manufacturer events and semi-intimidated automakers because they could. The carmakers desperately wanted to win the “Truck Of Texas” award given out every year at the Truck Rodeo. So TAWA had a little power over them.

But slowly, TAWA was changing. Women had joined, and quite a few members of the regional Latino press. Also, the Internet had encroached, bringing with a younger set of writers with different mores. The good ol’ boys may or may not have meant no harm, but they were slowly becoming the minority regardless.

So when the time for the 2013 Texas Truck Rodeo arrived, $50 came out of my PayPal account. I wanted to see how this played.

Somewhere on acres of prime Hill Country real estate between San Antonio and Austin sits the Marriott-owned Knibbe Ranch, a choice location for groups who want to give a little down-home flavor to their business meetings. TAWA offered a big meat-based buffet, lots of sody pop and bottled water, and the opportunity to have your photo taken atop a docile longhorn.

Then, of course, there were the trucks, dozens of them, from all the major manufacturers, and also a huge variety of SUVs, ranging from the sorrowful Mitsubishi Outlander, which one of my colleagues referred to as “a beer can on wheels,” to the amazing 2014 Range Rover Sport, which would have an easy time traversing the Sea Of Tranquility, much less the medium-difficulty rock crawl in Knibbe’s off-road course.

I got my badge, dominated by an enormous bar code indicating I was “Voter 209.” In order to remove any suspicion of corrupt TAWA behavior, a representative of an independent car fleet rental agency would scan my bar code as I drove my vehicle of choice out of the grassy holding area. The cars had their own bar codes, which would also get scanned. This way, there’d be an objective electronic record of which voters handled which vehicles, which then could be matched with our electronic ballot. They also offered a prize: The writer who drove the most cars at the Truck Rodeo would receive a really nice set of tires.

I didn’t intend to win that prize. There were dozens of vehicles, so I had to make choices. Much to my bafflement, I realized that I’d already driven a huge number of the cars in the rodeo, including the new Subaru Forester, the new Jeep Cherokee, most of the Chevy Silverado line, and even the 2014 Dodge Durango. Son of a bastard, I thought. Am I a truck guy?

I put those thoughts away and focused my attention, getting into the Range Rover Sport, about as magnificent a car as you could imagine, and I drove it hard over the hardest terrain I could find. It scoffed at the course like a cruel imperial overlord. Then I took a turn in the Mercedes-Benz GLK250, which I drove softly over winding country roads. It would later lose the compact luxury SUV category easily over its only competition, the GMC Terrain Denali, in a clear case of American car writers favoring American cars over European ones. It happens.

Mostly, though, I focused on the fun stuff: I drove the Jeep Wrangler, with the Rubicon X off-road package, making the Wrangler representative remove the hard top first. And I took my annual turn in the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, which is maybe two years away from developing the ability to bore into mountainsides. I also spent a lot of time in mid-size pickup trucks, a gap in my education, finding myself surprisingly unimpressed by the 2014 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road, which seemed to lack key features, and surprisingly impressed by the Nissan Frontier PRO4X machine, a little blue monster that provided a nifty rock rumble.

But the Truck Rodeo is really about the “Truck Of Texas,” and that means pickups. Unlike 2012, where Ford and Ram were running neck-and-neck and Ram was desperately trying to unseat Ford to win the crown, this year the competition wasn’t even close. Ford barely even tried. Their only entry in the full-size category was a mediocre natural-gas vehicle that they admitted they’d probably only use in commercial fleets. Ram, in the meantime, loaded the box with three separate “Laramie” edition luxury trucks, modest improvements over last year’s entries, but still way ahead of the field. Chevy, which introduced a new Silverado this year, threw itself into the mix, hoping for a miracle, but the consensus mumble at lunch was “nice try, guys.” The Toyota Tundra, as usual, drove unspeakably.

In the “Luxury Pickup” category, the Laramie Longhorn from Ram was obviously going to win; everyone likes to drive around in a facsimile of Tim McGraw’s living room. But I found myself surprisingly drawn to the interior of the Toyota Tundra 1794 edition, which basically grafted a nice Lexus interior to a full-sized truck. It got my vote, though I knew I’d be in the minority.

There were few surprises in the balloting. The 2014 Ram 1500 easily won “Truck Of Texas,” and the Ford Raptor clobbered everyone in the off-road truck category. For the “SUV Of Texas,” the Jeep Grand Cherokee won, a reasonable choice, and suddenly Chrysler executives were dancing a two-step. I found myself disagreeing with some of the ballot choices, not like it mattered. The Jeep Cherokee beat the Subaru Forester for best CUV, but only because Jeep had entered the Cherokee “Trailhawk” off-road edition, which really isn’t a comparable car.

Meanwhile, the Hyundai Santa Fe won the mid-sized CUV competition, which seemed unfair given that Hyundai had entered a 2013 model. But the competition was really weak, all Journeys and Equinoxes. I voted for the Kia Sorento, almost out of pity. As mentioned, the Terrain Denali beat the Mercedes, which was totally ludicrous. And the Nissan Frontier PROX rightly won mid-sized pickup truck. Overall, though, this was Ram’s year, again. No one had to whisper that to me in an aside. It was just obvious. Right now, Ram makes the best trucks.

Afterward, we all sat around the dining hall in our dusty boots, drinking beer, eating chips, salsa, and queso, and reviewing the day. I talked and laughed with my friends who write about trucks, who sell trucks, and who make trucks. Reform had come to the Texas Auto Writers Association. It was now officially no more or less corrupt than the rest of the car business. I felt sort of proud to be a member. I guess I am a truck guy now, I thought, and I liked thinking that.