It’s the toughest endurance test in Texas – 24 brave people sacrifice their sleep, and risk their sanity, to win a shiny new pick-up truck. Tony Barrell stayed awake to witness a record-breaking ordeal
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 2000
This is the story of two dozen people grasping for their own slice of the American dream. It is a tale of guts, spunk and endurance, and of lust for something so precious that 24 Texans are prepared to risk their dignity, their health and their very sanity for it.
Set back from a moderately busy road in the city of Longview, east Texas, is Joe Mallard Nissan, a car dealership like thousands of others in the United States; in fact, not unlike millions of others across the world. But several weeks ago, in the 90F-plus heat of mid-September, it became a big draw, a media circus, a regular madhouse. Over six days the forecourt was packed with screaming, hollering people, rooting for some of their fellow citizens – 16 men and eight women under a long, open tent. About half of them were standing round a shiny new yellow pick-up truck, with their hands placed firmly on the bodywork. The rest were similarly attached to another vehicle, hitched on the back of the truck: a long luxury boat on wheels.
The last person standing, however long it takes for the other 23 to drop out, wins the pick-up truck and drives it away
Here’s the deal. To stay in the contest, they had to keep at least one hand on the truck, or the boat. They could wear gloves if they wanted to, but they had to keep their fingers and palm pressed flat. They had to stand on their own two feet and were not allowed to lean, to use either of the vehicles as a support. And the last person standing, however long it took for the other 23 people to drop out, would win the pick-up and boat and drive them away.
Not a great prize, you might think. But pick-ups are worshipped in the Lone Star State. Even if you’re not a redneck rancher, you don’t feel a proper Texan unless you’re riding high on the road with a bed at the back to haul logs, deer carcasses, or just empty beer cans and burger cartons. And this was no ordinary pick-up, but a 2001 Nissan Frontier four-door crew cab, roughly $27,000 worth of 170-horsepower heaven. The boat accounted for another $15,000 and would come in handy for bass-fishing on the big lakes nearby.
They call the contest Hands on a Hardbody (HOHB), because when it was devised back in the early 1990s the prize was an earlier pick-up model, a Nissan Hardbody. The dealership was under different management in those days, but HOHB worked so well as a publicity stunt that it now takes place every year, with the prize donated by the dealers. The boat, supplied by another local business, was a new addition this year.
Before the 2000 event began, every contestant was asked why they were competing. “To prove that nice guys don’t always finish last,” said Charlie Walker. “The challenge… The destiny,” was Linda Mangrum’s cryptic response. Other entrants were more straightforward. “For the new truck,” said plain-speaking John Adams. “To win a new truck for my family,” said Tammy King.
Asked how long she thought she would last, Tammy said: “As long as it takes.” That was no time at all. The 32-year-old blonde nurse didn’t even get a chance to put her hands on for a cotton-pickin’ second. All 24 entrants had to check in by 6am on the Tuesday the event began, and she was about 15 seconds behind. “Ahh… too late, she’s out,” pronounced Jay Mallard, the contest MC and executive manager of the dealership. When she appeared 15 seconds later and pleaded with him, Jay was unmovable. “I gotta be fair to everybody,” he said, pointing to a wall clock hanging inside the tent, his Arkansas accent sounding like a mangled caricature of Bill Clinton’s. “Right here’s the official clock, an’ that’s the only clock we gon’ go by. I’m sorry.”
They didn’t have to look far for a replacement for Tammy: the contestants had been selected from more than 2,000 applicants, and Jeremy Newlin, a 34-year-old accountant, stepped straight into the breach.
It was at Jeremy’s feet, that same morning, that the second serious incident of the competition occurred: a nest of ants was discovered by the truck’s right front tyre. None of these interlopers had even filled in the proper entry forms, and Donnie Stone, an official judge patrolling the tent at that time, advanced and started stamping on them. A pastor at the local Macedonia Baptist College, he may not be a friend of every one of God’s little creatures.
There were two judges on duty at all times, pacing round the tent like school exam invigilators, watching for the slightest slip of a hand or closing of an eye. “We’ve got the sleep-and-tap rule,” explained one of the contestants, Jeff Collins, a contractor aged 47 from the nearby town of Kilgore. “You can go to sleep, but if they tap you and you don’t wake up, you’re gone.”
Donnie was wearing a yellow T-shirt with a picture of two hands clasped in prayer and the words “These hands will never fail you”. This being the South, religion is God – Longview’s 75,000-odd population have 105 churches and one synagogue to choose from, and Bibles are treasured even more than pick-ups. Donnie said he was ministering as well as judging: “We hopefully get to share Jesus with them a little bit. We have a captive audience.”
I’ve already prayed. I’ve already thanked God for my truck. Believin’ an’ receivin’
“I’m constantly aware of the Lord’s presence,” said Linda Mangrum, a 47-year-old schoolteacher who had brought her good book with her and was keeping a journal, which she peppered with religious references. “I’m praying for strength. I’m also praying for the other contestants. There’s a lot of believers out here.” One of them was Warren Hearne, a 37-year-old T-shirt designer from Houston, and one of only two black competitors. “I’ve already prayed,” he told me just before the contest began. “I’ve already thanked God for my truck. Believin’ an’ receivin’.”
What did Donnie think of that? “Oh, I don’t think God really has put a lot of stock in the truck itself. He’s more concerned about…” The boat? “Yeah, ha ha, fishers of men, yeah. No, there’s probably four or five of them praying to win, but only one of them’s going to. That doesn’t mean God’s preferential to one of them.” Isn’t it all a bit materialistic? “Yeah, it is, but I think that’s okay. It’s a fun thing, there’s nothing wrong with winning a truck, that’s a good thing.”
Suddenly a horn blew, and half of the contestants took their hands off the Frontier. It was break time: every hour, they would be allowed to go to their own personal 10ft-by-6ft pit area for five minutes, to drink, eat, be cared for and encouraged by loved ones and friends, go to the lavatory, whatever. To reduce the rush to the ladies’ and gents’, they were divided into two groups, the odds and the evens, with one group breaking before the other. And every six hours everyone was allowed a simultaneous 15-minute break.
Come break time, there were more than a few envious glances in Robert Skender’s direction. The 31-year-old driver’s lithe blonde wife – the improbably named Brenda Skender – was a tireless and loving masseuse. Other entrants cracked open cool-boxes and chowed down fruit and vegetables – there was a forest of broccoli – and Warren was subsisting on a strict diet of sardines and lemon juice. One man was tended by none other than Ricky Martin – because that was the name of his wife. Bearded and baseball-capped Joe Martin, the oldest competitor at 58, would become something of a folk hero among the assembled media for his nutritional insouciance: “Smoky Joe” kept himself going with burgers and fries, cigarettes and chocolate bars.
The horn went for the end of the second group’s break, and all 24 were back on the truck and boat, chatting to each other, jigging and shuffling and swaying gently as the local radio station, KYKX, pumped out a stream of country music, interrupted by bursts of HOHB commentary for the folks listening at home. There were updates on local television, too. One newsreader on Channel 7 was so taken with the idea of the contest, he said he would keep his hands on the news desk so that he could win it and take it home.
So the day dragged on, with all 24 pick-up fanciers refusing to budge, as the people of Longview came by in their lunch hours and after work to check on their progress. As the brave 24 looked out of the tent towards the pine trees and service stations and hyperstores beyond their strange little world, they watched darkness fall. Strings of white fairy lights came to life in the canvas roof above them, and they all knew that the night would be their biggest test so far.
“Last night I had a kind of sinking spell and my legs were cramping,” said Linda Mangrum, still in her position by the bed of the truck after daybreak. “I prayed that God would take away the pain. And I do feel a whole lot better today.” Over on the hood was another teacher, Cynthia Mesker, 30, looking quietly determined. What was going through her mind? “There are still 24 contestants, and it’s been 27 hours,” she sighed. “That’s a lot of hours, and a lot of people.”
Terry Barton, gripping the port side of the boat, was fighting against temptation. The 33-year-old engineering consultant plays drums in a band, and had to resist the urge to do the odd paradiddle: “My pit crew remind me constantly. ‘We realise you’re a drummer, Terry, but don’t lift your hands.’”
Over to starboard was Thomas Scott Jr, 54, who was officially off work with back problems. But he was okay doing this, he said, because it only involved standing up – whereas his job, making soda and beer cans, involved sitting down and standing up. Were his employers aware he was taking part? “I haven’t heard anything from ’em yet.”
Around 11.30am, Charlie Walker and the crowd at the back of the truck started a singalong: ‘Under the Boardwalk’, followed by the themes to Gilligan’s Island, The Flintstones, and Scooby Doo. “I really thought someone would have already gone by now,” said Mary Alice Eady, a 56-year-old housewife clutching the boat’s starboard side. It seemed they could all go on for ever; none of them knew there was an act of God waiting to happen.
It happened after 2pm, to a confused muttering and howling from the crowd. One of the female Baptist judges had taken her open Bible over to Mary Alice, who had accepted it with her free hand. Then a breeze had ruffled the pages and, unthinking, she had taken her other hand off the boat to hold them still. Now the judge was nowhere to be found. “She was a bit overzealous,” said Jan Maynard, director of business development at the dealership. “On Tuesday she was reading scripture to some of the contestants during her shift, and I asked her to concentrate on her judging. But she continued to do it. So we got in touch with the church to get her to stop. Well, today she was at it again.”
Sagely, Jay Mallard had offered to let Mary Alice back on the boat, in light of what had happened. But she said no. “I thought that some of the kids might think they were being partial to me, because of my age,” she said later, adding that she had cried herself to sleep after returning home.
One entrant suddenly believed he was in England. He spotted the KMart store and said, oh look, they have KMarts in England too
Two more went that day. One was Thomas, who forgot he was in the contest and thought he was at work. He was so dazed and dehydrated, he had to be stretchered off to hospital, but made a quick recovery. HOHB is famous for the tricks it plays with the mind when exhaustion and sleep deprivation kick in. Contestants in previous years have been bothered by dogs that weren’t there, and one saw a jumbo jet landing over the road. When one of this year’s entrants, Michael Blalock, took part last year he suddenly believed he was in England, though he’d never been there in his life. He spotted the KMart store in the distance and said, oh look, they have KMarts in England too.
Another time, a competitor was convinced he had his hands on the truck, when in fact they were floating above it. Sometimes they can get away with mistakes like that for a short time: the judges can’t catch everything. During the evening of day 2, I unwittingly prompted one of the women to take her hands off. We were talking about the differences between American and British English, and she was on the hood. “You call this a bonnet?” she said, one hand off the truck and the other tapping the metalwork. But the judges didn’t see.
On the afternoon of Thursday, day 3, Cynthia and Jeremy were playing television trivia games to stay sane, testing their Happy Days knowledge. Cynthia gave me an example: “When Joanie and Chachi were very young, Chachi had this name for Joanie that she didn’t like at first. What was it? The answer is Cupcake. No, Shortstuff. Yeah, Shortstuff… Shortcake?”
“After a while,” said Jeremy, “we’re not sure of anything.”
Ugly wet patches had appeared at points around the truck, and everyone hoped it was just sweat. That night, they dropped like flies: Jeff, Joe, Nancy, Stacy, Terry and a pair of Michaels all gave up and walked, if they were able to walk on their bruised legs and swollen ankles. Joe caused a scene and insisted he drive himself home, despite having been up for nearly 66 hours at the age of 58. “I called his wife,” said Officer Dusty Ferrell of Longview Police, “and she said he was good to drive. But I told him he couldn’t leave, we’d get him a ride home. He got mad, threw his keys at me.”
Around 5.20 on Friday morning, Linda prayed for an angel to come and help her. “I miraculously and immediately felt wide awake,” she wrote in her journal, “and it was like the angel had its wings wrapped around me.”
That morning Kevin Wyatt, 32, and Jason Herrington, 23, both shared the same hallucination, standing by the bed of the truck. Covering the whole bed was a mass of black flowers, and their mission was to keep them under control. “You had to keep ’em down,” said Kevin, “but they just popped back up.”
Just before 8am, tiny Dedra Stockton, 36, lifted her hands off and walked to her pit area. “Time for break,” she said. It wasn’t: she had heard a noise in the distance, possibly a car horn, and mistaken it for the contest horn. Her husband, Presley, entered the tent and whined about setups and conspiracies.
Jason, a tae kwon do instructor whose reason for entering had been simply “To win the truck,” suddenly couldn’t remember why he was here. Somebody reminded him of the deal, that the last person on the truck wins. “That’s pretty stupid, isn’t it?” he said. “What do they win?” The truck. “The whole truck,” he asked, “or just the part we’re holding onto?” He lasted another three hours.
Kevin was having his own ontological problems. “Is this real?” he asked me.
By midnight on Friday, they were down to five. “I am a shark,” Warren had decided. “I’ll take them out one by one, like a predator. I call Cynthia, on the hood of the truck, Mother Eagle… I’m goin’ to have to jump out of the water to bring her down.”
After 4am, Cynthia started sobbing uncontrollably into a wet towel, her doe eyes looking exquisitely forlorn
The crowd had swelled to fill the forecourt, and the focus was on Jeremy. He had spent much of the contest waving indiscriminately at spectators from the hood. Now he looked tired, and his wife and other supporters were yelling baseball and football questions at him from Trivial Pursuit cards. Then they moved to general knowledge: “What’s the capital of Texas?” “What colour are your shoes?” After 3am he did a bold and unexpected thing, moving to the back of the truck and poking his tongue out at Warren, to screams from the audience. But the psych-out failed and he returned to the hood.
After 4am, Cynthia started sobbing uncontrollably into a wet towel, her doe eyes looking exquisitely forlorn. “Because I hadn’t had any sleep,” she explained later, “I thought rules were being broken and judges weren’t doin’ nothin’ about it.” Then Jeremy started swaying alarmingly, twitching and jerking. His supporters went hysterical. “Hang in there, dude!” yelled a local policeman. “C’mon, Jeremy. Don’t fumble, boy.” Around 5.15am, a judge caught him with his hands off. So we were down to four: Cynthia, Warren, Linda and Charlie – all of them veterans of previous HOHB contests. “Have y’all had this much fun with your clothes on?” Jay Mallard asked me and Robbie, the photographer.
Alone at the back of the truck, Warren started blinking, his eyes drifting up into his head. He started rolling his head on his shoulders. “C’mon, Warr’n, baby!” shrieked his entourage. “Stay focused, boy! Hold on, Hearne!” But it was Charlie who lost it next, after daybreak. The crowd got him to do his famous rooster impersonation, but it didn’t help, and he walked.
Jay had announced that the final three would have to pass a test for performance-enhancing drugs. So at 11am on Saturday, Cynthia, Linda and Warren walked one by one into the ladies’ toilets at the dealership to donate urine. They all passed and returned to the truck. The afternoon came and went. This was as far as it went last year, when an Alabama man survived for about 107 hours. Nobody was giving an inch, and as the day crawled on I decided that the Americans had trumped the British once again: they had invented a sport that was even more static and boring than cricket.
The tedium was only dispelled briefly around 10.25pm, when Cynthia started dancing towards Warren, tilting her head up at him, appearing to seduce him with her big brown eyes. His composure cracked: she got him grinning and raising his eyebrows. The crowd went wild. “I’m looking away,” said Linda, “because I could get tired if I watch something that silly.” The entertainment ended around 11.40am, when Cynthia was eliminated. “I just forgot I had to keep one hand on the truck,” she said.
Midnight came and went, and Warren and Linda looked unshakable, though she had started a disturbing new shoe fashion, standing on the soles of her upturned trainers. Exhausted after 21 hours on my feet, and convinced I’d have to finish the story from eyewitness reports, I collapsed into a hotel bed and was awoken around 7am on Sunday by a telephone call from Robbie. “Tony. Guess what.” What? “They’re still f***ing there.” Goodness gracious.
Mid-morning, and Linda was polishing the driver’s-side window with a gloved hand. “I can’t wait till she finishes washing my car,” said Warren.
Isn’t this meant to be the Lord’s day? “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” replied Linda.
“It is unbelievable,” said Jan Maynard. “We got this female and this male who are defyin’ everything, standin’ there for 125 hours. I should be playin’ with my grandson and doin’ laundry, but instead my butt’s glued to this chair.”
“I just hope it don’t go to tomorrow,” said Jay, “because they’re supposed to take the tent down. They could be takin’ it down around ’em.”
“I think they’ll set a record and I don’t think that any contest in the future will go this far,” said Elizabeth Modisette, 31, a keen spectator. “I think it will even possibly deter others from signing up. It would deter me.”
After 11am, Linda started weeping and wailing in a tremulous voice. “I can’t do it… but I can’t quit. I don’t know what to do… Why is God putting me through this?” At 11.30, she made a fist with the one hand she had on the truck, but one of the judges was being interviewed on TV, and the other thought it was in the rules. It was academic. Half an hour later she reached her limit and was off.
“After 125 hours and 37 minutes, I tell you what,” declared Jay, “you just saw two winners out there.” Warren accepted the Nissan’s keys and climbed on the roof rack in triumph. He’d believed, and received. When he finally came down he gave Linda a hug. “Hey, you’re tough,” he said. “You’re a hard individual.”
And on the sixth day, God looked down and saw the pick-up truck, and behold, it was very good. And He saw that somebody had finally won it, which was a blessed relief. ♦
© 2014 Tony Barrell