Rush Enterprises
2023's All-Around Grand Champion, Dallas technician Michael French, was crowned at the Tech Skills Rodeo Awards Dinner. From left to right: Chase Briscoe, the current driver of the No. 14 car; NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart; French; NHRA Top Fuel Drag Racer Leah Pruett and wife to Stewart; and Rush Enterprises CEO and President W.M. “Rusty” Rush.

French toasts competition at 18th Rush Rodeo

Dec. 15, 2023
At Rush's annual skills competition in San Antonio, Dallas technician Michael French beat 249 other competitors to win All-Around Grand Champion.

Outside of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, on the banks of San Antonio’s scenic River Walk, it’s as easy to get lost in the twinkling lights and vibrant colors. Inside the airy meeting place, during Rush Enterprises’ 18th  Tech Skills Rodeo, it could be just as easy to get lost in troubleshooting trucks. Of the 250 Rush technicians who qualified for the annual event, only those who could keep their composure through it all would earn their share of the $310,000 in cash and prizes during the event held Dec. 10-12.

That wouldn’t be too tall a task, as these technicians already proved themselves the best among 3,100 employees who entered Rush’s annual maintenance contest. These 8% represented the cream of the crop of service technicians, collision center technicians, truck sales reps, aftermarket sales reps, and parts professionals.

Michael French, a Dallas-based Rush Truck Centers technician, outlasted the competition and was crowned—or rather “spurred”—All-Around Grand Champion. In addition to his custom spurs and display case trophy, French earned a total of $18,500 for his success. He also got to share the limelight with Rush CEO and President W.M. “Rusty” Rush, NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart; the current driver of the No. 14 car, Chase Briscoe, who were on stage during the victory ceremony.

Since 2006, the company, which has dealers and service centers all across the country, has distributed more than $3 million in cash and prizes through the Rodeo. According to Rusty Rush, the sizable investment is worth it to recognize who he called “the real heartbeat of the organization”: the maintenance professionals.

“People yearn for recognition, and people deserve recognition for the hard work that they do,” the CEO and President said. “And when you're able to do that, for me, it makes my heart go pitter patter.”

But the rodeo isn’t just a chance for Rush employees to earn prizes and bragging rights. It’s also a time for them to learn from each other and emphasize efficiency in every company role, whether a technician or a sales associate.

Read more: Maintenance Kombat: Tackling the tech shortage with skills competitions

Celebrating excellence

French, who competed in the heavy-duty service category (Paccar MX), knows a thing or two about determination. The technician of seven years first began his career in the oil industry, but after he was “laid off a few times,” he decided to try fixing diesel trucks instead. He was hired by Rush Enterprises at 30 years old and has worked with the company ever since.

French did not place in his first two Rush rodeo attempts. Now his competitive spirit has paid dividends as the champion in this third attempt. French credits his tenacity and love for the trade for his victory in 2023.

“The champions are the guys that enjoy their job,” French stated after the awards dinner where he earned his spurs. “They like their job, they like showing up to work, they don’t look at it as a dread. That's what it comes down to.”

That kind of passion for his work makes it easier to push through the long hours and frustrating puzzles trucking diagnostics can present.

Read more: Diagnostic nightmares and horror stories from the shop

“Even if you’re overwhelmed, you can’t give up on it,” French urged. “You just gotta keep going. I think that’s where a lot of these guys mess up: I didn't win last year, or a couple years ago, when I got here. They just give up on it altogether. You can't do that. You're gonna win. You're gonna lose. You just gotta keep trying.”

In the meantime, French takes a personal pride in his work that drives him to do his best every day.

“I feel like everything I put into the truck is a reflection of myself,” French explained. “If you make it look like a bad job, that’s what you're putting your name on. I was told to act like it’s your own truck. No, I act like you want people to judge you by that truck.”

Winning women 

This night wasn’t just a win for French. Though substantially underrepresented, there were several female winners at the Rush awards event. Andrea Ramos of Rush Truck Centers – Charlotte took first place in the Isuzu Truck Sales Division, while Kristin Holtendorff of Rush Truck Centers – Los Angeles became the company’s first woman to with the Truck Sales Grand Champion, taking home a total of $10,000.

While there have not yet been any female technician winners, the day is surely coming. In 2022, the company saw its first two female employees compete in the service category. One of these, Se'ara Hart, abody shop technician for Rush Truck Centers – Boise, returned this year. As one of the roughly 50 female technicians at Rush, there is some pressure that comes with competing.

Hart related how one of the judges approached her at the body shop dinner and said, “I’m rooting for you; you better get first place!”

Hart also noticed how as a rare female tech, she tends to get a bit more attention while competing.

“They have camera people come during [the competition], and when they see me start to touch something, they all swarm and start taking pictures,” Hart recalled.

But for her, Hart’s role as a female technician doesn’t feel any different than just being a technician who comes to the rodeo to win.

“I forget that,” Hart explained. “I just feel like any other person.”

Competition and learning

Even though the tech skills rodeo is by nature a competitive event, many of the contestants and judges emphasized how it is also a time for Rush employees to learn from each other and share the tribal knowledge that comes from working in a skilled trade.

“One of the great things about the Rush network is that these people meet and they talk to each other,” said Rick Melcher, director of collision centers, Rush Enterprises. As an example, he explained how Rush’s body shop managers talk to and help one another, whether that’s with an estimate trouble or how to find techs. “The techs are becoming the same way,” Melcher continued.

Hart concurred, noting that contestants can learn both from their judges and their fellow techs.

“Just even talking to [my peers], I learned a lot that I wouldn't find even in technical data sheets because they leave out a lot of stuff,” Hart noted. “Just talking, sharing knowledge, or getting tips is the easiest way to learn.”

Encouraging efficiency

An additional benefit to so many of Rush’s employees working together to hone their expertise is greater efficiency, a trait that many rodeo judges actively looked for during the competition. They didn’t just want a correct diagnosis or repair job, but a thorough one.

On the testing floor, which covered diagnostics and hands-on repairs for medium- and heavy-duty service, judges awarded points for a “methodical process, with symptom-based diagnostic work, [that you] check and verify and then move forward,” said Michael Olaveri, a judge at the Rush Tech Skills Rodeo in the Isuzu category.

The same theory applied to the Body Repair category, where each station was supplied with a blue bucket to measure the materials they didn’t use in their work.

“That's where these [technicians] discard their used supplies,” Melcher explained. “3M is judging them on how efficient they are. They sell us the product, but they're still teaching our people how to not waste them, how to be efficient.”

For the technical skills competitions, an efficient diagnostic process also meant that technology was on full display at every station, as each one was stocked with a laptop and digital multimeter.

All of these efforts contribute to greater efficiency in the shop and Rush’s company-wide expectations.

“That [efficiency] drives into everything we do,” Rush said. “We see that and we want to drive that into how we perform, because that drives business our way. People don't buy just because you get the cheapest price. They understand total cost, and total cost is understood at a further depth than it was 10 years ago.”

Tech Skills Rodeo 2023 winner wrap-up

All-Around Rodeo Champion

  • Michael French, Rush Truck Centers – Dallas ($18,500)

Rodeo Grand Champions

  • Truck Sales: Kristin Holtzendorff, Rush Truck Centers – Los Angeles (Total winnings $10,000)
  • Aftermarket: Tim Sebolt, Rush Truck Centers – Odessa (Total winnings $9,500)
  • Parts: Eric Valenzuela, Rush Truck Centers – Joliet ($13,000)
  • Medium-Duty Service: Thomas Pianalto, Rush Truck Centers – Lowell ($14,500)
  • Heavy-Duty Service: Michael French, Rush Truck Centers – Dallas (Total winnings $14,500)

Rodeo Reserve Champions

  • Aftermarket: Gerardo Acosta Rios, Rush Truck Centers – Houston (Total winnings $6,500)
  • Parts: Aaron Van Straten, Rush Truck Centers – Houston Northwest (Total winnings $10,500)
  • Medium-Duty Service: Matthew Chilson, Rush Truck Centers – Houston Medium-Duty (Total winnings $12,000)
  • Heavy-Duty Service: Jeffrey Metcalf, Rush Truck Centres – Kemptville (Total winnings $8,000)

Parts Division ($5,000 each)

  • Ford: Jeffrey Crichley, Rush Truck Centers – Oklahoma City
  • Hino: Aaron Van Straten, Rush Truck Centers – Houston Northwest
  • Isuzu: John Obrien, Rush Truck Centers – Orlando South
  • International: Eric Valenzuela, Rush Truck Centers – Joliet
  • Peterbilt: Jesus Marquez, Rush Truck Centers – Yuma

Collision Center

Body Paint

  • 1st Daniel Garcia Gonzalez, Rush Truck Center – Salt Lake City ($5500)
  • 2nd Tamarr Jivens, Rush Truck Centers – Boise ($3000)

Body Repair

  • 1st Richard Uzialko, Rush Truck Centers – Haines City ($5500)
  • 2nd Larry Edwards, Rush Truck Centers – Richmond ($3000)

Specialty Division

Leasing

  • 1st Tyler Davis, Rush Truck Leasing – Birmingham ($6500)
  • 2nd Dale Peterson, Rush Truck Leasing – Cleveland Idealease ($3500)

Rising Star

  • 1st Zane Marble, Rush Truck Centers – Tulsa ($11,500)
  • 2nd Peter Roberts, Rush Truck Centres – Sudbury ($6,000)
  • 3rd Paul Fletcher, Rush Truck Centers – Jacksonville ($3,000)

Medium-Duty Service Division

Allison Transmission

  • 1st: Grant Meyer, Rush Truck Centers – Houston ($6500)
  • 2nd: David Boesdorfer, Rush Truck Centers – Springfield, IL ($3500)

Bus

  • 1st Matt Chilson, Rush Truck Centers – Houston Medium-Duty ($6500)
  • 2nd Joseph Behrend, Rush Truck Centers – Idaho Falls ($3500)

Ford

  • 1st Scott Schlarf, Rush Truck Centers – Orlando Light- and Medium-Duty ($6500)
  • 2nd James Williams, Rush Truck Centers – Denver ($3500)

Hino

  • 1st Billy Stanley, Rush Truck Centers – Houston Northwest ($6500)
  • 2nd Thomas Powell, Rush Truck Centers – Austin ($3500)

Isuzu

  • 1st Jacob Ely, Rush Truck Centers – Columbus, GA ($6500)
  • 2nd Corey Phillips, Rush Truck Centers – Orlando North ($3500)

International

  • 1st Thomas Pianalto, Rush Truck Centers – Lowell ($3500)
  • 2nd Christopher Purcell, Rush Truck Centers – Atlanta ($6500)

Peterbilt

  • 1st Paul Crawford, Rush Truck Centers – Haines City ($3500)
  • 2nd Travis Graham, Rush Truck Centers – Orlando ($6500)

Heavy-Duty Service Division

Alternative Fuels

  • 1st William Marcy, Rush Truck Centers – Fontana Vocational Services ($6500)
  • 2nd Samuel Jakubauskas, Rush Truck Centers – Denver ($3500)

Vocational

  • 1st Carl Trevino, Custom Vehicle Solutions – Denton ($6500)
  • 2nd Joshua Mahieu, Rush Truck Centers – Nashville ($3500)

Cummins

  • 1st Walter Hobbs, Rush Truck Centers – Fort Worth ($6500)
  • 2nd Wesley Appleton, Rush Truck Centers – Odessa ($3500)
  • 3rd Christopher Hand, Rush Truck Centers – Phoenix ($2500)

Eaton

  • 1st Pieter Dezwart Rush Truck Centers – Doraville ($6500)
  • 2nd John Malone, Rush Truck Centers – Lake City ($3500)
  • 3rd Damon Culver Delangis, Rush Truck Centers – Fontana Vocational Services ($2500)

Navistar

  • 1st Tim Kelley, Rush Truck Centers – Smyrna ($3500)
  • 2nd Jonathan Steckman, Rush Truck Centers – Columbus, OH ($6500)
  • 3rd Jeffrey Metcalf Rush Truck Centres – Kemptville ($2500) (this is one of our Canada locations)

PACCAR MX

  • 1st Michael French, Rush Truck Centers – Dallas ($6500)
  • 2nd Tomas Rocha, Rush Truck Centers – Austin ($3500)
  • 3rd Alexander Bergstrom, Rush Truck Centers – Flagstaff ($2500)

Truck Sales Division Champions ($5,000 each)

  • Ford: Rod Tankerson, Rush Truck Centers – Whittier
  • Hino: Logan Wallace, Rush Truck Centers – Houston Medium-Duty
  • Isuzu: Andra Ramos, Rush Truck Centers – Charlotte
  • International Medium-Duty: Jay Rickman, Rush Truck Centers – Doraville
  • International Heavy-Duty: Patrick Mendenhall, Rush Truck Centers – Memphis
  • Peterbilt Medium-Duty: Kristin Holtzendorff, Rush Truck Centers – Los Angeles
  • Peterbilt Heavy-Duty: Travis Quadlander, Rush Truck Centers – Dallas
About the Author

Alex Keenan

Alex Keenan is an Associate Editor for Fleet Maintenance magazine. She has written on a variety of topics for the past several years and recently joined the transportation industry, reviewing content covering technician challenges and breaking industry news. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

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