Truckers navigate obstacles for the chance to be named America's top driver
By Katie Neal
It’s a gray Saturday morning at Joliet Junior College, about an hour north of Chicago. Randy Thomas of the Illinois Trucking Association stands on the flatbed serving as a makeshift stage and welcomes the contestants in the state’s Professional Truck Driving Championships. “You are the best of the best,” he says.
But for the more than 100 drivers about to compete, today isn’t just about being the best in the state. The top winner in each of nine categories goes on to the National Truck Driving Championships (NTDC) in Pittsburgh in August.
On the sidelines, the nationals are discussed in the hushed tones reserved for greatness.
“We went for the first time last year, and they treated us like kings and queens,” says Donna Wessley, whose husband Luther, a FedEx driver, was Illinois’ 2008 Grand Champion.
The royal treatment is well deserved. The hundreds of truckers who compete annually at the NTDC have impeccable safety records and an impressive depth of knowledge on industry rules and regulations. Behind the wheel, they are masters of precision, maneuvering around obstacles as small as a rubber ducky, and executing forward and rear stops within inches.
“It’s a little different than driving on the street,” says David Miller, a YRC driver from St. Charles, Ill. “You’re trying to get as close to the obstacle as possible without touching it. It’s really a game of inches. But if you can play that game, your driving out on the street definitely improves.”
Clearing the First Hurdle
It’s no wonder that the NTDC is termed the Super Bowl of Safety — for a career driver, there is no greater professional honor than to be named the national Grand Champion.
But to get there, drivers have to navigate through a series of regional competitions in their category: straight truck; 3-, 4- or 5-axle; sleeper; tanker; twins; flatbed; or the recently added step van. Each round includes a written test, a pre-trip inspection and an obstacle course.
All vehicles drive the same course, with occasional modifications. In Illinois, the six “problems” range from an alley dock that must be backed into (which elicits groans from the crowd as one driver after another bumps it, earning zero points) to a front stop that requires aligning the front right wheel in the narrow space between two diagonal lines.
“This is a real good course this year — it gets you discombobulated,” says Reuben Barry, a driver for UPS who was Illinois’ 2008 Rookie of the Year. “But to win, everything has to be on the money.”
Sure enough, when Luther Wessley comes off the course after what appears to be an outstanding run, he can’t help but second-guess his maneuvers.
“I was trying too hard,” he says, shaking his head. “That front stop was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“You did good,” Donna reassures him.
Wessley places third in his category — a commendable showing that nonetheless puts him just short of nationals.
Meanwhile, Gary Risman, a first-time competitor from Con-way Freight, told his wife he was inclined to skip the awards banquet and head back home to St. Jacob, Ill. He had no idea he’d scored well enough to place first in the straight truck division — and qualify for nationals.
The Big Show
Two months later, Risman and Miller are among the 415 drivers competing in the NTDC at the Pittsburgh Convention Center, beating back butterflies before taking their turns at the wheel.
Besides being indoors, the course itself is not all that different from the one in Illinois, but the scene is undoubtedly grander. While spectators in Joliet huddled under white tents, snacked on donuts and fished sodas out of large coolers, the audience here is treated to plush red chairs arranged in bleacher-style seating in a climate-controlled indoor arena. On the sidelines, cooks in tall chef hats carve up ham and roast beef for lunch. A large scoreboard keeps the audience updated on the proceedings, in case they can’t read the numbered signs judges hold up after each “problem” to communicate the points earned.
The stakes may be high here, with drivers competing against their most talented peers, but still the mood is jovial. For many, just having made it to this level inspires a giddiness that even a disappointing showing on the course can’t dampen.
“I think of it as like bowling,” says Rob Janke, a Minneapolis-based FedEx Freight driver competing for the second time. “To score a 300, you have to bowl nine strikes. To me, the nationals are like the 10th frame. We’ve all gotten nine strikes already.”
And though friendly competition is evident as companies try to out-cheer one another in the bleachers, there’s camaraderie between the contestants.
“When we’re out on the road, we’re alone,” says Jimmie Carver, a Maryland-based driver for Collington Services. “Here it’s like a big family. We’re all helping each other out.”
On the course, an alley dock problem seems to perplex as many drivers as it did in Illinois. After four contestants in a row earn zero points, a tanker driver scores the maximum 50, and one of the judges dances around with the scorecard, encouraging the crowd to cheer.
But while one contestant good-naturedly grumbles that in the real world he backs up until he hits the dock, there’s an overwhelming appreciation that the experience of competing in events like these gives drivers a serious professional edge.
“I have a lot more confidence on the road,” says Janke — who is no rookie driver, having logged 23 years on the job.
The hours of preparation for the competition, Miller adds, helps “hone your skill to perfection.”
And then there’s the extra incentive these competitions give drivers to maintain an accident-free record. Having had a taste of the big leagues, rookie Gary Risman can’t wait to return. “I want to come back and do better next year, so I have to keep that safe driving record,” he says. “When I’m on the road, I’ll always be thinking: back off and be safe.”
Pointers From the Pros
With so many top truckers all together, we couldn’t resist asking for their best advice for new drivers.
“Be aware of your circumference — the 360 degrees around you. When I’m driving, my head is constantly turning.”
Dale Duncan, San Diego, Calif., 2009 National Grand Champion, Con-way Freight
“Patience. It will always pay off in the end.”
Rob Janke, Minneapolis, Minn., FedEx Freight
“Talk to veterans. They’ve seen it all, and they can tell you a lot.”
Gary Risman, St. Jacob, Ill., Con-way Freight
“Stay accident-free. When you first start out, you may not get the best jobs, but the companies that pay the most want to see that record.”
David Miller, St. Charles, Ill., YRC
Meet the Winner
Con-way’s Dale Duncan crowned 2009 champion
Being America’s top truck driver is not new to Dale Duncan — he also took home the title in 2006.
“It’s such an honor to be seen as one of the best,” he says. “After all those years of practicing, studying and driving accident-free every day, it’s a good feeling to see your efforts paid off.”
An eight-time national competitor, Duncan didn’t have to fight the nerves that many drivers do. “To be able to control your emotions and stress levels, the expectations and highs and lows is a huge challenge,” he says. “But every time you compete, you learn a little bit more and recognize what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
That doesn’t mean Duncan slacked in practice. In fact, he takes an academic approach, spending hours studying rules and regulations thoroughly, keeping up-to-date on changes, and holding himself to strict standards when running a practice course. “When I practice an obstacle, I only give myself one shot. You have to hit it the first try.”
That training comes in handy when Duncan makes his regular runs near the U.S.-Mexico border where, he says, motorists tend to “make their own rules as they go.”
That’s why he appreciates not just the fun and prestige of competing in the NTDC, but the mission as well.
“The event is mainly about getting more safe drivers on the road,” he says. “That’s what everyone out there is trying to accomplish.”