“This is the 43rd championship I’ve attended,” Gillespie said at the 77th annual National Truck Driving Championships in Pittsburgh this week.
Gillespie is a legend in trucking’s “super bowl of safety,” as the championship event is known.
He was a grand champion twice — in 1988 and in 1991.
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And he may be the only trucker to have won seven division championships — the 3-, 4- and 5-axle divisions, straight truck, flatbed, tanker and twins.
The only division in which he didn’t ever compete was for auto haulers and that event doesn’t exist anymore.
He was also on America’s Road Team but he doesn’t remember the year.
After he won the grand championship for the second time, Gillespie said, he gave up competing.
“I thought it was time to let somebody else have that thrill.”
By then, he’d been competing since 1965, a year the event was held in Kansas City.
Even though he stopped competing, Gillespie attends the championships every year to work as a volunteer.
“I come back every year so I can meet my old friends; this would be the only place where I could see them,” he said. “It’s in my blood to do this.”
A 71, he patrols the driving competition course every year in one of the golf carts that make the rounds helping out with supplies and other errands.
“It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it,” he quipped.
Gillespie’s many years in the competition are like a mirror of trucking’s history in the 20th century.
He worked for 21 years for Century Motor Freight in Minnesota, a company that has since disappeared, and then he drove a truck for 14 years for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and competed under their banner.
“The equipment has gotten a lot better,” he says of the championships today. “When I started there was no power steering and the larger trucks have gotten larger. We had 48-footers; now they have 53-footers.”
The trucking companies are bigger too, which has somewhat changed the flavor at the championships, he said.
“They have company teams whereas when I was competing they had state teams . . . like in Minnesota the whole team would practice together . . . that’s changed,” he said.
When he retired, Gillespie said, he taught would-be drivers at a local community technical college in Minnesota and, today, teaches part time for the state teaching snow plow drivers.