August 15, 2014 10:01 AM, EDT
Competitors Say NTDC Makes Them Better Drivers
John Somers II for Transport Topics
PITTSBURGH — FedEx Ground driver Don Nehring, of Southhaven, Mississippi, pulls his twins rig onto the highway every morning at about 3 o’clock, runs 300 miles out to swap his trailers and 300 miles back every day, five days a week.

But Nehring said that grueling schedule isn’t enough of a test, which is why he is competing at the National Truck Driving Championships for the fourth time.

“It’s a good way for me to judge how I’m doing in the industry when I compete against other drivers. And as I get older, it’s a good judge to whether I should keep driving,” said Nehring, a former member of America’s Road Team, a group of drivers who represent the industry.

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Nehring, 57, is competing in the sleeper-berth division this year at NTDC, which continues through Aug. 16. In the past, he competed in the straight truck and twins divisions.

Another fourth-time competitor was Brian Smeltzer of East Berlin, Pennsylvania, a driver for R.H. Crawford Inc.

“I know it’s made me a better driver out on the road,” said Smeltzer, a two-time state Grand Champion. He competed in flatbeds, but normally drives 53-foot vans.

Smeltzer drove buses for 14 years before he switched to trucks 14 years ago. The competition, he said, tells him what mistakes he makes as a driver.

For Paul Waite of Mount Wolf, Pennsylvania, who drives for Friendly Ice Cream Corp. and is making his third appearance at the nationals, the thrill of the event doesn’t change.

“When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was drive trucks, and when I came to my first competition, I was like in awe to be around these guys . . . and I still feel that today,” said Waite, who will compete in five-axles Aug. 15. “To see guys who are committed to the industry and safety, it’s a boost; it makes you feel good about yourself and what you’re doing.”

Rookies at the national tournament numbered just over two dozen this year.

 “I’m excited just to be among these professional drivers. I’m learning a lot, guys are telling me what they experienced over the years,” said rookie Gene Summers of Greenville, South Carolina, a driver for C&S Wholesale Services Inc. in the five-axle division.

Rachel Bothwell, a FedEx Freight driver from Rapid City, South Dakota, was both a rookie and one of the record 11 women in this year’s competition.

“It feels amazing,” Bothwell said of the experience that started when a male coworker persuaded her to enter the state competition this year. At work, she pulls a 48-foot van trailer with a single axle truck, but she competed in the flatbeds division Aug. 14.

Likewise, Debra Conn, who lives in Walls, Mississippi, but was on the Arkansas team because she drives out of that state for FedEx Freight, was a first-timer and won top honors in the state’s twins division.

Conn walked out of the first test of the NTDC, the written portion administered on Aug. 13, and said, “It went great.” She said she’s going to encourage other women drivers to compete.

Rookie or veteran, the competition was so stiff that the night before the written test, Gary Mars, a driver for Wal-Mart, gave up tickets to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game to study. Mars, who was Arkansas’ champion in the five-axle division, was competing at the national level for the second year in a row.

Wal-Mart had a record number of drivers in the competition this year -- 49 from 32 states, said Kelly Kile, regional safety manager from Texas to the Dakotas.

The company has its own internal competitions to determine which of its drivers would compete at the state level in hopes of reaching the nationals, Kile said.

Jack Van Steenberg, director of safety at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, spoke at the Aug. 14 Breakfast of Champions, lauding drivers for fueling the nation’s just-in-time economy.

“For what you do for all of us . . . you should be proud of what you do,” he said. “You are true, true professionals.”