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August 17, 2014 8:00 PM, EDT
NTDC: Four-Axle Champ Quarles Treasures His Trophy
Quarles family by John Sommers II for Transport Topics
When James Quarles, known as “JB” to almost everybody, walked through the body scanner at the Pittsburgh International Airport on Sunday on his way home to South Carolina, his first-place driving trophy went with him.

“I told them I wasn’t going to put it down on the scanner,” said the Wal-Mart truck driver from Laurens, southeast of Greenville.

Quarles won the long-sought trophy in the steel city Aug. 17 in the four-axle class at the National Truck Driving Championships.

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“Oh, man, I cannot think of anything that’s better than this — besides my wedding,” he said, bursting into an infectious laugh that set his wife, Stephanie, to laughing.

“Oh, I was hollering; I was so excited,” Stephanie Quarles said about the moment her husband’s name was announced at the championship banquet.

“I mean this is the top of the top,” Quarles said of his win. “One day I hope to get the grand champion award.”

For Quarles, 42, the competition is a family affair.

Stephanie Quarles and the couple's children — daughter Blair, 12, and son, Blake, 9 — traveled with him in 2011 to the nationals in Orlando, and this year to the Wal-Mart prequalification trials in Grove City, Ohio; and Bentonville, Arkansas.

“They’re the most traveled students at their school,” said Stephanie Quarles.

While her husband and 48 of his Wal-Mart colleagues were competing on the floor of the David L. Lawrence convention center, Stephanie Quarles was on the sidelines recording their scores.

“A of lot of the guys told me that she done wore the concrete out going back and forth,” Quarles said, laughing again. “She had more miles than we did.”

Is she as competitive as her husband?

“Oh, yeah,” said Stephanie Quarles, who runs a horse riding school at the couple’s spread.

Quarles, 42, who’s away from home six days a week driving a sleeper truck for Wal-Mart, has competed for seven years within the Wal-Mart organization and at the state level.

“I do it to improve my driving skills,” he said. “I do it to stay on top of my game; I do it because I want to place first, to be the best of the best.”

NDTC may be over for the year but Quarles said he isn’t slacking off.

“I try to practice every day behind the stores,” he said of the Wal-Mart locations he supplies. “I like to try to get myself in tight places for the challenge.”

And he’s the driver in the fleet who wants to drive north from the Wal-Mart distribution center in Laurens, where’s he headquartered.

“More congestion, and more challenges for me,” he said. “The tighter the better.”

Quarles has a model 18-wheeler toy truck, bought at Wal-Mart, and borrowed miniature make-believe traffic cones from one of his son’s toys that he packs in his suitcase when he travels to competitions.

“Once I know what the course is, I make a course out of those cones,” he said. “I drive that [toy] truck around the course, so, it helps visualize how that trailer’s going to turn, how close it’s going to get, do I need to swing wide, do I know I need to swing tight.”

After he won, he said, “I had several drivers tell me they’re going to get a truck.”

Next year, Quarles said, he will compete at the state level  again in four-axel in hopes of getting to the 2015 nationals.

Besides winning a grand championship, he said, he wants to win the safety award given out at the nationals — the Vehicle Condition Award, which goes to the driver with the highest score on the pre-trip check portion of the competition.

Quarles made a mistake that cost him points on his pre-trip test this year when he failed to spot a wrong date judges had put on documents in order to test the drivers.

Such mistakes are painful — even for champions.

“It stays with you for a while,” Quarles said, chuckling. “I can’t believe I did that mistake on that trial; I can’t believe I didn’t do the right turn,” he said mocking himself.

“You play that over and over in your head — over and over,” he said, his first-place trophy safe nearby.