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August 15, 2014 9:01 AM, EDT
NTDC Presents Off-Road Challenge for Drivers
John Somers II for Transport Topics
PITTSBURGH — For UPS Freight driver Roger Nicholson, a day’s work is the 552-mile run he makes between Savannah, Georgia, and Gaffney, South Carolina.

What he does on the road, Nicholson said, is not exactly comparable to what he did in the driving competition at the National Truck Driving Championships here Aug. 14.

“This is kind of opposite of what we do on the road,” he said after competing in the 3-axle competition.

“We try to stay away from everything out there, and in here, we’re trying to see how close we can get to it.”

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On the championship course, drivers must maneuver through narrow turns, coming within the proscribed inches of the rubber ducks, road cones and white strips that mark the intricate course.

They also have to prove they can back to within inches of a load dock.

One hundred ninety drivers competed in four of the nine championship divisions: three-axle, four axle, flatbed and tanker.

On Aug. 15, the remaining of the 426 competitors from around the country will compete in the 5-axle, sleeper, straight truck, twins and step van divisions.

On Aug. 16, finalists in each division will compete a second time, and the winners — including a grand champion — will be named.

“It was wonderful,” Nicholson said when he came off the course, but “stressful as always.”

On the same day they tackle the driving contest, contestants also must compete in a pre-trip inspection contest and, earlier in the week, a written competition.

Nicholson, who hails from Kingsland, Georgia, has been competing in state championships for years and in 2011 and 2012 was a member of America’s Road Team.

Bobby Weller of Monrovia, Maryland, a driver for Hahn Transportation competing in tankers, said after he finished his turn that the course “was very competitive, a very competitive bunch of guys.”

Weller has been competing for “38 or 39 years,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been at nationals.”

Another tanker competitor, Clarence “Eddie” Weeks of Silver Springs, Florida, said after his drive around the course: “It was challenging, and that’s the way nationals should be.”

He drives a box truck for AAA Cooper Transportation and is making his third trip to nationals.

Some competitors in past years have been leery of having to drive the course in trucks that are auto-shift models, meaning they do not have clutches and gear shifts. There were four trucks on the various courses this week that were auto shifts, but the drivers are less leery this year, said Mark Porter, who was in charge of rounding up the trucks for the competition.

“They are becoming commonplace now,” he said of the auto-shift models.

Porter, head of fleet maintenance for FedEx Freight in Florida, said the carrier hasn’t bought a manual transmission truck for its fleet in four years.