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August 13, 2014 4:35 PM, EDT
Record Number of Women Drivers Competing at NTDC
Stan Lindsey Photography

Eleven women, a record number, are competing for top honors this week at the National Truck Driving Championships.

The annual event, this year in Pittsburgh, has never in its 77-year history had more than eight women competing, according to its primary sponsor, American Trucking Associations.

Six of the 11, drive for FedEx, the only carrier that has more than one woman in the competition.

The number of women contestant this year marks another “awesome” milestone for the trucking industry and for women, said Ellen Voie, president of Women In Trucking, a national organization that seeks to get more women behind the wheel.

Photo: FedEx team members, left to right: Christy Tolbert, Kathy VanTassell, Debbie Conn, Becky Nelson, Rachel Bothwell and Lindsay Smith

NTDC, which has 426 drivers in all competing this year, is a “great opportunity to show the non-trucking public the advances the industry has made” in becoming more diverse and driver friendly for anyone interested in a driving career, Voie said.

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“Women are gaining momentum as their presence as professional drivers becomes more visible,” she said. “The female competitors are mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters who competently handle these rigs through the maneuvers and complete the oral and written portions of the test alongside their male counterparts.”

Three of the 11 women are competing in the step van competition, now six years old. However, the others are spread across the spectrum of driving divisions, flatbed, twins, four-axle, three-axle, and straight truck.

There is no woman competing in the tanker division this year but, last year, Con-Way Freight’s Ina Daly of Avondale, Arizona, became the first woman to win a national division championship and her win was in the tanker division.

When she isn’t competing Daly drives twins for Con-Way and this year will compete in the flatbed division.

Daley said that just because she’s been a national division winner in the past does not mean she can kick back this year. The competition is too stiff for that, she said.

“You can’t think, ‘Oh I’m a national champion, now, I can just kick back, I know I can win so I’ll just go with my skills as is,’” Daly said. “You have to improve your skills every year. There’s a lot of great competition out there.”

Only four of the 11 women are rookies, meaning this is their first year in the competition.

Daly said she knows she’s a role model and one of the most touching things about it is that often male drivers tell her that she’s an inspiration to their daughters.

“They go home and they tell their kids, ‘Hey, we had a woman driver who won the national championship,’ and their daughters are really interested,” she said.

A woman office worker at Con-Way told Daly that the woman’s daughter was inspired enough by Daly’s success to aspire to be a prison guard.

“Just a woman was successful in a male environment and I think that sets a good example for younger women,” Daly said.

Verna Gillen of Columbus, Indiana, a contestant in the twins division, said: “My hope is that other women see this and they’ll say, ‘You know what, I can do this too,’ because I get that all the time, ‘Well, I could never drive a truck; I could never do that.’ But it changed my life and I just hope it inspires other people to do it too.”

Gillen, a driver for Old Dominion Freight Line, worked in a bakery for years before she became a driver nine years ago after watching her sister and other women earn their livings as truckers.

“She said, ‘If I can do it, you can do it to.’ She was an inspiration to me,” said Gillen, adding that her husband, James, a former driver, also encouraged her.

“He’s always the one who says, ‘You can do whatever you set your mind to.’ I guess that was the one time I listened to him,” Gillen chuckled.

The mother of five and grandmother of two, Gillen will compete after having become the first woman to win a division championship in the Indiana state competition, her first try at any competition.

Lisa Bry of Ravensdale, Washington, is competing in the straight truck division, after having won the grand championship in her state. She also won that honor in the state in 2012.

Bry, now driving for The Boeing Company, started as a trucker 30 years ago.

“There were a couple women prior to me that had started driving that I kind of looked up to, so, hopefully,  there are some that have looked up to me,” she said.

Bry said she first began competing in driving championships in the 1980s but gave it up for many years while driving for companies that did not support such efforts.

“You have to have the company behind you,” Bry said. “I’m so glad to have a company that backs us up,” she said of Boeing.

The other women contestants include step van competitors Christy Tolbert of Richland Hills, Texas; Rebecca Nelson of Anchorage, Alaska; and Theresa Spencer of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Tolbert and Nelson drive for FedEx Express. Spencer drives for A&A Express, Inc.

Other women contestants are: Rachel Bothwell, a FedEx Freight driver from Rapid City, South Dakota, competing in the flatbed division; Angela Leary of Worland, Wyoming, a driver for Fremont Beverage Inc., competing in the sleeper division; and Debra Conn of Walls, Arkansas, a FedEx Freight driver competing in twins.

Kathleen Vantassell of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, a FedEx Express driver is competing in the four-axle division. In three-axels, Lindsay Smith of Alberton, Montana, a FedEx Ground driver, is competing.