Special Coverage of the National Truck Driving Championships

King of Kentucky Truckers: Willinger Bound for NTDC Again

FedEx Freight Driver Conquers 4-Axle Field to Clinch 13th Trip to Nationals
John Willinger (left) and Rick Taylor
Kentucky grand champion John Willinger receives the trophy from Kentucky Trucking Association CEO Rick Taylor. Willinger prevailed in the 4-axle class on the way to taking top honors. (Kentucky Trucking Association)

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The overwhelming memory of John Willinger’s time at the Kentucky Truck Driving Championships this year is of focus and persistence.

The decorated commercial driver with FedEx Freight performed brilliantly in the Bluegrass State’s precision driving tournament May 19-20 in Sparta. His state-level grand champion showing in the 4-axle class ensured him another trip to this summer’s National Truck Driving Championships and National Step Van Driving Championships.

FedEx ranks No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

The state tournament consistently challenges his skills and safety acumen. Of course, one aspect of the event typically stands out. “The driving course is my favorite part. That’s what I seem to excel in over the written test or the pre-trip,” he said.

Getting to Know You

John Willinger of FedEx Freight


Name: John Willinger

Age: 59

Company: FedEx Freight

Vehicle: 4-axle

Favorite Movie: Forrest Gump

Last Song You Heard: Something by AC/DC

Favorite Sport: College football

All-Time Favorite Vacation: Niagara Falls

What Do You Say to Yourself Before Driving at NTDC: “I can do this.”

Something People Don’t Know About You: I have a twin brother.

A typical trucking tournament consists of an obstacle course, a pre-trip vehicle inspection and an examination of rules and regulations. Top performers in the nine vehicle classes qualify for nationals.

Willinger will be making his 13th trip to American Trucking Associations' “Super Bowl of Safety.” Preparing for nationals, which will be held in Columbus, Ohio, in mid-August, is an everyday affair for 2017’s Kentucky Driver of the Year.

“Honestly, I think I’ve got maybe a hand up on some of the other folks there because I’m a city driver,” he explained. “I get in tight spots all the time. You got to back it up, you know, in crazy places, and it’s not always a straight back. You sometimes got to wiggle your trailer around to get in nice tight places.”

For Willinger, embarking on the annual trip to the national event is an opportunity to embrace safety alongside peers as well as showcase his talents. To continue to qualify year after year requires a great deal of motivation.

“I would say probably there is a little bit of dedication involved with it,” he said. “You can’t just normally show up and hope for the best. That usually doesn’t work out very well for drivers to do that; you got to put a little bit into it.

NTDC 2023

The Road to the 2023 National Truck Driving Championships

State ScheduleNTDC Qualifiers | Map of State Champions | Photo Gallery

Who: Winners from nine categories at the state level who have advanced to the national competition, where a Grand Champion will be crowned

What: Contestants are judged on a written exam, pre-trip inspection and driving skills

When: Aug. 16-19

Where: Columbus, Ohio

“So months leading up to the competition we do voluntarily go into our facility, and we have our own course that we set up and we practice probably for two, two-and-a-half months before our competition.”

Ultimately, competing at nationals is about camaraderie for Willinger. Time spent with colleagues is a cherished experience.

"I’ve met a lot of really good friends over the years doing this,” he said. “I know people all over the United States, you know, that I wouldn’t have had the chance to know them had I not been involved in truck driving competitions.”

Other Kentucky winners:

3-Axle: Jim Niswander, UPS

5-Axle: Norman Penn, Walmart

Flatbed: Ernest Wagers Jr., Old Dominion Freight Line

Sleeper Berth: Jerry Wrinkle, Walmart

Step Van: Peter Dreisbach Jr., UPS

Straight Truck: James McNulty III, FedEx Express

Tank Truck: Rodney Hill, Walmart

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