August 10, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

Drivers to Test Skills at National Championship

John Sommers II for TT

This story appears in the Aug. 8 print edition of Transport Topics.

ABF Freight System truck driver Tim McElwaney got hooked on competing in the National Truck Driving Championships in 2008.

He’s never been the same since.

“I had a man tell me one time if you ever start doing it, you’ll get hooked. And he was right,” said the Atlanta- based 55-year-old trucker who has spent 34 years behind the wheel.

McElwaney, Georgia’s champ in the tank truck class, has competed in state contests every year since 2008, except the summer his son graduated from college.

“My wife said I had to go to the graduation, that there was no option,” McElwaney said.

This year marks his fifth time making it to the national competition.

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“I see the same drivers year after year after year,” said Larry Bizzell, this year’s contest chairman and a safety official with FedEx Ground. “They all want to get back to prove to themselves how good they are. They also build relationships not only with drivers in their own companies but with other drivers across companies.”

McElwaney is one of 430 drivers headed to the 79th annual National Truck Driving Championships and National Step Van Driving Championships being held Aug. 10-13 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.

Collectively, the competitors have logged more than 630 million accident-free miles.

The championships, often called the “Super Bowl of Safety,” are hosted each year by American Trucking Associations. When the competition began in 1937, it was known as the National Truck Rodeo.

Just getting to nationals isn’t easy. This year, more than 5,200 drivers competed in nine categories at the state level. Only 34 rookies made the final cut.

This year, there are three female drivers in the national competition compared with five last year and a record of 11 in 2014.

For the national competition, the class and grand champion winners will be those drivers who do the best job performing pre-trip inspections, a “skills test” that involves negotiating a tough driving course on the convention floor, and on a written test.

Many drivers have said they find the written test difficult. To prepare, they must study a 196-page book, “Facts for Drivers,” that quizzes them on subjects ranging from trucking history to first aid and fire safety.

“The state level competition is hard in its own right,” said UPS Inc. driver William Pack, Maryland’s 3-axle champ. “But once you get to the national level, you see how they take it up a notch.”

Pack has logged 2.3 million accident-free miles since he became a truck driver in 1991.

“To go 2.3 million miles, you’ve got to keep your head constantly on a swivel and be mentally aware of your surroundings,” Pack said. “You almost have to try and read the mind of the other drivers — and that’s hard to do.”

Chantee Ings, a Domino’s Pizza driver, is making his first trip to nationals as Maryland’s 4-axle champ. Ings said he competed in last year’s state championship but didn’t make the cut.

“I’m still in shock,” Ings said. “I’m real nervous because this is the nationals.”

A total of 73 companies will be represented in this year’s championships. The competition is open to drivers who work for carriers that are members of ATA or state trucking associations.

Seven of the competing companies will be represented at the national competition with more than 10 drivers. In total, three of every four drivers will be from those seven companies.

Once again, three FedEx Corp. companies are sending the most drivers by far — 174, all of them state champs or state class winners.

Others include Wal-Mart Transportation, 53; XPO Logistics, 39; UPS, 24; Old Dominion Freight Line, 19; YRC Freight, 16; and ABF Freight System, 16.

Competitors are required to be accident-free for one year prior to the competition or they can be removed immediately if they have a crash, regardless of fault. As recently as two weeks ago, two drivers were disqualified after their trucks were involved in accidents.

McElwaney, who has logged more than 3 million accident-free miles, said avoiding crashes takes “a little bit of luck and a little bit of success.”

“I could give a lot of credit to the Lord above because there’s a lot of times that I missed hitting things that I don’t know how I missed them, or how they missed me,” McElwaney said.

But make no mistake about it, these drivers breathe, eat and sleep safety.

“They are the best of the best, the ultimate professionals,” Bizzell said. “Even those that did not win but competed at state went the entire year accident-free.”

Many of the drivers say they drew their inspiration from their fathers or grandfathers, who also drove trucks for a living. Some say they got behind the wheel of a big rig even before their feet could reach the pedals.

Some of the competitors had careers prior to becoming professional truck drivers.

Charles Staples, a FedEx Freight driver and Alabama’s flatbed class champ, raced dirt track cars for 26 years; Christopher Novak, a FedEx Express driver and 5-axle class champ in Vermont, was a professional snowboarder in college; and Cedric Pack, a FedEx Freight driver and 3-axle class champ in Washington state, was a deejay for 20 years.

Still others find time for part-time pursuits: FedEx Freight South Dakota flatbed champ Jay Love also is mayor of Davis, South Dakota; and Glen Cooke, Connecticut’s step van champion for FedEx Express, is an NCAA Division I hockey referee.

One driver helped stop a robbery, another pulled a young girl from a car involved in a crash and one even helped a sheriff recapture a suspect who jumped out of a moving squad car in an escape attempt. One driver lists his most proud accomplishment as donating his bone marrow.

Driver Denis Litalien, who drives for Shaw’s Supermarkets, which owns Clifford W. Perham Inc., has driven 3.3 million accident-free miles — 40 years without an accident — said that while he enjoys the competition, he most values the relationships he made while at the event.

Litalien, Maine’s 4-axle champ, said he often travels through Boston, where he said his fellow motorists are “not very interested in helping you keep your driving record clean.”

This year will be his 15th trip to the national competition.

“There’s so many good people that get involved that are in the same line of work,” Litalien said. “Over the years, I’ve gotten to know so many of these people so well that we’ve become lifelong friends. Going to the championships is like a family reunion.”