Harms Gives Wal-Mart an NTDC Grand Champion

Con-way Driver First Woman to Win Class Title
By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 2 print edition of Transport Topics.

SALT LAKE CITY — Wal-Mart Transportation driver Gary Harms and his wife, Roni, never figured they would need to schedule time for late-night celebrating after an awards banquet honoring contestants in the National Truck Driving Championships here ended. The couple had arranged to quietly slip out of town Aug. 25 on a pre-dawn flight back home to Kansas.

But that all changed when Harms learned during the banquet that he had edged out 419 other competitors to become Grand Champion of the 2013 NTDC — the first Wal-Mart driver to be so honored.

He said he never imagined he’d be named the nation’s best all-around truck driver.

“I didn’t feel I’d done well enough in my driving after seeing some of the earlier scores from the day before the finals,” Harms said. “It was kind of unexpected.”

The Grand Champion award is sponsored by Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems.

And in another first for the championships, Ina Daly won the Tank Truck competition — becoming the first woman to take first place in any class.

“As a person, it feels incredible,” said Daly, a Con-way Freight driver from Arizona who was one of only four women who made it to the nationals this year. “As a woman, I just feel like I opened a door. Little girls need to know that they can step out of the box and do whatever they want to do.”

Daly also was among the elite few (five, to be exact) to earn a perfect score on the written exam. The only other driver to get a perfect written score and win a class championship was Timothy Melody, an ABF Freight System driver who won the twins competition.

As for Grand Champion Harms and his wife, the couple celebrated with friends a few hours after the banquet, grabbed a two-hour power nap and still made their 4:30 a.m. flight home — even though Wal-Mart offered to extend the celebration by arranging for a much later flight.

The unassuming Harms, 50, of Olathe, Kan., took Monday off and was back in the cab Tuesday for a six-day road trip through the Midwest.

Like many of the grand champions preceding him, Harms attributed his success to thinking about safety every time he gets in the cab — as well as to hours of practice.

“I carry cones in my truck,” Harms said. “I wake up early a lot of mornings and practice in the back of the Wal-Mart about an hour before I start my day.”

Harms drives a six-days-on, three-days-off rotating shift based out of a Wal-Mart distribution center in Ottawa, Kan. He’s logged 1.7 million accident-free miles in his 28 years behind the wheel — eight of those years driving for Wal-Mart.

In addition to being named grand champion, Harms placed first in the competition’s sleeper-berth class.

He began competing in his state truck driving championships in 2007. This was his second trip to the NTDC. In 2011, he placed first in the 4-axle class.

Roni Harms said her husband generally is very serious and easygoing.

“It takes a lot to get him upset,” she said. “He takes this competition very seriously. He’s a perfectionist.”

American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves said that Harms “truly represents what is best about our industry.”

And while Graves was talking about safety and skill, drivers said that good fortune can play a role that is just as important when it comes to qualifying for the national competition.

For example, George Johnson — a UPS Freight driver from Virginia who won the 5-axle competition — said getting to the nationals required not only skill and knowledge of the trucking industry, but also a lot of luck.

“You’ve got to go a year without any bumps or crashes,” Johnson said. “The way people drive now, luck plays into it an awful lot. Most of the time you can control what you do, but you can’t control the other guy.”

But for the most part, the drivers who get here are skilled and experienced, with many possessing a work ethic bigger than a 53-foot trailer.

“These guys that do this are highly motivated individuals,” said Dan Thompson, an Alabama twins champ who drives for FedEx Freight. “They’re safer than most drivers, they love competition and they love their jobs.”

And that competitive level includes trucking companies. Two carriers had multiple drivers take top-of-class honors: FedEx drivers won three of the nine classes, and ABF Freight System captured two.

Another noteworthy individual performance was turned in by Bruce Renton, a Holland driver based in Grand Rapids, Mich., who was named NTDC 2013 Rookie of the Year. Renton, who has been a trucker for 13 years, is a Gulf War veteran and recipient of the U.S. Army Commendation Medal.

Wal-Mart driver Rick Pledger, the Texas flatbed-class state champ, came into the competition with 5.2 million accident-free miles, the most of all the contestants.

Overall, more than 250 drivers were in the national competition who had logged a million or more safe miles.

ATA’s 76th annual competition, held here Aug. 21-24, was intense, and for some drivers, nerve-racking.

To get to the competition — dubbed the Super Bowl of Safety — drivers must be accident-free for a year before the competition and nearly all must place first in their respective state competitions.

FedEx Freight driver Kirk Kelley was the 4-axle champ from Nevada. He echoed many of the drivers’ comments, saying it’s the waiting for a turn on the course that can be overwhelming. To steady his nerves, he jumps up and down minutes before he gets in the cab.

“It gets me calmed down,” Kelley said. “It bugs the other guys, but seems to work for me.”

The contestants also must take a written test; a timed pre-trip in-spection; and, within 10 minutes, successfully negotiate a tight course that includes six “problems” that challenge their ability to judge distances. They also must back blindly into a simulated dock, maneuver tight spaces, and reverse, park and position their vehicles exactly over scales and around curves.

These are skills Harms had to learn after deciding to change his career. He grew up on a farm but earned his college degree in accounting.

“I sat in an office for about a year and realized, ‘I don’t think I can handle this,’ ” he said. “I went out and found a job with a friend who moved 16-by-80-foot mobile homes.”

Harms did that for more than 10 years, landed another trucking job and ultimately ended up driving for Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart’s been very good to me,” he said. “I enjoy my job, I love the people that work there, and I just enjoy going in there every week.”

Daly has spent 30 years in the cab of a truck for the same reason. “The camaraderie we have makes you proud to be a truck driver,” she said.

It was her 10th trip to the national competition, and she said each time she gets on the course “it’s terrifying.”

“I think I’m pretty easygoing,” she said. “But I get nervous — really nervous — driving competitively. I think most people do.”

She said that after her course run for the finals she thought she might have a shot at second place.

Each time she runs the course, she has her 3-year-old grandson’s miniature Hot Wheels car in one pocket, a cross in the other and a note from a fellow truck driver that says, ‘I believe in you.’ ”

Her father drove a truck for 35 years without an accident and encouraged her to follow in his footsteps.

“He told me it’s not true that women shouldn’t drive trucks,” she said.

The toughest of the six problems on the driving course this year clearly was the “alley dock,” which required drivers to back as closely as possible into a gate without hitting it, said Susan Chandler, executive director of American Trucking Associations’ Safety Management Council.

They were not permitted to stop as they backed up, Chandler said.

On the first day of the competition, it took an hour and 18 drivers before the first point was scored. The reason, numerous drivers said, was that on the job, they typically back into the dock, stopping a few times to get their bearings before actually bumping the dock, said YRC Freight driver Wilson Meier Jr., the New York state champion in the 5-axle class.

Meier has been to the big show seven times, but he said it doesn’t get easier.

“Every year I come here, when I get in the cab, the hands shake and the knees shake,” Meier said.

It didn’t help that this year, for the first time, drivers were not permitted to sit in the cab of the truck they were driving prior to the competition.

But Chandler said this year’s course was intended to be a little easier in hopes of raising driver scores in the skills test.

However, that didn’t happen. Overall, the average score was 134.8 of a possible 300 points, while last year’s average was 139.8, officials said. This year’s highest average class score was 187.4 in the 3-axle competition.

This year’s average pre-trip score was 57.6 of a possible 100 points — lower than last year’s 63.1-point average.