March 29, 2016 10:35 AM, EDT

It All Comes Down to Inches During Louisiana Truck Driving Championships

Through a Saturday morning drizzle, vehicles sped along Interstate 10 past the Highland Road exit. In a few hours, some of the drivers likely would be in front of a TV watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Yet, several hundred feet away, another version of March Madness was taking place.

“This is a real big deal,” said Henry Bruster, one of the competitors from UPS Freight and an America's Road Team captain (see LiveOnWeb driver recruitment and retention video).

One that might help those nearby drivers make it to their destinations.

The 2016 Louisiana Motor Transport Association Truck Driving Championships took place March 18-19 in Baton Rouge. For 108 drivers — seven more were unable to get in from Texas because I-10 was closed at the Louisiana state line — it was a chance to test their skill and knowledge against their peers.

“There’s a difference between a truck driver and a professional truck driver,” said Bruster, 39, who lives in Woodville, Mississippi, and drives for a Louisiana office of UPS. “I take pride in what I’m doing.”

“These are the best of the best,” said Cathy Gautreaux, LMTA’s executive director.

The focus of the annual competition is safety.

It begins with an hourlong written exam testing drivers’ knowledge of the trucking industry, safe-driving rules, first aid and fire fighting. Then, drivers undergo a pre-trip inspection test in which State Police officers create defects — such as missing or bad wiper blades, malfunctioning seat belt or an unsecured hood latch — that drivers must find on a vehicle and trailer.

Then came the driving.

State Police set up courses on the Blue Bayou Water Park parking lot. Drivers had to test their abilities to make tight turns, back up as close as possible to a faux loading dock and stop as close as possible to lines in front or to the right of the vehicles.

When turning, drivers had to try to put the front left wheel close to a rubber duck to earn the most points. Too far away earns zero points.

So does running over the duck, which happened once, forcing troopers to massage it back into shape.

“Give it CPR!” shouted one onlooker, of which there were many.

Trucking companies set up tents along the course where co-workers and family members cheered the drivers in a tailgate atmosphere that would do Tiger Stadium proud.

But it’s no picnic for the drivers. Until they compete, they wait surrounded by semi trailers that prevent them from seeing how their competitors are doing. Watchful eyes scan the crowd to make sure no one signals them while they’re on the course, Gautreaux said.

Many drivers must go through preliminary competitions for the right to represent their company at the state championships. Any driver who has an accident or moving violation in the past year is automatically disqualified, Gautreaux said.

“To come to this event, they’re studying hard,” said Gregg Miles, of Hammond, whose company, C&S Wholesale Services, had four drivers in the competition. “I had one throwing up last night with nerves.”

The winners in the nine different truck categories, from step vans to five-axle tankers, qualify for the national championships, which will be held in August in Indianapolis. Those were announced at a banquet that evening at the Renaissance Hotel.

As much as the drivers want the honor, they realize that trophies are secondary to the competition’s purpose of promoting safety, Bruster said.

“I have a family. You have a family,” he said. “Everybody has a right to go to work, come home and arrive safely. That’s what our truck drivers want to do. … Some of these are the safest guys on the road, right here.”