[Stay on top of transportation news: Get TTNews in your inbox.]
PITTSBURGH — The second day of regular competition at the National Truck Driving Championships, which presented drivers with a demanding course, wound to a close Aug. 16.
Five classes — 3-Axle, 4-Axle, Flatbed, Tank Truck and Step Van — evenly cycled through the obstacles, the murmur of the crowd and the announcers punctuated occasionally by the staccato of a horn or the whine of brakes.
The skills test challenged drivers with six obstacles, or “problems,” each of which are worth up to 50 points. Among the six problems were double scoring pads, which require a driver to guide his or her right steer tire evenly over two pads in a continuous motion. Competitors also had to execute two turns while rounding a rubber duck, drive in a continuous motion along a straight line and back into a dummy loading dock.
Who: Winners from nine categories at the state level have advanced to the national competition, where a Grand Champion will be crowned
What: Contestants are judged on a written examination and their driving skills
When: Aug. 14-17
The final obstacle was the floating front stop, which tasks a driver with stopping the bumper directly on top of a scoring zone. They can score between 30 and 45 points by stopping over a 12-inch span of tape or 50 points by stopping over a 6-inch span of tape. The tricky part is that an 18-inch “dead zone,” worth zero points, separates the two scoring areas.
“They have to make a decision. When they’re going around the course, if they don’t think they’re doing good, they’ll go for the 50,” said Derick Welch, a safety specialist at FedEx who was one of the judges assigned to the floating front stop. “It’s a tough problem. It’s a gamble.”
Welch said, based on his observations, drivers scored on the problem about 20% of the time.
Several drivers, including 4-Axle competitor Artur Lesniowski, a FedEx Ground driver who won the top prize at the New Jersey Truck Driving Championships in June, identified the floating front stop as the toughest problem. Eric Damon, a FedEx Express driver from Colorado who participated in the Step Van competition, said this problem is particularly difficult because the driver can’t see the target. Damon is defending national champion in that category, having taken top honors at NTDC in Columbus, Ohio, in 2018.
Round talks to TT. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Ronald Round, a Maine-based driver for Pottle’s Transportation, acknowledged the front stop’s difficulty but maintained a positive disposition. Round’s performance marks his seventh showing at NTDC; he competed in the Flatbed class.
“That’s a tough problem to score. That’s a really small target to be hitting,” Round said. “I think I’ve had better days, but I know I’ve had worse. So far, I’m happy with what I did but I’ll know more when I see the scores.”
Drivers attending NTDC for the first time have been impressed with the scale of the competition and the excellence of their fellow participants. John Reyes, an XPO Logistics driver from Missouri who competed in the 3-Axle class, said he especially loves the people and recognizes that the skills polished at the competition will make him better every day on the job.
“It’s exciting. It’s really professional,” said James Plaxco, an Oregon-based driver for Old Dominion Freight Line competing in the 4-Axle division. “It runs really smooth. It’s a great experience.”
Returning drivers also relish the atmosphere of professionalism and support. Kevin Mailand, a YRC Freight driver based in Kansas, said the event is an opportunity to reconnect with fellow drivers he has met over the years. Mailand is competing in the 3-Axle class.
Mailand’s path to NTDC contained substantial obstacles. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with advanced Stage 3 esophageal cancer and given an 18% chance to live. He was declared cancer-free this past May and is attending nationals this year with his wife, Michelle, cheering him on.
“Just to compete, just to be able to do it, is very rewarding to me,” Mailand said. “That’s the nicest thing about this whole competition is the people you meet and the friends that you make over the course of time.”