Past Grand Champion Dick Gillespie Stays Close to NTDC
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Veteran truck driver and two-time grand champion Dick Gillespie says he never tires of coming to trucking events such as the National Truck Driving Championships and National Step Van Championships. After all, at a still-spry 80 and working part time as a driver in his native Minnesota, it has been a lifelong passion.
“My driving started when I was 4 years old. My uncle put me on the tractor and put it in gear and let it idle and I was too small to put the clutch in and stop it,” he reminisced. “And he said, ‘Just drive around the yard and when you want to stop it, just turn the key off.’ I was 4 years old, all around the yard, driving around the farm.”
It was just a few years later Gillespie was behind the wheel of the family car.
“I was early driving a car, too. I was 7. My dad took me to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds when the fair wasn’t there, and I drove the family’s 1936 four-door sedan Ford, with the shifter on the floor.
Dick Gillespie attends his 43rd NTDC in 2014 in Pittsburgh. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
“He said I did so good that we got the whole family in the car, and I was driving around a city block. Driving has always been very natural to me.”
After being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1963, Gillespie began his long trucking career. At age 21, the leadership of Minneapolis-based Century Motor Freight saw his driving expertise and encouraged him to compete in the Minnesota Truck Driving Championships. He won in the straight truck category, and he arrived at his first NTDC in 1965 in Kansas City. Nearly 60 years later, he’s still a familiar face, quick with a smile and ready to offer assistance and advice to any of the competitors.
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
Gillespie is the only contestant in the history of NTDC to be named a two-time champion (in 1988 and 1991) who also was the top driver in seven different categories. He also was Minnesota state champion 13 times.
Gillespie worked for Century Motor Freight for 22 years until the company was sold, and later he drove a step van for the Minnesota Star-Tribune before retiring full time. But today he’s still at it, working part time for the local Kenworth dealership in Minneapolis delivering and picking up trucks several days a week.
Gillespie amassed 4.5 million miles of safe driving with one noncharged accident, when a woman in a passenger car hit his truck.
“My company would give me S&H Green Stamps if I had a year of no accidents, but my safety priority was to stay eligible for the state competition and the national levels,” he said. Gillespie emphasized that every day he stepped into the cab he wanted to drive as safely as possible That mindset continues today.
He said he would spend a great deal of time before the competition reading and re-reading the rule book and learning the course, so he was in the best position to compete.
“One of the things I always said to myself was don’t be distracted by the people in the bleachers, just concentrate on the course. I didn’t get nervous because I did what I had to do to score a good number. Concentrate on what you’re doing,” Gillespie said.
Driving has always been very natural to me.
He explained his decision to step away from competition in his late 40s, when many of his colleagues told him then he was at the top of his game.
“Every time I won it was a thrill, and I thought, why should I go on?” Gillespie said. “Let someone else have that thrill. I had done enough. I had won every type of class, and I wanted to give someone else the thrill of standing up on that stage. It was an easy decision.”
Gillespie has stayed close to NTDC for 30-plus years as a volunteer, assisting in any way he can and trying to make the competition fair and trying to keep the drivers on the course comfortable and focused.
Smudges on this duck marker show the difficulty some drivers had in navigating the course this year. (Judd Hanson/Transport Topics)
He also enjoys watching the new generation of truckers tackle the course, which he says is harder than the one he competed on.
“There are some of the problems today with the course that you have to be lucky to score on,” Gillespie said. “There’s the zig-zag, you have no idea where the front axle is going to be steering and you have to be within 12 inches of a rubber duck. It’s a tougher course now.”
The duck is one of several placed on the course by the judges and if you hit it, it costs the drivers points.
The trucking veteran has no plans to retire, and he expects to be at NTDC in Indianapolis next year and his hometown of Minneapolis in 2025.
“NTDC is something I look forward to every year,” Gillespie said with a smile. “I’m not a couch potato, I decided a long time ago I’m not going to sit around and watch TV and be retired. I’m going to be active and working, and this is one of the things I like to do.”
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