Roadway’s Lewis Is Named 2007 NTDC Grand Champion

By Daniel P. Bearth, Staff Writer
This story appears in the Sept. 3 print edition of Transport Topics.

MINNEAPOLIS — Alphonso Lewis, a city driver for Roadway Express in Montgomery, Ala., was named grand champion at the National Truck Driving Championships, the first African American to earn the honor.
Lewis, 45, earned the title based on his performance in a driving skills course laid out inside the Minneapolis Con-vention Center and based on his scores on a written exam that tested his knowledge of safety and industry facts, plus a pre-trip inspection and a personal interview.
Lewis scored highest in a field of 375 state driving champions who competed in eight classes of vehicles. He placed first among 49 drivers who competed in the four-axle class.
“I feel like I was wired to do this,” Lewis said as he accepted the championship trophy to the raucous cheers of fellow Roadway drivers and the applause of hundreds of competitors, volunteers and trucking company executives at the conclusion of the 70th annual “Super Bowl of Safety” sponsored by American Trucking Associations here Aug. 25.
“We’re all champions here,” Lewis said as he thanked co-workers for encouraging him to compete in eight state championships and three na-tional competitions over the past two decades.
“Daddy was a driver, so I think it came naturally to me,” said Lewis, who began driving heavy-duty trucks in 1986. He has been with Roadway, one of two longhaul less-than-truckload carriers owned by YRC Worldwide, since 1999.
A total of 79 drivers employ-
ed by YRC’s Yellow Transportation and Roadway units and its regional LTL carrier group participated in the 2007 championships, the most of any single company.
Jason Matte of Pearl, Miss., a driver for FedEx Freight, was named rookie of the year, besting the performances of 31 other first-time competitors.
The championships also featured 10 competitors who were women, the most ever, said ATA officials.
John Hazlett, a driver for ABF Freight System who works out of the ABF service center in Vincentown, N.J., received the Neill Darmstadter Professional Excellence Award. It is presented to the driver who has at least seven years of state and national championship experience and who best represents the industry based on driving record, skill and attitude. The award is named for a former ATA safety engineer who was instrumental in creating the first national truck “roadeo.”
Hazlett won first place in the three-axle class. It was the third time he has placed first in his class, winning previously in 1994 and 2000, and it is the eighth time that he has competed in the national championships.
In presenting the Professional Excellence Award, John Hill, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, showed a 30-second video that featured NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace urging truck drivers to wear their seat belts. Approximately 300 truck drivers a year lose their lives because they are not buckled up when crashes occur, Hill said.
“You represent the very best in the country,” Hill told the contestants. “I wish more of America could see the great example you set for all drivers.”
To compete in the national truck driving championships, drivers must be accident-free for at least 12 months prior to the event. The drivers who competed in Minneapolis had a combined 542 million accident-free miles, ATA officials said.
The winner of the Vehicle Condition Award, given to the driver who scored highest in the vehicle inspection test and demonstrated superior knowledge of truck maintenance practices and a commitment to safety, was Paul Robichaud of Bedford, N.H. Robichaud competed in the straight truck class for FedEx Express.
The Outstanding Voluntary Service Award was presented to Douglas Lax Sr. of Sumter Transport Inc. Lax has been involved in the championships since 1995 and this year was a “den mother” for drivers who competed in the three-axle class.
One of the tasks of a den mother is to keep drivers occupied while waiting their turn to compete. Lax and other den mothers approached the job with humor and creativity by wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Who’s Your Mama?” on them, providing puzzles and coloring books, movies, beach balls and other objects that were tossed around in a room called the “bullpen.”
Chuck Mosqueda, transportation safety manager for United Warehouse Co. in Wichita, Kan., said he once set up a chair in the middle of the room over an electrical outlet and added jumper cables to create the impression of an “electric chair.”
“Anything to break the ice helps drivers to relax,” he said.
This year, Mosqueda worked with 20 other volunteers to set up the pre-trip inspection test. Other volunteers serve as judges, equipment handlers, scorers and timekeepers.
Competitors are most enthusiastic about the skills course, which is set up as a series of six problems and is designed to test the ability of drivers to judge distances, maneuver tight spaces and precisely position vehicles over scales, before barriers and around curves.
Gary Mason, a driver for ABF Freight System in Cheyenne, Wyo., said it’s a bit “like shooting pool.” “You have to always set up for the next problem,” he said.
Mason, whose regular job is driving a double-trailer rig to and from Salt Lake City three days a week, said he likes the backing problems the most.
“This year, it’s a pretty straightforward course. Sometimes you see things that are weird and twisted, things you’ve not seen before. Nothing is a big surprise here. It’s a matter of getting it done right.”
Many drivers see the championships as an opportunity to renew friendships with drivers from across the country.
“We’re like a family here,” said Willie Holter of Elkton, Md., a driver for Roadway. “Winning is like icing on the cake.”
Holter has appeared in the national championships nine times since 1991 with his best finish being second place in Columbus, Ohio, in 2005.
“I love competing,” said Charlie Woodland, a driver for FedEx Freight in Arizona who competed in the straight truck class. Woodland has been a state champion 11 times and said he is determined to continue competing until he wins the top prize.
“I’m a proud pappy,” said Linwood Walker, a past grand champion who saw his son, Brian, place third in the five-axle class this year.
Walker said his son was just a year old in 1981 when he won the title of grand champion as a driver for Overnite Transportation. Brian followed in his father’s footsteps and now drives a truck for UPS Freight (formerly Overnite) in Greensboro, N.C.
The championships draw hundreds of family members, co-workers, company executives and industry officials.
“It gives you a good feeling to see such solid citizens,” said Warren Hoemann, senior vice president of industry affairs for ATA, who noted that trucking faces an increasingly challenging environment for recruiting and retaining truck drivers.
ATA Chairman Ray Koontz, chief executive officer of Watkins and Shepard Trucking in Helena, Mont., said it was an “incredible honor” to be with a select group of the nation’s best truck drivers.
“Nothing I’ve done compares to this,” he said. “You’re the best we have to offer.”
Grady Brown, safety director for UPS Freight, said drivers who compete in the NTDC “go through a transformation.”
“They come in as driving competitors, and they leave here as safety leaders,” he said.
UPS had 26 drivers competing in the nationals, 23 of whom were with UPS Freight.
Kevin Strahan, director of corporate health and safety for UPS Inc., said the company will do more to encourage participation in the championships by drivers in its parcel and logistics business units and from other companies.
“It doesn’t matter that our competitors are here,” Strahan said. “There are no lines when it comes to safety. We’re all partners.”
Doug Duncan, president of FedEx Freight, said his company’s support for driver participation in the state and national championships is a way to make safety “fun” for drivers and their families.
“Safety can be a dry subject,” Duncan said. “We use the state championships as a way to show our support for drivers. We set up tents, cook hot dogs. Drivers are the foundation of our business, so we treat them like they’re special.”
There are also practical benefits to the company, Duncan said. Driver turnover at FedEx Freight is in the low single digits, for example, he said.
“On customer satisfaction surveys, the segment that always gets the highest score is drivers,” Duncan said. “And that makes sense, because drivers see more customers than our sales force every day.”
A total of 78 drivers from 38 states represented FedEx Corp. in the championships, and two drivers — Scott Watts of FedEx Express in Anchorage, Alaska, and John Smith Jr. of FedEx Ground in Tupelo, Miss. — won first place in the straight truck and flatbed classes, respectively.