State Champions to Test Skill and Knowledge

National Truck Driving Championships Set to Begin

By Daniel P. Bearth, Senior Features Writer
This story appears in the Aug. 20 print edition of Transport Topics
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More than 375 professional truck drivers from all 50 states are expected to compete this week in what American Trucking Associations calls the “Super Bowl of Safety” — the National Truck Driving Championships in Minneapolis.
The competition is designed to recognize not only a driver’s performance at the championships “but also his or her lifetime commitment to safety,” said Susan Chandler, executive director of the Safety & Loss Prevention Management Council of ATA.
Competitors will test their driving skills in eight classes of vehicles on a course inside the Minneapolis Convention Center that includes simulated obstacles such as an alley dock, a rear and front line stop, a scales stop, a right or left turn, parallel parking and straight line driving through a diminishing clearance.
Participants also must undergo a personal interview, complete a written exam and conduct a pre-trip vehicle inspection to test their knowledge of safety, equipment and facts about the trucking industry.
The combined test scores are tallied to determine national champions in each truck class. An overall grand champion is to be selected, based on a handicapping system that compares a driver’s cumulative score with the average score in the vehicle category in which the driver competed.
Gerald Cudmore, a driver from South Dakota for Yellow Transportation who is competing in the tank truck class, said the experience has helped him to maintain a spotless driving record. Cudmore,and 12 national championships, has had no traffic tickets or accidents in a career that started in 1965.
“Every year, you have to stay safe to compete,” he said. “That makes me a better driver.”
Now on the verge of retirement, Cudmore said he wants to help other drivers achieve similar goals.
“I can’t think of another event that promotes professionalism and safety with truck drivers,” said Doug Duncan, president of FedEx Freight, a unit of FedEx Corp. FedEx Freight has a record 78 drivers from 38 states who will participate in the national competition. The drivers qualified by placing first in their truck classes at state championships.
Duncan said he became an “avid supporter” of the national driving championships a few years ago when Marty Lawson, a driver for Harley-Davidson Transportation Co. and a two-time grand champion, talked about how he used to be one of the company’s worst drivers until he got involved in the driving championships.
“He had a complete change of attitude toward safety,” Duncan said. “That made a lasting impression on me.”
To encourage participation in driving championships, FedEx Chairman Fred Smith set up the Chairman’s Challenge to support and recognize drivers in each of FedEx’s business units.
In 2003, the first year of the challenge, 902 drivers and contractors from FedEx companies participated in state-level competition, producing 58 champions. In 2006, more than 1,700 drivers participated and 76 went to the nationals.
This year, of 1,300 FedEx drivers who participated in the state championships, 78 are going to Minneapolis, including 41 first-timers, Duncan said. FedEx Freight is sending 41 drivers, FedEx Express has
20, FedEx Ground has 11, FedEx National LTL has four and FedEx Custom Critical and FedEx Supply Chain Services have one each.
Bruce Walton of Aurora, Colo., a driver for FedEx Freight who began competing 13 years ago, is going to the nationals for the third consecutive year.
“I’m learning, still,” said Walton, who also helps other drivers to prepare for competition. “When I started, I didn’t have the benefit of training. Practice is critical. There are a lot of people who want to do this, but they can’t commit to practice. The guys who can come out and practice will do the best in the competition.”
FedEx Freight’s Duncan said the company’s support of the driving championships “is a way to support drivers who are the heart and soul of our business.”
“We share the highway with a lot of other people,” he said. “We’re hopeful that our visible support will encourage others to make highway safety a priority.”
Two other companies with a large representation of drivers at the NTDC are Con-way Inc. and YRC Worldwide.
Bob Dolan of Catasauqua, Pa., a driver for Con-way Freight, finished second in the Pennsylvania Truck Driving Championships and will miss the nationals.
“I was disappointed,” he said, “but I still have a sense of accomplishment. I had a good score.”
In fact, Dolan and his fellow drivers from Con-way earned the team championship trophy for having the highest combined score.
The Pennsylvania winner was a driver for Roadway who earned his first trip to the nationals after many years of competing at the state level.
“It’s nice to see a new face,” Dolan said. “He was happy as hell.”
Dolan knows the feeling, having won the state championship in the straight truck category in his first year in 1988. He went on to compete in the nationals and win his class three times.
Con-way also sponsors companywide driving competitions, and Dolan has participated three times, winning top honors in a forklift competition and three- and four-axle tractor-trailer categories.
A total of 187 drivers competed in Pennsylvania. “It’s a very competitive state,” Dolan said.
Corporate support is important to drivers such as Dolan. “Con-way really does it well,” he said. “The company backs you completely.”
Dolan said the competition helps drivers sharpen their everyday driving skills.
“You learn daily,” he said of his job as a linehaul driver. “It’s not the same every day. You’re not passing the same traffic. The weather varies. You have equipment and roadways that are constantly changing. It’s a profession in which you are learning on a daily basis. The learning curve goes on forever.”
A total of 79 drivers are going to nationals from three less-than-truckload divisions of YRC Worldwide. Roadway is sending 38 drivers, Yellow Transportation, 28 and YRC Regional Transportation, 13.
“These professional drivers excel in highway safety,” said Terry Gilbert, president of Roadway. “We are proud . . . and wish them all the best at the national championships.”
The competition is a great team-building exercise for family members and co-workers, said Jim Staley, president of YRC Regional Transportation.
Staley said YRC will host a dinner for drivers and their families during the competition in Minneapolis.
“There’s a great sense of camaraderie,” he said.
David Gorman, president of Jevic Transportation in Delanco, N.J., said he is proud of the “talents and commitment to safety” displayed by all of the 59 drivers who participated in state driving championships this year.
Taking top state honors and winning a chance to compete for a national title from Jevic were: Gary Slade of Denver, N.C., in the three-axle class; Ryan Hastings of Mason, Mich., in the sleeper class; Don Wertz of Manteno, Ill., in the five-axle class; Paul Caldwell of Paxton, Mass., in the straight truck class; and John Robertson of North Brookfield, Mass., in the tanker class.
“Driving a big rig on the highway always takes great skill and concentration,” Gorman said. “Take that challenge and magnify it by competing with some of the best drivers from other carriers, and you get an idea of the determination and skill it takes to be a truly safe driver.”
The Virginia Truck Driving Championships held at the Lee Hi Travel Plaza in Lexington, Va., drew 87 men and two women as competitors from 20 carriers, said Robin Bolton, director of safety and member services for the Virginia Trucking Association.
Nevin Brill of Winchester won in the straight truck class and earned the Grand Champion Award for achieving the highest score in the competition.
Transport America driver Greg Payne won first place in the sleeper berth class to advance to nationals from his home state of Minnesota.
“All seven of Transport America’s participants did a fantastic job of representing the company,” said Gary Johnson, director of safety. “We are very excited to support Greg and cheer him on in the national competition.”
Larry Steffensen of North Branch, Minn., a driver for FedEx Freight, was crowned grand champion in Minnesota, outscoring nearly 100 drivers in the competition. Steffensen also received the Howie Johnson Memorial Award for the individual who best represents the trucking profession.
Prime Inc. driver Duane Grimme of Satsuma, Fla., placed first in the tank truck class and was grand champion in the Missouri Motor Carriers State Truck Driving Championships in Joplin, Mo.
At the nationals, drivers can score up to 500 points, with the skills test accounting for up to 300 points; the pre-trip inspection, 100 points; the written exam, 80 points; and the personal interview, 20 points.
The three perfect scores in the history of the competition, Chandler said, were achieved by Rick Flier of Michigan, who competed in the twin-tractor class for Sysco Frost Pack in 1991; William Boitano of Colorado, who competed in the straight truck class for Nobel/Sysco in 1994; and Howard Wagner of Minnesota, who competed in the straight truck class for U.S. Foodservice in 1999.
Other awards presented at NTDC will include:
Rookie of the Year. Given to the contestant who is competing in both the state and national championships for the first time, has the highest average score and receives favorable recommendations from judges and the driver’s “den mother” about his or her professionalism.
Neill Darmstadter Professional Excellence Award. Presented to the driver with at least seven years of state and national championship experience who best exemplifies attributes of a professional truck driver, based on driving record, skill and attitude. Darmstadter was a safety engineer for ATA and is considered the “Father of the National Truck Roadeo.” He died in 2005.
Vehicle Condition Award. Presented to the driver judged to have taken the greatest care in evaluating the condition of his or her equipment in the pre-trip inspection test.
To participate in the NTDC, drivers must have a minimum of 1,200 hours behind the wheel, and 60% of the time on the job must be related to duties of a professional driver.
Drivers are excluded if they have had an accident in the 12 months before competing. Exceptions are allowed, however, for incidents in which the driver’s vehicle was stopped and where there was no major damage to the vehicle and no injuries.
Drivers also can compete in the same truck class for no more than two consecutive years.

 

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