July 25, 2017 1:30 PM, EDT

Truckers Embrace the Spotlight, Friendly Rivalries at National Championship

truck driving championshipsJohn Sommers II for Transport Topics

Gary Harms and Don Logan, elite truck drivers with stellar performance records, go about their tasks with a strong focus on safety. They respect every aspect of the trucking industry, including the other drivers. But safety is their top objective.

As frequent competitors at the National Truck Driving Championships, and the qualifiers in their home state of Kansas, they have developed mutual respect for each other’s passion for safety. But after several years of competing alongside each other, their collegiality has become a friendly rivalry.

Harms, a driver for Wal-Mart in Kansas, and Logan, a driver there with FedEx Freight, are vying for the title of grand champion at the event, often called the “Super Bowl of Safety.”

This year’s National Truck Driving Championships, hosted by American Trucking Associations, will be held Aug. 9-12 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. The top honor is awarded to the trucker who demonstrates a mastery of all-around skills.

Complete 2017 NTDC Coverage

LISTS OF DRIVERS: By company | By state | Finalists

PHOTO GALLERY: All of the pageantry from Orlando | Winners

VIDEO: Day One | Day Two | Championship Day |  Bumper Cam | Sights and Sounds | ELD update

NAIC: Inspectors test their mettle | Houston's Rommel Garcia wins title

More than 400 drivers will compete in the 80th annual event, once known as the National Truck Rodeo. Combined, the drivers have put in hundreds of millions of accident-free miles. They need clean records to compete in the event, which is a forum for the best-of-the-best truckers from California to Maine. Carriers that maintain memberships with ATA or their state’s trucking associations are eligible to enter drivers.

For Harms and Logan, the event drives up their competitive spirits.

For Harms, that means mounting a second run at the top award; the 32-year industry veteran — who has 2.3 million safe-driving miles — earned the grand prize in 2013. He competes in the 5-axle class.

He confidently told Transport Topics to prepare to interview him at the awards ceremony, scheduled for the last night of the competition. That’s when the judges announce the new grand champion. His prediction: It’ll be him.

“Hopefully, you’ll do an interview after it’s over, like you normally do,” Harms told TT. “Normally, you always [interview] the grand champion, and so hopefully at that point, I’ll get to see you again,” he said.

But Harms also noted that there is more to the competition than chasing the top prize. Also important are the friendships he’s established over the years with other drivers.

“I have friends now that I would have never met unless it was for the championships, and keep in contact with a lot of them that way, and so it’s just a rivalry-type deal where you can kind of get after them a little bit when you see ’em,” he said.

Drivers have to be accident-free for the year leading up to the championships. An accident, regardless of fault, is an immediate disqualifier. About two weeks before this year’s event, a driver was disqualified due to an accident.

To compete at nationals, drivers must earn top honors in their class at state-level qualifiers. Once at nationals, they must maneuver an obstacle course, take a written exam and handle a pre-trip inspection of a truck. The drivers compete in eight classes, ranging from straight truck and 3-axle to twin trailers and sleeper berth.

The event also includes the National Step Van Driving Championships, which follow the same model as the truck competition. Ask the competitors, and they’ll acknowledge the challenges and difficulties associated with the grueling three-day competition are unmatched nationwide.

Logan, of FedEx Freight, who is competing in the flatbed class, said he admires Harms’ hubris in such fierce competition. Logan, a trucker for 31 years, made his debut at the nationals in 2006. He earned top honors in 2012.

Upon learning of Harms’ not-so-subtle bragging, Logan reminded the Wal-Mart driver he’s not the only driver setting his eyes on the top prize.

“I would say, go get ’em, Gary,” Logan said, “but there’s 49 other guys in your class that I hope are thinking the same thing, even though they may not say it. So I hope that I’m talking to you by Saturday night after winning my class, but I know that there’s a lot of drivers that I’m up against in my class that are good drivers.

“We’re all striving for the same goal, obviously. It is no easy task, for sure, so I’m just going to go out there and do my best and let the cards fall where they may.”

More than 5,200 drivers competed at the state level. To perfect their skills for the competition, many drivers are compelled to skip family events, hobbies and leisure events.

Jeff Langenhahn, who works for XPO Logistics in Wisconsin, will compete in the 3-axle class. He emphasized the valuable family time that most of his peers sacrifice to train for nationals.

“You feel bad, a little bit, I mean we could be in the boat fishing,” he said. “We could do other things. So there’s a sacrifice that way, so you want to be able to kind of make it count also,” said Langenhahn, a driver for more than three decades. “But it’s a safety event that I take a lot of pride in. You want to be as good as you can be out on the road, you know, because I feel this is an excellent safety program and just you’re perfecting your skill. I mean, we’re never perfect, but you get a lot of practice.”

Asked what he takes away from competing at nationals, Langenhahn added: “You become a better driver overall.”

To avoid cutting too much into family time, longtime driver Ina Daly, who works for XPO Logistics in Phoenix, often brings her grandson, 7-year-old Evan, to practice with her. Preparing for nationals requires discipline, said Daly, who is competing in the tank truck class. Newcomers, as well as experienced drivers, should “set up every possible obstacle, make it as hard as possible and never make anything easy,” she said. “Always shoot for hard, hard, hard, and practice.”

Daly, a former state team champion and tanker class champion at nationals, has competed since the late 1980s in Arizona. She said she always encourages other drivers to aim for a chance to qualify for nationals because the experience of being there is so gratifying.

“I just hope that everybody that was fortunate enough to win in the state and is going there just soaks it in,” she said. “The camaraderie, the competition is stiff and tough, and everybody wants to win, and there are 400 and some drivers who are just as good as you, if not better.

“You go there with your competitive spirit but enjoy the event and the camaraderie, because there’s nothing like it, and go home feeling so proud of your industry, and proud that you’re a truck driver.”

FexdEx Freight’s Logan agreed that the camaraderie at nationals is special.

“We can all learn from each other, and that’s another great part about the competition,” he said. “It’s [that] guys aren’t afraid to share information because it’s you against the course. And we can all go out there with the exact same information, and you still gotta get it done, so guys are really open about letting you know what works for them and sharing information.”

Sponsors of this year’s event include FedEx Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., UPS Freight, ABF Freight, J.J. Keller & Associates, McKee Foods Transportation and Bendix.