This story appears in the Aug. 22 print edition of Transport Topics.
INDIANAPOLIS — At a practice session about a week before veteran Wal-Mart Transportation driver Charles “Mike” White hopped into a 3-axle truck to negotiate the nerve-wracking National Truck Driving Championships “skills” course, fellow company driver and last year’s grand champ Ronald Emenheiser Sr. made a prediction:
“He said he planned on staying grand champion,” White recalled. “I said, ‘No, you’re not, because it’s my turn.’ ”
It was indeed White’s turn.
He was named the competition’s Bendix Grand Champion, establishing him among trucking’s elite wheel masters. He also took first place in the 3-axle class competition.
“I’m honored,” he said. “I’m just absolutely honored to be grand champion.”
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Ironically, White woke up the morning of the finals competition and had some serious doubts that he’d even get to the finals, or even win his class.
“I said to myself there’s no way I’m going to be in the top five,” the 59-year-old said minutes after the NTDC awards banquet on Aug. 13. “No way.”
White, who has been driving trucks for 39 years, lives in the tiny town of Nineveh, about 35 miles south of the Indiana Convention Center, where the 79th annual competition among 430 of the nation’s safest drivers convened Aug. 10-13.
For three days, White and his fellow competitors were cheered on by family, drivers and trucking executives who sat in the grandstand wearing the colors representing their companies.
“On behalf of ATA and the trucking community, I want to congratulate Charles and thank the entire field of competitors for participating in these championships. Your commitment to excellence has made the nation’s highways a safer place for everyone,” American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said.
It was White’s sixth trip to the national competition and his second time making the finals that pitted 49 drivers who had the top combined written test, pre-trip and skills test scores.
“I’m going to buy him a truck. He gets a new semi, whatever color he wants,” said Jennifer Gray, White’s regional safety manager at Wal-Mart. “He’s been a great driver forever, but he’s a nice person, too. He is competitive, but aren’t they all?”
The competitors collectively logged more than 630 million accident-free miles.
Just getting to the nationals wasn’t easy. More than 5,200 drivers competed in nine categories at the state level. Only 35 first-timers, or “rookies,” qualified. Some large carriers, such as FedEx and Wal-Mart, held their own contests among their company drivers, sending only their best to state competitions.
The competition’s rules require that drivers stay accident-free for a year prior to the event. This year, two state champs were involved in crashes and disqualified only days before the competition got under way.
Among the field were drivers like Old Dominion Freight Line’s William Hill, 52, Idaho’s flatbed champ.
Hill got stranded like thousands of other travelers, including four of his fellow competitors, during the Delta Airlines computer glitch that halted flights earlier this month. He arrived two days late but still was able to bag second place in the flatbed class.
Hill’s plane arrived at 11:30 p.m. the night before the drivers took to the skills course laid out in the massive convention hall. That meant taking the written test a day later, after the send-off breakfast of champions. “My brain is a fuzzy mess right now. Even when I got to bed at 1 a.m., I tossed and turned,” Hill said minutes before heading out to the skills course. “I probably got two hours of sleep.”
Jay Love, 50, a South Dakota driver for FedEx Freight who won the flatbed class at the national competition, said the event “makes you a better driver, and you make friends for life.” Love is also the mayor of Davis, South Dakota — population 87 — and said he took the job because none of the other city council members wanted it.
“The course was challenging, but there wasn’t anything out there that we hadn’t practiced a thousand times,” said Wilbur Johnson, a Florida driver who placed third in the straight truck class. “I pretty much practice from January to June.”
Wal-Mart Transportation driver Rollie Fugate of California, a finalist, said the competition in many ways mirrors what the drivers do every day but is still “nerve-wracking.”
He likened it to how he stays safe on the highway: “It’s like a quarterback who reads a defense,” said Fugate, 59, who has driven for 38 years. “You can watch what people are doing, and you can read them.”
Eduardo Camacho, a driver for H-E-B Grocery Co. in Texas who was attending for the third time, said his company had a competition to advance the top two winners to the regional contest, and then the top two regional winners advanced to state. Camacho, 46, finished second in the 4-axle finals.
But no matter how highly competitive the field of drivers was, in a pre-competition driver briefing, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive Jason Wing reminded them what it is really all about.
“The spirit of this competition is to celebrate the jobs that you do and the success that you’ve had over this past year, and the example that you are as professionals to the rest of the industry.”