August 28, 1998 3:24 PM, EDT

That Winning Feeling

LONG BEACH, Calif. There have been moments when a driver is so shaken after a run that he is unable to remove his hands from the steering wheel. Like a patient being led through a painful procedure, he must be coaxed down from the truck.

"I have seen guys gripping the wheel with white knuckles. They are so scared you have to talk 'em out of it," said Thomas Hawk, a driver with Overnite Transportation.

No such incidents were reported at this year's National Truck Driving Championships, Aug. 12-15, but there was plenty of angst to go around. Trucking's equivalent of the Super Bowl or the World Series attracts the nation's driving elite, who are nervous about it in a big way. After all, they scored top marks in company-sponsored "roadeos" and state competitions, and now they are matched against the best from all of the other states. It's impossible to ignore the


But it's also just plain good fun.

"It's a blast and you see people you only see here," said Mark Stamper, a 1998 America's Road Team captain from Con-Way Western Express. Mr. Stamper was a rookie last year but did not compete this year. "I like coming for the people. You meet people and exchange stories."

"We wouldn't miss it," said Kevin Harris, of ABF Freight System. He was back at the Big One to drive in the 4-axle competition for New York. "I lost the nationals two years ago, and I missed the state last year by only 14 points. But it's a great time."

Mr. Harris lounged in the outdoor whirlpool of a Long Beach hotel with his wife the evening before the competition got under way. With them were other state champions, among them a rookie from Wisconsin named Lee Maas. "You can practice every day of the week, but if it's not your time, it's not your time," Mr. Harris counseled the first-timer.

Mr. Maas, a driver with Con-Way Central, competing in the twin-trailer category for Wisconsin, said he was more worried about the written test and the personal interview than he was about the actual driving. He also anticipated the anticipation. He had been told that waiting for your number to be called can eat at a fellow.

"I suppose that's going to be the hardest - the wait," he said.

Trucking's driving championships have been held annually since 1937, except for four years during World War II. This year's competition saw the re-entry of Alaska after a hiatus of over two decades.

This year also saw the arrival of support from Mobil Oil Corp., which will sponsor the contest for the next two years.

"What really attracted us to the championship was its focus on safety," said Lynne Lachenmyer, Mobil's distillates business manager. "It seemed like a reasonable fit, because when we approach our business in any way, safety, environment and health are the primary issues."

"The National Truck Driving Championships are not only a celebration of the country's finest professional drivers, but a reaffirmation to those outside the industry that safety is our number one priority," said American Trucking Associations Chairman Edward R. Trout, who is also chairman of Cornhusker Freight Lines, Omaha, Neb. "This provides us the opportunity to recognize the men and women who are the backbone of trucking."

Drivers compete in nine categories of vehicles. In addition to the actual driving part, commonly referred to as the skills test, contestants are scored on a written examination, a personal interview and the pre-trip inspection.

A perfect score across the board would total 800 points. Each "problem" on the driving course is worth up to 50 points, so drivers may wrack up to 600 points in the semifinal and final rounds. The written examination is worth 80 points, the interview is good for 60 and so is the pre-trip.

While drivers are not scored on equipment selection, choosing the right vehicle may be the margin that puts you over the top. At least, that is what the contestants tend to think. Although drivers are expected to be able to adjust to any piece of equipment, the truck for this level of competition simply has to "feel good." It's like the hand in the glove: The driver becomes the truck becomes the truck becomes the driver.

"Most drivers choose something similar to what they're accustomed to driving," Mr. Hawk said. A Trucker Buddy mentor and Road Team captain, Mr. Hawk was happy to be an equipment handler for the four days. "I'm here to make sure nobody has an advantage over anyone else."

Michael Hatfield, a driver for J.B Hunt, said that in making his choice, he takes a good look at the truck's wheelbase and the view from its cab. Visibility from the driver's seat should be unrestricted. "I like the Volvos because they have a lot of glass," he said. After being in four state competitions, Mr. Hatfield is Kentucky's grand champion this year and a national rookie in the three-axle class.

Emmitt Totty Jr., from Exxon Co., tries "to get a feel" for a truck - "the position of the seat, the clearance. Visibility is the key," he said. "Since we can't measure the wheelbase, we have to judge where the front wheels and the stop line are."

This was Mr. Totty's fifth trip to the nationals. Although he drives a tank truck for a living, he was competing in straight trucks for Virginia. It is not uncommon for drivers to move from one class to another, or to drive a piece of equipment that is not standard for them. That's part of the challenge: A few drivers have competed and won honors in each class that is offered.

During the equipment selection, Michael Cain of Consolidated Freightways, representing Illinois in 5-axle, climbed aboard one of the tractors, got into the driving position and put his fist over his head. He stretched out his arms and bounced on the seat a little. "You try to get a sense of where your head is and what are your boundaries," he said. "You lose the (stopping) line, so you have to keep your perspective."

As far as his written test was concerned, Mr. Cain said it gave him some trouble. "I thought it was really difficult - I'm not a good studier."

Many drivers contend the only way to come out on top in the written exam is to study, and study hard. "I read the book so much it fell apart," said Bernard J. Zadrozny, a straight truck driver for Barrieau Express, Hartford, Conn. "I was talking to a friend of mine and he said his book fell apart, too. You got to take it very seriously."

During the interview session, each driver is judged on his or her personal appearance, attitude toward management and knowledge of regulations, the industry and equipment. "I think the interview is the most nerve-wracking," said James E. Bucko, director of safety for Rogers Cartage Co., Crestwood, Ill. He served as chairman of the personal interview committee.

"The same class gets the same questions. But our main job is to keep (the contestants) calm, because they are thinking about 100 different things at one time," Mr. Bucko said. "We tell them there are no right answers."

In the pre-trip inspection phase of the contest, the driver with a very orderly approach is rewarded. A flashlight, a thumper and a good pair of gloves are highly recommended.

The driver kicks and thumps the tires and checks wheel lug nuts, mirrors and fire extinguishers, to name a few of the items on the checklist. "All the things that could possibly go wrong," are touched upon during the pre-trip, said Robert Cyr, a judge from Hannaford Trucking, South Portland, Maine. "You really have to touch and feel."

There's also a subjective review that focuses on a participant's methodology. Does he or she start from point A and work to point B? Or wander around the truck willy-nilly, trying to look diligent? "The good ones don't waste any time and they have a method," Mr. Cyr said. "You've got to be prepared. Some rookies don't even have gloves or a thumper."

When they are not being tested on some facet of their professional knowledge, drivers spend innumerable hours in their respective "bullpens," or waiting rooms. Life inside the bullpen is almost as exciting as trench warfare. Like a platoon awaiting dispatch, they wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.

"I hate it; I hate waiting," said Ken Mitchell, who drives a flatbed for BMC Transport and represented Nebraska in that class.

Once in the bullpen, drivers have little recourse but to pass the time - by telling stories, downing another soft drink or more coffee, or heading outside to puff on a cigarette. Some are philosophical about the waiting game.

"It's just like going to a shipper or receiver and there are guys ahead of me," said Ray Thielenhouse of Con-Way Central, also in the flatbed bullpen. The waiting apparently didn't bother him all that much. By the time the championship had run its course, Mr. Thielenhouse of Illinois would place second in his division and be crowned "Rookie of the Year for 1998."

Suddenly, it's time to go to work. Once drivers hit the driving course, it's all nerves, adrenaline, concentration and the crowd. Most quickly block out the audience reaction and tune in solely on the problems.

"I hardly even see the crowd," said rookie Ronald Gasper of Quast Transfer, Winsted, Minn., Mr. Gasper competed in flatbeds, representing South Dakota. As far as nerves are concerned, "I've got them under control. I just try to do what I do every day."

Mr. Hatfield said nervousness "doesn't effect me because I can block that out. But you're always fighting that adrenaline."

"When we design the course, we are looking for something that reflects real-life situations," said Scott Bishop, director of safety and training at Viking Freight, who was in charge of equipment. "We don't want drivers to come back and ask, 'Where did you come up with that?' "

It is real life all right - real life with an attitude.

The skills test consists of six problems, each of which presents the driver with a basic challenge, mostly involving backing, parallel parking, and front and rear stopping as close to tolerances as possible.

"When we are out on the road we are trying to stay away from obstacles, but here we try to see how close we can get. And it's a lot of fun," said Alan Platfoot, who competed in the auto transporters class for Cassens Transport, Edwardsville, Ill. He would take home the first-place trophy.

Some problems require continuous motion; some allow a single stop. Drivers are scored on timing and proximity to the various obstacles and lines marked on the floor. Hit a "barrier" and you "zero" the problem - no points. And then there is the deceptively simple "straight line" test: Drive your rig between two rows of rubber balls - which narrow to a space no farther apart than the width of your tires.

To hear drivers tell it, winning requires arduous preparation, practice and a measure of destiny. "The thing about the driving score is that sometimes you're good and sometimes you're not," Mr. Hatfield said.

Mr. Gasper said he found problem No. 2 - the "sidestop" - the most difficult. "It's nice to get it over with," he said. "But the best thing about competing is you practice what you do everyday. You can do all these things in one day on the job."

And then it came down to a few. By the time the final round of competition was ready to start, the 383 original competitors - most ever at the nation championships - had been whittled down to 27 finalists. It was Saturday and it was Judgment Day.

Things moved more swiftly than in the eliminating rounds, with several classes of trucks on the floor at once. The audience frequently burst into applause for a well-executed maneuver; the tension reached its zenith.

And just as quickly, after all the careful planning, months and years of practice, after all the butterflies had fled, the drivers' work was done. The trucks were parked, their engines now quiet. Twenty-seven finalists stood before the audience and awaited the compilation of scores.

Mark Darling, the chairman of the National Truck Driving Championships Competition Committee, reminded the contestants that everyone was a winner. "There are no losers here. You are all winners."

With the final tally in hand, ATA President Walter B. McCormick Jr., announced the outcome, class by class, starting with third place, then second place - at which point everyone could tell who would take first place.

The nine national champions exchanged high-fives and hugs and kisses with family, friends and teammates before ascending the stage to accept their trophies.

On his way out of the Long Beach Convention Center, Kevin Harris reflected on his own performance.

"I didn't make the finals. I just had a pretty bad run. It just wasn't my day," he said. Would he stick around for the big banquet and announcement of the grand champion later that night? After all, he had gone through a lot since the hot tub, and now he have a chance to really relax. Sure, he'd be there, he said.

Benard Zadrozny, who placed third in the straight truck class, said he "blew it" on the parallel parking: "I didn't get close enough" to the barrier. It was his ninth tour of the nationals, and all in all, "I had one of my best driving days."

Wally Bieber of Air Liquide America, representing Washington state, said, "You always have to feel good about it, but I think I could've done better." At what? "Controlling my nerves. And the parallel parking was tough." A rookie in the tank truck class, Mr. Bieber has three state first-place trophies to his credit. And now he polishes his second-place national trophy for his showing in tank trucks.

After becoming the auto transporter national champion, Alan Platfoot thought back to the "front-line stop" problem, decided he did "pretty good," and but figured the backing problem was more difficult. He represented the auto transporters' Region 9, which includes Ohio and West Virginia.

"Any of the rear obstacles in a car hauler are tough because we don't do much backing. Our truck, just by design, makes it harder to judge a back-up. It's an optical illusion" James P. Hines of Wal-Mart Stores, said the field was no picnic. "The freight dock was deceiving. I didn't feel good. I zeroed the freight dock and the parallel parking." Yet his final score of 552 was good enough to best the 40 other competitors.

Mr. Hines, representing Virginia, is the only driver to win the sleeper class title. It is the division's second year at the national level, and he has taken home both first-place trophies.

Jai Kundu, ATA vice president and executive director of the Safety Management Council, emphasized that there are only winners in the National Trucking Driving Championships.

"No driver should be intimidated by the competition. The more drivers we have competing, the more safe drivers we have on our highways," said Ms. Kundu, who has been a leading organizer of the event for years.

James Kennell of Roadway Express, who competed for California in the 4-axle class, probably summed it best.

"The competition is not between me and these drivers, but between me and my truck and the course," he said. "It's all wrapped around safety."