On a polished convention center floor set up with guidelines, traffic cones and a worn rubber duck, the nation’s best truck drivers inched through courses to earn national bragging rights as the safest on the road.
The 424 drivers from 50 state trucking associations competed from Aug. 15-18 in the 2018 National Truck Driving Championships in Columbus, Ohio, to determine who has the top skills in nine classes from step vans to five-axle trucks.
Together, the competing drivers compiled nearly 640 million miles of collision-free driving in the last year.
“This is the message we try to get to the public,” said Joseph Peterson, a UPS driver from Claymont, Del., who loads bananas at the Port of Delaware and delivers them to East Coast states. “It’s all about safety. This is why we do it.”
The American Trucking Associations-sponsored competition resembles a truck rodeo, or “roadeo,” the original name of the National Truck Driving Championships when it started in 1937.
Peterson, 57, was a naval aircraft mechanic for a dozen years before joining FedEx two decades ago, first as a package handler and later as a driver. He jumped to UPS two years ago.
Peterson found driving a tanker truck around cones and avoiding the rubber duck was easy. But the championship also included a written test and pre-trip inspection exercises with embedded defects. Drivers had half the typical inspection time to find and fix them.
“The written exam is the hardest part,” Peterson said. “Everything else we do every day.”
Elsewhere in the convention center, 52 state champion inspectors from the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance tested their skills.
On opening day of the 81st championships, family members and friends occupied bleachers at one end of the convention hall. Inside metal stanchions, judges walked alongside the moving trucks. Each trucker started with 300 points. Judges then subtracted points for each infraction. The drivers had to maneuver as close as they could to the preset lines for each exercise. Overhead screens displayed driver scores for the tanker, twin trailer and freight hauler classes.
At the souvenir stand, small rubber ducks sold for $6. A duck-costumed mascot roamed the floor posing for pictures. No one could recall how a rubber duck came to be a hazard to avoid. But everyone knew that hitting the duck meant lost points. Judging by the duck’s looks, it had withstood several hits.
Drivers train intensely for state tournaments hoping to qualify for the national event, said Tom Balzer, chief executive of the Ohio Trucking Association.
“Consider the pre-trip” inspection, Balzer said. “Look at passenger vehicles. When was the last time you saw someone walk around and check the vehicle before they get in and drive? Truck drivers do that every day. The untold story is the background work these drivers put in.”
Jeff Rose, a driver for YRC Freight in Wooster, Ohio, finished second in the twin-trailer event in 2017.
“Usually, we try to stay as far away from things as we can,” he said. “Here we’ve got to see how close we can get without hitting the duck or going over the line. It perfects our driving.”
Rose said he has more than 3 million accident-free miles in 34 years of driving.
When the competition ended Aug. 18, nine class champions earned gold belt buckles.
The big shipping companies dominated the podium.
Scott Woodrome of Middletown, Ohio, a FedEx Freight driver, won the Bendix Grand Champion Award, chosen from among the category winners. Woodrome won the national flatbed and tanker driving competitions in 2015 and 2017. He has qualified for the nationals 13 times and driven nearly 2 million accident-free miles.
“This process began with thousands of drivers competing at the state level, but only one driver can emerge as overall grand champion, and it’s a testament to Scott’s commitment to safety and his craft that he was able to take home top honors this year,” said Chris Spear, chief executive of the ATA.
Champions from each of the nine vehicle classes were:
3-Axle: Eric Courville, FedEx Freight, Louisiana
4-Axle: Nick Arnold, FedEx Freight, Oklahoma
5-Axle: Duane Staveness, FedEx Freight, Wisconsin
Flatbed: Steven Newsome, UPS Freight, South Carolina
Sleeper Berth: Artur Lesniowski, FedEx Ground, New Jersey
Straight Truck: Dale Brenaman, UPS, Kentucky
Tanker Truck: Scott Woodrome, FedEx Freight, Ohio
Twins: Miguel Corral, FedEx Freight, Illinois
Step Van: Eric Damon, FedEx Express, Colorado