Some 70 professional truck drivers from across the state gathered in a parking lot in North Andover on Sunday, June 3, for this year's state Truck Driving Championships. The winner in each of nine categories — ranging from delivery vans to twin trailers — earned a trip to the American Trucking Association's National Truck Driving Championships this August in Pittsburgh. Believe it or not, this national competition has been happening annually since 1937.
"It’s personal and professional pride to be able to go out there and run through something like this — and do well at it," said Fred Schenk, a former national champion driver and today the chairman of the event. "Once you get involved in something like this you’re hooked."
In trucking circles, these championships are known as the "Super Bowl of Safety." To qualify to compete, a driver must have a clean safety record and a full-year of incident free driving. The scoring begins at 8 a.m. — not in the cab, but in the classroom — with a rigorous written test.
"It’s not just the rules of the road," said Schenk of the 82 question exam. "It covers the trucking industry, security, first aid. So it runs the gamut."
To win at these championships, drivers not only have to know their stuff, they also have to show their stuff.
"These drivers put a lot of time into it," said Schenk. "They’ll practice for weeks leading up to an event."
Case in point, Roland Bolduc, a 15-time state champion and three-time national champion. He drives for FedEx Express, and this year he competed in the 5-axle category — your standard 18-wheeler.
"The nerves are years ago," said Bolduc. "Now it’s get in that truck forget everybody else, block ‘em all out, and lets see what I can do."
Boluc wasn't the only former champion competing, but Schenk said, "that doesn’t mean that a guy that’s a first-time competitor can’t go through this and give the veterans a run for their money."
I met rookie competitor French Barton — who has driven professionally for 24 years but never competed — during phase two of the competition, known as the pre-check. Here, each driver has just eight-minutes to thoroughly inspect their vehicle, inside and out, and identify a series of defects planted by safety inspectors.
"You wish you had more time," said Barton, after inspecting only about half the truck in his allotted time.
Time in "the bullpen" is what many drivers said is the most anxiety inducing part of the event. The bullpen is just a tent, but it's where drivers wait for their turn in phase three of the competition — the undisputed centerpiece of the afternoon — the driving course.
I asked Barton what his level of nervousness was as he waited in the bullpen. "At least an eight," he said.
The course is essentially a slow-speed obstacle course. Drivers in each class drive the same truck which — crucially — none of them have driven before. The trucks are big and the confines of the course are small. Drivers have to wind their way around, stop on marks, avoid objects and hit tiny areas with their tires — front and back. There’s parallel parking, too, which a number of drivers told me is the hardest part. To finish, you have to shoot a narrow gap barely wide enough for the trailer to fit through, and bring the truck to a stop — hopefully — in the scoring area.
"It was nerve-wracking but think I did OK," Barton said as he climbed down from his sleeper cab after finishing the course. "It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be."
"Fun" was a word I heard from a lot of drivers when I asked them why they compete. "Camaraderie" was another. Still, as the crowd gathered around the main tent, with the judges adding up the test, pre-check and course scores, the tension in the air made it clear this was indeed a competition.
In the end, Barton earned a second place finish in the sleeper class. "It’s about the best I could hope for for today, he said, smiling. "Next time I'll probably do better."
And Buldec earned the win in the 5-axle class, his 16th state championship.
"Pulled it out. It was a tight one." he said. And his message for the other the other 49 state championships who he'll now face off against in Pittsburgh come August? "Practice up. Because I am."