Down East 2013 ©
Beneath a mildly threatening springtime sky, the driving course for the Maine Professional Truck Driving Championships, aka “the truck roadeo,” looks simple enough. In a lot at Dysart’s truck stop in Hermon, a series of cones, barriers, tires, and yellow strips replicates alley docks, tight turns, and other daily challenges of the big-rig driver. Before beginning, the seventy-four competing drivers walk the course and listen to instructions en masse, most of them dressed in uniforms from companies whose trucks, trailers, and delivery vans define our Maine highways: Hannaford, Wal-Mart, Pottle’s, Land Air Express, a long and venerable list. It’s mid-morning and they’ve been at it since six, earning points with a written test then moving on to the “pre-trip inspection” competition — eight minutes on a rig pre-planted with violations as blundering as a beer can in the cab and as subtle as an unsigned inspection sheet.
After walking the course, competitors are herded into a trailer, screened from the main event. They won’t see their rivals gauge a perfect stopping distance or flatten a left-turn marker, but they’ll hear the corresponding groans or cheers from the spectators — grandpas, bosses, wives, coworkers, sons and daughters and in-laws. As the drivers maneuver their cumbersome vehicles through the six stations, they accumulate points for precision, in which the difference between the highest and lowest score (50-0) can be as little as a few inches. By the time the first few drivers finish up, it’s clear to one and all that this seemingly benign course will be a bear to complete without striking out at least once.
The “truck roadeo” might call to mind a headlong free-for-all with monster big-wheels smashing Volkswagens, but the truth is far more prosaic: It’s a skills competition that’s all about safety. Above the course flutters the banner of the Maine Professional Drivers Association: Committed to Safety, Courtesy, and Professionalism. For the written test, drivers bone up on first aid, fire prevention, and rules of the road. The pre-trip-inspection portion reminds them anew that you don’t leave the lot without full confidence in yourself and your vehicle. And the driving course is the ultimate safety test, especially if you think of the tire planted at the “left turn” station as a parked car in a Hartford intersection or a baby carriage on a Brooklyn sidewalk.
Derrick Dipaolo, a big, friendly redhead from Maine Uniform Supply, feels good about his run. He competed in the newly created “step van” category and brought a fan club — Mom and Dad, who toted their own chairs and placed them close to the barrier rope. Dad’s a trucker, too, with thirty-two years of road time. Dipaolo admits that the course was tough, but adds that it fairly reproduces the challenges of his daily work. “You’re in so many driveways, so many different parking lots, backing into really tight spots. The only difference,” he adds, laughing, “is that nobody on the road gives you points.”
The point system is a heartbreaker, the course diabolically tight — especially for tanker trucks and twin-trailer rigs — but the drivers don’t seem to mind. As one spectator points out, “If the course was easy, they’d all get perfect scores. These guys are all really good. That’s why they’re here.” The line judges lift scorecards, like the ice-skating panel at the Olympics. As the crowd reacts to the scores at each station, the driver remains poker-faced and focused, setting up for his or her next hurdle.
Kevin Hughes, a competitor from FedEx Freight, is here with his teenaged son, Devin, who has a Class B license and is working on his Class A. “I wanted to show him what it’s all about,” says Hughes, a soft-spoken forty-two-year-old from Andover. He thinks he “did okay” (in fact he’ll get a third-place trophy at day’s end), but for him the competition offers a chance to correct the TV-sitcom image of the long-haul trucker as a trash-talking, lead-footed clod. In his fresh uniform with its fetching purple stripe, he clearly takes pride in his profession. He points to the course, where first-timers and old-timers drive their rigs in a slow, repetitive, oddly suspenseful deliberation. “They look good,” he says. “They’re pros.”
You’ll find plenty of pride among the spectators, too: trucking runs in most of these families, not just the Dipaolos’. Al Ireland, a forty-seven-year veteran of the road, is here to cheer on his son-in-law, John Ellingwood, in the “five-axle van” category, the traditional big rig. Ellingwood drives long-haul for FedEx Freight and, according to the announcer, has logged 1.2 million accident-free miles. Considering that an “accident” can be as minor as a clipped mirror, this number is astonishing, but not uncommon. Many of the drivers have numbers like this, and some of the older drivers have numbers in the high two millions. Ireland thinks his son-in-law, who won second place a few years back, “did great,” but he watches the others drivers, too, with nodding approval, adding an affectionate running commentary.
Among the spectators are reps from each company who have more than a passing stake in the outcome. A reputation for safe, skilled, winning drivers bestows well-earned bragging rights on any company whose trucks so publicly fill our highways. Norm Villandry and Brian Watts, service-center managers for Con-Way Freight, have five drivers here between them, and they’ve made sure their guys are ready and able. “We provide study guides and practice tests and DVDs,” Villandry says. “We want our drivers to compete.”
They set up practice courses and even rent rigs for drivers competing outside their accustomed category. Adds Watts, “If they should win, the company sends them to the nationals with their families, all expenses paid, and we treat them like kings.” Maine drivers have won plenty of individual events over the years, and in 2006 the Maine team won the whole fifty-state shebang.
But it’s not about winning. Really. By the time the evening awards banquet is over and Matthew Richardson, a young, lean rookie from FedEx Ground, has snagged both the Rookie of the Year and Grand Champion trophies, the outcome of this day is almost beside the point. The heartfelt cheers that have rocked this room all night seem to be as much for the profession itself as for the drivers who have so ably represented it. Even Derrick Dipaolo, who as a first-timer could be forgiven for crossing his fingers as the winners are announced, seems genuinely proud merely to have competed. “There’s only nine other guys in my category,” he says, grinning widely. “I’m guaranteed to come out in the top ten.”
If You Go
This year’s Maine Professional Truck Driving Championships is May 15 at Dysart’s Trailer Shop in Hermon. 207-623-4128. mmta.geekteam.com