First Place Winner: Million dollar baby

| June 07, 2008

I remember the driving technique my dad used. He let the clutch out just so, shifted every time with just the tips of his fingers and felt the exact moment when the rpms and the road speed matched and slipped into the next gear.

Most of what I learned about driving trucks came from my dad. He was a truck driver and diesel mechanic who started driving when gas engines were common, and the trucks were a lot rougher than they are today.

When I was a child in Arizona, he hauled a lot of hay and grain, and I went with him many times. When my younger brother was able to walk, he went with us, too. I remember sitting between my dad and my uncle on my dad’s jacket folded over a milk crate full of stuff, and holding my brother as he stood up in front of me. He was too short to see over the dashboard and was happy to watch the events he could see in front of him.

At the time, my dad was teaching my uncle how to drive in an old truck with a five-speed main and a four-speed auxiliary transmission. Sometimes my dad would shift the main and get my brother to hold onto the stick for the brownie and help him move it. We went a lot of miles like that, with lunch supplies that would cause a fainting fit during the school year. In the morning Dad would buy a six-pack of soda and a bag of chips, and that was the rations for the day. Later on we would buy more cold drinks for the trip home, and finish off the chips. There was an absolute no-whining policy, and one time I had to sacrifice my Cub Scout belt to hold something together so we could get the truck home.

What I remember most about that time was the driving technique my dad used. He would treat every truck he drove exactly the same way, whether it was his truck or one belonging to a company. He let the clutch out just so, shifted every time with just the tips of his fingers and felt the exact moment when the rpms and the road speed matched and slipped into the next gear. He would lean the truck into the load very gently, letting the rpms and manifold pressure build together and keeping an eye on the pyrometer so the exhaust temperature didn’t rise too fast. He did this every single time, all day long.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by aircraft, and in the truck I would imagine we were in an airplane, taking off for a mission. Like the pilots I read about, we were also in flight. We would land every now and then to load and unload, get fuel or check on the truck, and the desert rushing by outside the windows provided the backdrop for the flights in my mind.

Now it’s a few years later and I drive the trucks. I have had five of my own, all of them in the flatbed game. I had one that was new the year my brother was born. Over the time I have been an owner-operator I have moved up to better and newer trucks each time until I reached the one I thought was the best I might ever have. It’s a 1992 Kenworth W-900B with a B model 3406 Cat, 15-speed deep reduction transmission and 3:55s. This year makes nine years we’ve had it, and I use the driving techniques I learned back then to help me succeed today. Watching my dad drive and treating my trucks the same way has helped this one last a long time; it has almost 1.4 million miles on it and is still in good shape.

We’ve been through the engine once – I finally put a reconditioned transmission in it at 1.3 million, but that’s about it for the major stuff. It still has the factory rear ends in it, and I have done the brakes on it three times. It still has two of the factory universal joints in it, so I guess watching my dad and driving like he did has paid off. He calls it my “West Coast Turnaround” truck. He likes it a lot and rides with me when I come by to see him.

When I put that old truck in gear and let out on the clutch, hear the turbocharger spool up and feel the truck lean into the load and get it moving, I can almost hear the echoes of the working Americans that built it, see it back when it was new and the finest tool available to do the job. To them, it might have been just a few more hours on the assembly line, one more truck to finish before calling it a day, but to us it has meant a world with wheels on it, a world of movement. A world of people and places, loads picked up and delivered. The fact that it is still going is a testament to its rugged design and the craft and care of those who built it. This truck is a dinosaur by today’s standards – it has a mechanical injection engine, no air ride cab, no cruise control. Every mile I’ve driven it was both feet on the floor holding down the pedal. It has no auto transmission, no top-two auto select, no shift lights. Nothing like that.

The first time I saw it, it was behind the company offices where I was leased on at the time. It had been extraordinarily cared for, and the longer I had it the longer I kept finding out subtle things that reinforced that impression. It had the dump valve for a spread axle flatbed wired in, the load lights were mounted and both worked, there were several boxes of spare fuses in the fuse box, a spare fuel filter and headlight in the side box. I was impressed, to say the least. I never met the previous owner, but I could tell he had learned in the old school and taken his lessons well. I looked at the truck, and it seemed to calmly sit there as if to say, “Are you enough of an operator to take care of a truck like me?” I could tell this thing was a thoroughbred all the way through. It seemed to be issuing me a challenge, as if to say, I’ll hold up my end if you’ll hold up yours. And I have to say it has.

It has held together in nine years of running in and out of some hard places. I have been to more than 30 different mines with it, one so rough it flexed the cab hard enough to break one of the windshields. One time I drove it in and out of a mine in a blizzard, 11 miles in and 11 miles back out, with the transmission in deep reduction the whole way. I’ve been to sawmills, steel mills, quarries, you name it. I’ve been to ports and harbors all over the country, and every time I left town in that truck it brought me home with a paycheck.

That’s one reason I named it “Million Dollar Baby,” because in the years I ran it I made more than a million dollars with it. And just like the scrappy title character in the Clint Eastwood movie, that old truck never quit – it came out of the corner swinging every time.

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