That O’Leary is one of only a handful of drivers hauling cars for the carrier – an experiment after Western bought a Denver-based car carrier – speaks volumes about O’Leary’s personal skills and care for the job he does. Among his clients is Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger. He has hauled two cars for Bonds, including the homerun king’s specialized Hummer.
Most of the cars O’Leary hauls are for less-known customers – many of whom are every bit as challenging and demanding as Bonds, especially considering that he may be loading a 2005 500-horsepower Ford GT, one of the hottest cars on the road, or a new Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren ($450,000 sticker price, but often sold for much more because of its demand among the elite).
The McLaren was actually a bit of a surprise for O’Leary at delivery, because he didn’t load the car. Western uses rollbacks to load O’Leary’s reefer, which has been retrofitted with tie downs. If the cars are loaded in Colorado, for example, Western loads them with their own rollbacks. Elsewhere the company hires a local truck to load its freight.
“The owner paid probably $900,000 for the McLaren,” O’Leary says, showing photos of the yellow gull wing sports car. “The first one went to Jay Leno. This was the third one sold. The guy lived in a gated community in Danville, Calif. I delivered it to a McDonald’s parking lot.”
When he got the car on the ground and began wiping it down, he noticed the sticker. “I didn’t really know what it was,” he says. “I didn’t load it, but when I was strapping it down, I thought, my gosh, the wheels can’t be this wide.”
A few minutes after it was on the ground, there were more than a dozen people photographing the car. “They knew what it is. Californians know their cars,” O’Leary says. So do the people who take delivery of O’Leary’s specialized loads, which now make up about 70 percent of what he hauls. “I delivered a 1999 Ferrari with 17,000 miles on it. The guy said it was a high-mileage car,” he says, shaking his head.
In addition to Western’s new automotive experiment, O’Leary has been part of another ambitious effort – he became a test driver for one of Caterpillar’s new Class 8 engine designs 10 years ago. “Brian demonstrated an outstanding ability to observe and communicate issues related to performance and reliability of our new product,” says Russell Fahlberg, a senior project engineer at Cat. “A number of his observations resulted in necessary improvements to the engine design prior to its full production release.”
More than just providing feedback on a particular model, O’Leary has given the engine and equipment manufacturer ongoing insight into engine performance from a driver perspective. “Brian has made helpful contributions to Caterpillar and the trucking industry,” Fahlberg says.
O’Leary is rebuilding an old Cat test engine he purchased from the company; he hopes to eventually put it in a truck of his own. He has most of the parts – including the engine, a truck frame and a truck cab and sleeper, which are strewn about his shop in Fort Collins. O’Leary even purchased an antique industrial forklift to move his truck parts around.
Mechanical knowledge is one aspect of O’Leary’s safety philosophy; the other is attitude. In addition to the experience he gathered hauling heavy equipment with Hank Hersh, he credits the support of his wife, Claudia, for much of his success. “Ninety percent of my success is due to my wife,” he says. “I’ve been in Little America, and I’ve been in truckstops when guys got in arguments with their wives or their girlfriends or whatever. Then they’re hot and mad at their dispatchers and everything. Then they get out there and drive. That’s unsafe. If you’ve got someone supporting you at home, that puts your mind at ease so when you’re gone, you’re not worried about being at home.”
Brian and Claudia O’Leary have forged a special bond in another, more comical way. When Claudia was once hospitalized, the trucker bought a stuffed penguin for her at the hospital gift shop. The penguin, a version of Opus, the lead cartoon character from the wildly popular Bloom County comic strip and now star of his own self-named strip, became a personal joke and collecting hobby between the two. Now O’Leary wears a monogrammed Opus on all his work shirts, and even their Christmas tree sports a group of holiday-themed penguins.
The humor is an important part of their interaction, and it carries over to the road. While O’Leary doesn’t often drive team, he usually has someone else in his truck. That someone else is Gramps, an oversized stuffed gorilla he bought from a Samsonite luggage demo years ago. Gramps is often seen with his arm hanging outside the passenger door of his big blue Pete or the driver’s side of an expensive Ferrari or Lamborghini.