Big Rig Rollers

Casinos are luring drivers off the road not only with games, but with amenities that used to be found only at truck stops.

On the outside, the Petro Stopping Center near Reno, Nev., looks a little unusual for a truck stop. First, its stucco exterior is themed after the famous Texas mission and historic landmark, the Alamo. Second, the giant marquee flashes specials for the buffet and a chance to win a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Once inside, you notice familiar sights, such as the Iron Skillet restaurant and the trucker convenience store. Quickly, though, lights and noise draw you to a scene unlike any other Petro: Hundreds of slot machines flank the walls; a full-service bar with televisions offers patrons everything from margaritas to imported beer; and professional dealers slide cards to truckers at blackjack and poker tables.

“It’s nice to have a casino and truck stop together,” says Prime Inc. owner-operator Neal Irelan, a blackjack fan who stops by the Alamo Petro with his wife Cathy on their dedicated route to the West Coast.

While the Alamo Petro, with its gaming machines and card tables, may seem like a truck stop anomaly found only in a gambling capital such as Reno, it’s not. Truck stops with gaming machines and lottery sales exist all over the country, and casinos near the interstate are beginning to offer services tailored for truckers.

Casino managers say the trend is just part of the mainstreaming of gaming. What was once a small industry in a select few jurisdictions is now legal in 48 states. More than 40 states have lotteries, many accessible at truck stops.

As casinos have popped up in Mississippi, Kentucky, New Mexico, California, Oregon and on Indian reservations in a handful of other states, those near interstates have turned to attracting motorists and truckers with billboards, targeted promotions and loyalty programs. The I-10 corridor, for example, teams with gaming opportunities – from riverboats in the Mississippi Delta to truck stops with video poker in Louisiana to Native American casinos in Arizona.

In some cases, the marketing is directed toward truckers. Dancing Eagle Casino, in Casa Blanca, N.M., gave away a new $135,000 International 9900i last December. “This was our biggest giveaway ever,” says Michelle Gutierrez, the casino’s marketing manager.

Other casinos offer more modest incentives to truckers. Along I-5 in Northern, Calif., the Rolling Hills Casino recently added 150 truck parking spaces and plans to add facilities targeted to truckers. “We’re located right on I-5 at an exit so it’s easy on and easy off,” says Chuck Galford, marketing director. “There are 26,000 vehicles a day that pass us on the interstate. Seven thousand of those are long-haul trucks.”

Truckers stop in for the affordable buffet in one of the casino’s three restaurants. Or they come in to gamble, Galford says, “and then catch some sleep in their trucks.” Recognizing the potential of the trucker market, Rolling Hills is installing a fuel island, building showers and adding a laundry facility. It also plans to have high-speed Internet hookups for its trucker clientele. “We want to take care of our customers,” Galford says.

Pam Alf, a former owner-operator with FedEx Custom Critical and now an employee of the casino, advises Rolling Hills on the kinds of promotions that will attract truckers. The casino’s Shasta Club loyalty program for frequent customers is customized for truck drivers. Members get discounts on the extravagant buffet (the fare is similar to high-end Las Vegas casinos, but only $8.99 for lunch and $12.99 for dinner for commercial driver’s license holders), receive free dollars to gamble with and, as they play, accrue points that can be redeemed for meals or merchandise.

“We have more truckers as clients now that we have a dedicated parking lot and offer a clean, safe facility,” Alf says. Security is often a selling point for casinos, many of which have security staffs as well as patrols and video surveillance for their parking lots.

The camaraderie of talking with dealers or other drivers is another draw for casinos.

Pat McNally, who has been shuffling cards for 47 years, finds working at the Alamo Casino and Petro Stopping Center has turned her into something of a mother figure for clients. “This is a home away from home for truck drivers,” she says. “They’ve got down time and want someone to talk to.” So McNally and other dealers chat with drivers while passing them cards for blackjack or poker. “If they spend a week on the road,” says Manager Jerry Lutin, “they need some face time with a real person.”

Food is also a big draw for truckers. “A lot of people just come here to eat,” says Keith Crosby, manager of the Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi, Miss. “If your food’s good, people will come just for the restaurants. We have high-quality services on any level.”

Crosby’s casino has parking for trucks, but it’s miles off I-10, the main east-west artery through the South. Still, truck drivers often visit the Palace Casino despite its out-of-lane location. “We do have guys who will come in who are laying over or taking vacation time,” Crosby says. “Most of the time they’ve dropped their trailer. You can only drive underneath the billboards so long before you have to come in.”

Apart from the drivers who deliver to the casino or divert from I-10 for a few hours of entertainment, a few select truckers come as guests of honor to the casino, which doesn’t market itself to truckers. The Palace Casino is owned by Prime Inc. founder Robert Low, who flies top drivers and owner-operators who have completed their lease-purchase agreements to the casino for a weekend of fun or just for dinner, Crosby says.

That connection is not lost on Prime owner-operator Neal Irelan. “I figure it’s fine to gamble on the road,” he says. “My boss owns a casino.”


WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN
Truck Stop Ministries representatives are seeing more truckers who have sought counseling after gambling losses.

“To some degree, we’ve seen an increase because it’s more readily available,” says chaplain Joe Hunter, president of the Christian group that has chapels at dozens of truck stops. “We’re trying to put chapels at the same places where gambling is offered to give drivers a choice.”

The group has a regular Bible study at the Alamo Casino and Petro Stopping Center in Reno, Nev., and has plans for a chapel at a new truck stop casino in Shreveport, La.

Gambling can be hard for certain people to resist, and that includes truckers. “Many succumb in a weak moment, when there’s nothing else to do, when they’ve got time on their hands,” Hunter says. “What makes it difficult for drivers, with the new hours of service, is they have to sit still for so long. You can’t sleep that whole time and you can’t stay in the truck the whole time.”

Seeing people gamble with money they can’t afford to spend is “a hard pill to swallow,” says former trucker Pam Alf, who works for Rolling Hills Casino in California. “I suppose that it’s just like the general population; it’s not because they’re truck drivers. It’s a sad thing, but we have people in here using their house payments, too.”

Hunter says drivers will come to his counselors, having gambled away their advance. After a rash of bad luck, they have no money to pay for fuel or food and no way to deliver the load. “Sometimes, they’ll say they’ve been robbed,” he says. “But you talk to them and find out that they’ve lost it playing slot machines or cards.”

Self-help groups like Gamblers Anonymous and resources such as the National Council on Problem Gambling offer support to gamblers who cannot walk away from the games. Most states have extensive programs designed to counter the lure of gambling, including self-exclusion list programs in which problem gamblers can sign up to be barred from gaming venues, and casinos are required by law to comply. Much of the effort is funded by gambling revenues. Casinos also can exclude gamers for any reason of their own.

“We all have vices,” Hunter says. “If it’s not gambling, it’s something else. You can’t live in a bubble, but you have to avoid the temptation.”


KNOW WHEN TO FOLD ‘EM

Most compulsive gamblers will answer yes to at least seven of these questions:

  • Did you ever lose time from work due to gambling?
  • Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
  • Did gambling affect your reputation?
  • Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
  • Did you ever gamble to get money with which to solve financial
    difficulties?
  • Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
  • After losing, did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?
  • After a win, did you have a strong urge to return and win more?
  • Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?
  • Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
  • Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
  • Were you reluctant to use “gambling money” for normal
    expenditures?
  • Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of yourself or your family?
  • Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?
  • Have you ever gambled to escape worry or trouble?
  • Have you ever considered committing an illegal act to finance gambling?
  • Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
  • Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?
  • Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling?
  • Have you ever considered suicide as a result of gambling?

Source: Gamblers Anonymous


BIG BUSINESS

  • In 1998, Americans gambled away more than $50 billion – more than what they spent on athletic tickets and theme parks.
  • Approximately 85 percent of U.S. adults have gambled at least once in their lives, 60 percent in the past year.
  • An estimated 2 million U.S. adults are pathological gamblers; gambling for them is a compulsion or addiction with traits similar to alcohol or drug addiction. Another 4 million to 8 million adults are problem gamblers, meaning they experience problems due to gambling.

Sources: Congressional National Gambling Impact Study Commission, National Council on Problem Gambling


RESOURCES
If you or someone close to you has a problem with gambling, you can get advice from these organizations:

Gamblers Anonymous
(213) 386-8789

National Council on Problem Gambling
(800) 522-4700


REMEMBER THE ALAMO? IT’S NOW A PETRO
It’s a Friday afternoon, early March. A few truckers play slot machines and a few locals sit at the well-appointed bar at the Alamo Casino. A small line has formed at the bank that is squeezed into a corner near the poker and blackjack tables.

The story is different in the Petro Stopping Center part of this truck stop casino. Drivers polish off a late lunch at the Iron Skillet Restaurant, the fuel islands are busy and the parking lot is full.

Out front, cars line up for the cheapest gasoline in Reno, Nev., a promotion that is cutting into the profits of the facility, but drawing in locals to the slot machines and games. “Pretty typical Friday,” says casino Manager Jerry Lutin. “You never know what kind of business you’re going to have around here.”

He walks over to a blackjack table where Darlene Rhodes, a.k.a. the “Terminator,” is dealing cards to a trio of long-haul drivers. One of them, Doug Stitt, a new driver for Swift Transportation from Buffalo, N.Y., is taking a break from the road. It’s only his third time in a casino.

“I’ve been to a few in Atlantic City,” Stitt says. “I just came in today to check this one out.” Stitt, who is not a regular gambler, bets $30 or $40 and wins some and loses some. Next to him, team drivers Cathy and Neal Irelan say they stop off a few times a month to gamble, always with a limit in mind and always playing blackjack.

“I like blackjack because there’s strategy involved,” Neal says. “Of course, there’s luck. But it’s not like roulette, where you just watch the marble go round and round.”

“If you’re good, you can play blackjack for hours on $30,” Cathy says. “It’s cheap entertainment.”

The cards come and go. The Irelans leave and John Ardrey, an owner-operator from Hannibal, Mo., sits in their place. He swaps chips from hand to hand while talking on his cell phone, trying to manage his three other trucks. “I limit my playing to $150 – win or lose, that’s all I’ll spend,” he says. “I play about four times a month. Typically on the riverboats in Missouri.”

Lutin wanders back around, checking the scene and making sure his customers get what they want. Lutin is proud of the upgraded trucker facilities – a comfortable lounge, a game room, a barbershop, touches of Western flair in the design of the tile floors and stuccoed walls. “We added the tables about seven years ago,” he says walking past a slot machine with an 18-wheeler theme. “The slot machines are guaranteed money. They’re mechanical. We give back 97 percent of the money put into them, but we clear 3 percent.”

When Petro first approached the Alamo, which was already servicing truckers with fuel islands and other services, the casino jumped at the chance to partner with the large truck stop chain. The casino was worried about losing market share and saw the benefit in becoming a destination for truckers – especially fleet drivers who have a contract with the truck stop chain, as well as other loyal Petro customers.

For its part, Petro gets local traffic in its store and restaurant and a great location between two exits on Interstate 80 near Sparks. When winter sets in, the stop is occasionally overrun with truckers waiting for Donner Pass to clear. A blizzard in January filled the Alamo’s 300 normal parking spaces and 1,200 more trucks stacked up in its overflow lots.

“It’s a perfect stop for a Petro,” says Lutin. “It’s close to California.”

It’s been a cautious marriage, but managers say it works beautifully for both parties. The biggest issue isn’t gambling, but booze. Most casinos serve free liquor to their patrons, and the Alamo is no exception – though its workers keep a close eye on drinkers. “We monitor alcohol intake,” Lutin says. “We make sure they don’t do anything stupid. We cut off a lot of people.”

Truckers understand the limits because they know their job and highway safety is on the line. “We have a great following here,” Lutin says. “Truckers who stop here come here for the entertainment and the amenities.”

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