Darrell James met and chatted with fellow and prospective Mercer Transportation drivers at the recent Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky.
West Virginia owner-operator Darrell James, leased to Mercer Transportation, has been trucking for nearly four decades. Now 65, James has seen the industry change from almost every angle: as a logger, a general freight driver, an oversize/heavy hauler, a company driver and a business owner. The biggest change, he says, is in the size of the industry and the pace of business.
“You used to have so many customers around the country, and you’d make the rounds, and you knew you could count on it,” James says.
Now, “At Mercer, if they call and offer you a load, you’ve got eight minutes to make up your mind, or that load passes you by. You used to have a half a day or a whole day to talk about loads.”
Striking a balance between speed and special demands is no easy task, but James excels at it in his current niche, removable-gooseneck heavy hauling.
“In general freight, you have a lot more liberty to run like you want to throughout the day, whereas with the permitted loads you have to watch the curfew,” he says. “You have to be conscious all the time of your weight, height and size.”
Adds Dale Corum, a Mercer manager: “Oversize takes someone who’s more cautious, aware of their surroundings and attentive to detail.”
Drivers passing James, for example, often become more interested in his spectacular cargo than in watching the road, which poses a threat to everyone. “I hauled a lot of gun turrets for the ships,” James says. “You get people who want to film that as you drive down the road. I’ve had to have police escort me to keep people safe.”
James nets $75,000 to $80,000 a year hauling military and government freight. High-security loads pay well but require an intensive background clearance. “They check your record for felonies or anything against you,” James says.
“You have to have a lot of experience under your belt to do what he does,” says Dana Bibb, manager of Mercer’s over-dimensional section, who describes James as unfailingly upbeat. “Once he gave his safety-award jacket away to a woman at a truck stop who didn’t have a coat. He uses his experiences to help other people.”
James bought his first truck in 1974 and started out in the family logging business in Ozone, Ark. A few years later, James owned the trucking side, his father the logging side.
Family has always been important to James, who has eight children. He enjoys taking time off to fish and hunt with his extended family. “I love to get out in the wild, not so much to get the game, but to enjoy it and spend time with my kids,” he says.
“Having a family that understands what you do and the time you’re away and the sacrifices you make makes things easier,” James says.
His oldest son, at least, is beginning to understand exactly what dad does: For nine months, Gene also has been leased to Mercer. He has a ways to go, however, to beat his dad’s soon-to-be 18-year tenure at the fleet.
James stresses the importance of planning purchases and managing expenses. “You have to wait until you can afford the extra stuff, the goodies,” he says. An example is his new auxiliary power unit, for which he patiently saved.
Some drivers lack dedication to the business side of trucking, he says. “You’d be surprised how many people out here don’t know the cost of operating a vehicle.”
James saves all receipts and carefully documents his revenue and expenses in an Excel spreadsheet. “I can see my profit/loss from year to year, month to month or even trip by trip,” he says. “If I take a particular load today, I can look back and see what the same load paid and cost a year ago with the click of the mouse.”
The biggest threat to budgeting in the trucking industry is the price of diesel, James says. “I drive as conservatively as possible. Running the speed limit or five miles less is a big help in conserving fuel.”
James does most of his own maintenance – including replacing switches, hoses and lights and installing his new idle-reducing APU – in a makeshift shed back home. “When I had a lot of trucks, I had my own shop, and I kept the tools and things I needed to do maintenance in that, but I’m in the process of building a shop right now,” he says.
When he does take the truck in for something more extensive, cost isn’t always James’ prime consideration. “I’m very particular where I get my work done,” he says. “Quality of service is sometimes more important than price.”
Good profits, good health and good luck will keep him on the road for at least five more years, James says. “I’d like to drive until I reach 70 years old. That’s my goal in life.”
STATIONED IN IRAQ is Darrell James’ son, U.S. Marine Sgt. Darrel James, an aviation mechanic and qualified gunner. “I’m proud of him, but at the same time you have to be conscious of what could happen,” his dad says. The military cargo that makes up about half his oversize freight means more to him now because of his son’s assignment, James says.
A SHRINK-WRAPPED MYSTERY that Darrell James hauled from Virginia Beach, Va., to Edwards Air Force Base is one of his many memorable oversized loads. “Everyone wanted to see what it was,” James says. All he knows is it had something to do with the space shuttle, for which Edwards is a backup landing site. “That’s the kind of load you don’t forget because you can’t tell people what it is.