All-round champion

Yellow Transportation driver Rick Herbert, shown with his wife Sandy, claims the 2005 National Truck Driving Grand Champion title.

Rick Herbert entered the National Truck Driving Championships because he wanted to challenge himself.

“When I backed up to a dock, a lot of our customers used to tell me how good I was at it,” says Herbert, who’s been with Yellow Transportation 17 years. “So I thought, ‘Let’s see how good I am.'”

Here’s how good: At the American Trucking Associations’ National Truck Driving Championships Aug. 20 in Tampa, Fla., Herbert brought home the gold that says he’s the best truck driver in the country, although he’ll be the first to dispute that. “I’m not the best driver out there,” he says. “Today was just my day.”

The victory was no gift.

Herbert, 52 and a resident of Villa Park, Ill., has 30 years of overall experience and drives a Volvo daycab with a 40-foot trailer around Chicago’s western suburbs, and he’s no stranger to tricky driving situations.

“I’m home every night, but I make 15 to 20 stops a day,” he says, adding that the biggest problems with driving in the city are “the cabs and the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) buses.” Still, he earned the championship by practicing and with the support of his family: wife Sandy, daughter Kristy and son Greg.

“I’m so proud of him,” Sandy says. “It’s very exciting. He’s worked very hard for this, and he deserves it.”

“I’ve been with him at a lot of truck rodeos,” says Kristy, a sophomore education student at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill. She was able to help her father prepare for the written examination that all championship contestants must take. “I’ve helped him study, corrected his tests and helped him go through the book,” she says.

“All the questions come right out of the book,” Herbert says. “It’s a lot to memorize. I’ve been reading it 10 years, and I still missed four questions.”

Greg, who will study engineering in college, was assigned spotting duty. “Before the state championships I’d go down and help him and the other drivers practice,” he says.

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With local, state and national championships, skills tests, written exams, pre-trip inspections and personal interviews, there are lots of opportunities for contestants to be eliminated, and everything has to go right for the winners.

It was the timed, graded pre-trip inspection area that got Herbert most. “I only got 30 of a possible 60 points,” he says. “I didn’t run out of time. But I was inspecting equipment I wasn’t familiar with, and I was pushing myself, so I missed stuff.” He also struggled with the rear stop, which requires placing the right rear trailer tandems “in the scoring zone,” and the right turn, in which the rear tandems must come within inches of but not touch a corner marker, in this case, a rubber chicken. “I just rubbed the chicken,” Herbert says.

But he knew his game was on. “As I was going through it I felt I was doing very well.” He missed only four of 40 questions on the exam and scored a whopping 58 of 60 on the personal interview. “When I left the room, I was crowing like a rooster,” he says.

While he struggled in some skill areas, he still scored in every one. “I wanted to score in everything,” he says. “If you score in everything, you have a chance, and toward the end I started feeling real good.”

Herbert’s road to overall national champion was not a short, easy one. He’s been to Illinois state championships nine times and in the nationals five times: “’98, ’99, ’01, ’02, and this year, which is the first year I’ve won here,” he says. But he says it’s worth it. “I come here for the camaraderie and the competition.” But competing has also made him a better driver. “It helps us know where every point of the vehicle is,” he says. “For example, on the street you know when you’re going to jump a curb. It also helps me better understand what I can and can’t do, stay within my limits. I can tell a dispatcher whether it can or can’t be done.”

Herbert says he’ll be back next year, “either as a contestant or a judge.”

But right now? “What am I going to do tonight?” he says. “Take a shower.”

Competitions, Categories and Champions
All contestants participated in:

  • A 40-question written examination covering general trucking knowledge, safe driving rules, security, first aid and fire fighting: 80 possible points.
  • A personal interview covering professionalism and attitude toward the trucking industry, management and enforcement agencies: 60 possible points.
  • A pre-trip inspection: 60 possible points
  • A field-course skills test covering braking, parking, backing, stopping and maneuvering through tight spots: 300 possible points

The following drivers are national champions in their respective categories:
Four Axle: Rick Herbert, Villa Park, Ill., Yellow Transportation*
Five Axle: Ryland Hogan, Stuart’s Draft, Va., Wilson Transportation
Sleeper: Larry Warr, LaGrange, Ga., Wal-Mart Transportation
Tanker: Michael Lomastro, Lake Worth, Fla., Publix Supermarkets
Three Axle: Brent Darnold, Parkersburg, W.V., Linde Gas
Twins: Darrel Kimbrell, Bessemer, Ala., FedEx Freight
Flatbed: Mark Church, Winston-Salem, N.C., Con-Way Southern Express
Straight Truck: Robert Dolan,
Catasauqua, Pa., Con-Way Central Express
* National Grand Champion

Andy Haraldson

Diary of a Changing Life
When Phillip Wilson decided to totally change his life, he kept a record of all the changes he went through.

In his book Driver: Six Weeks in an Eighteen Wheeler, Wilson chronicles his transformation from executive to a licensed over-the-road driver in six weeks. After quitting his job as a merchandise coordinator at a defunct department store, Wilson decided to see the world by way of big rig and saddled up with his trainer to do it.

Although Wilson had daily contact with drivers at his job at a distribution center in Houston, trucking seemed a distant choice for employment.

“It sounded interesting, but in a faraway manner,” Wilson says.

It wasn’t until his last interview for a major corporation that Wilson decided to leave cubicle life and hit the pavement.

“I was up to my eyeballs in this corporate business and canned responses, and I wanted to do something different,” he says.

So at 54 years old, Wilson, from Texas City, Texas, began the training process to become an OTR driver. He kept a daily journal of his training, which his trainer lovingly called his “memoirs.”

“We didn’t always think the same things were funny,” Wilson says. “I stayed generally amused because it was all new to me.”

In one incident in his book, Wilson recounts being woken up in his truck in the middle of the night by an old, cranky customer with a bleached-blonde wig who wants him to the move his truck into a dock space. Shoeless and in his underwear, Wilson backs the truck into the space for the first time.

“Spin the trailer on tandems, pull forward to straighten … Done, and it is beautiful. First dock door I ever backed into, and it is perfect. I’ve not seen anyone do it that well wide awake and in broad daylight, much less half asleep and the middle of the night. I pat myself on the back for a job well done.”

Between angry drivers and the science of the perfect cheeseburger, Wilson kept a daily journal during his training and developed a collection of people, places and incidents on the road. Although Wilson had never written a book before, he decided to write about what he thought most ordinary people had never done – live in a truck.

“I had overlooked a large but quiet subculture of the American people,” Wilson says. “My book is a collage of people and experiences that don’t fit inside a bracket that the general public has.”

From his relationship with his trainer to his appreciation for professionals, or “million-mile drivers,” Wilson looks at life on the road. He details truckstops and traffic, and what the country looks like from the top of a trailer. In Arizona, Wilson meets a burly driver who sold his house to live in his truck after his wife died. Moved by the guy’s decision to keep driving after tragedy, Wilson tells of the strength he saw in this man.

“He made an impression on me early in my career,” Wilson says. “He didn’t just suffer through it but made the best of it. He didn’t just mope, even while he was missing a life partner.”

Wilson addresses his obvious changes in grooming on the road, but he says that American people have misconceptions about truckers when it comes to style. The author says only a small percentage give the remainder a bad name by not obeying generally accepted standards of cleanliness.

“These guys are out on their own all day and have no one to impress,” Wilson says.

Wilson likens drivers to mountain men or beach bums in dress but has serious respect for the profession. So much respect, in fact, that he has been driving a tanker for Enterprise Transportation in Houston since he finished training.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.

But his slow acceptance into the boys’ club has been a negative aspect of his experience. He separates the million-mile drivers from the “steering wheel holders,” but says that he has not yet been accepted as a professional.

“Of all the groups of people I have met in my life, I have found it hardest to be accepted by truck drivers,” he says.

But the job is still rewarding, Wilson says. “I learned that every day we have the opportunity to save people’s lives. Every night people go home to their families because a truck driver did his job.

Driver is available for $22.95 at all major bookstores and many truckstops around the country.
Rachel Telhany

Man on a Mission
Trucker Frank Thompson is spreading a message of love and peace to anyone who will listen. Five years ago, after hearing a radio news report of an eight-person murder, Thompson, 51, decided to take a stand against violence. With the help of friends and a website, Thompson launched his Change the World campaign, a plan to stop violence and let people know that there is someone in the universe who cares for them.

Since Jan. 31, 2000, Thompson, who lives in Kirkwood, Ill., has traveled to towns in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin, stopping at businesses, schools and churches to ask if he can share his message. Thompson encourages youth groups and organizations like the Lion’s Club to reach out to other people who are hurting. He also provides fliers and a sample letter that people can copy to give to their loved ones.

The Change the World website posts ideas on how to change communities, ranging from “We need more random acts of kindness” to “Stop glorifying violence.”

Thompson, who lives with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, still hauls limestone and rock for his brother’s trucking company to support his family and his campaign. A driver for 15 years, Thompson understands the hardships of life on the road.

Since he started Change the World, Thompson says he just wants to help people before they hurt themselves or someone else. And Thompson truly believes in the power of positive relationships to change people’s lives.

“Some of these tragedies don’t have to happen if these people would just talk to someone,” he says.

Thompson is no stranger to social activism. In the mid ’80s he self-published two books about how to improve situations for farmers, inspired by his own life growing up on an Illinois farm. He sent a copy to every senator and person on the House Committee on Agriculture.

Working for the campaign has helped Karen Shaver, a friend of Thompson’s. Her husband drives for U.S.F. Holland, and she helps out with the family farm. When Shaver’s parents died, Thompson asked her to type letters for Change the World. His encouragement helped her through the difficult time, she says.

“When there is a loss, you don’t want to do anything,” Shaver says. “I didn’t want to do it but did it, and it helped to keep me busy.”

Since Thompson started Change the World five years ago, Shaver says, he has become more comfortable with himself and with speaking in front of people.

“He has no college education or training, just his personality and desire to help people,” Shaver says. “He’s out there everyday and I admire him – I couldn’t do that.”

The message of the Change the World campaign is based on Christian beliefs. Thompson, who has attended Kirkwood United Methodist Church for the past five years, says he speaks to many different organizations and doesn’t judge people based on their beliefs.

“I leave that up to God,” he says.

Thompson also sells campaign merchandise on his website. In five years he has sold more than 5,000 T-shirts, hats, mouse pads and coasters with the Change the World logo. He also relies on individual contributions and money from driving to fund his campaign.

“I think love is the answer to every question,” he says. “You’ve got to have hope to survive.”

For more information, log onto this site or write to: Change the World, P.O. Box 254, Kirkwood, IL 61447.
Rachel Telahny