Faces of the Road: Open-deck specialized hauler Randy ‘Kemosabbi’ Cunha

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Updated Dec 14, 2021

Randy Cunha (“Kemosabbi”)
Age: 70
Past jobs: Paratrooper, 82nd Airborne; Firefighter; Mechanic Machinist; Car Painter; Body Man
Current: Owner, Tonto Express, hauling heavy specialized freight

At a time when most his age are starting to wind things down, specialized freight hauler Randy Cunha appears to be just getting warmed up. Having recently reactivated his operating authority for Tonto Express, which had been dormant for well over a decade, the septuagenarian step-decker was gracious enough to sit down with this old reefer dog and talk trucking, while sharing some stories from his 40-plus years on the road.

“Do you really want a $4,500 truck to haul your $10,000 load?”

Kemosabbi, whom regular listeners to the Road Dog Network on Sirius XM may recognize as a frequent call-in guest, recently posed this question to a high-value freight broker who had sent him an email offering an oversize load paying $10,000. Cunha, cut from the cloth of independents who still do most of their own maintenance, had been in his shop until mid-afternoon, untethered to his device. Upon discovering the message, he called the agent, with whom he frequently works, hoping to book the load.

Cunha (right) with trucking radio personality Dave NemoCunha (right) with trucking radio personality Dave Nemo

“I believe that one is covered” was the response, so the Conroe, Texas-based owner-operator began canvassing the load boards. He discovered a posting that he was certain had to be the exact same load, but with another broker. It paid $4,500.

In specialized hauling, Cunha explains, the loads are fewer and farther between, and more recognizable. I gathered this to be a little different than scoring a load of turnip greens out of South Georgia. “There could only be one load with with those exact dimensions from that same town,” he explained.

So he called the agent back. “Do you really want a forty-five-hundred-dollar truck hauling your ten-thousand-dollar load? Or do you want me on it?”

The agent was blindsided by the fact that he was being double-brokered.

Fifteen minutes later, the load was tendered to Cunha’s Tonto Express.

The incident speaks to larger questions within the industry. Do shippers and in-house brokers have an interest in seeing to it that their freight bill isn’t financing someone’s Maserati? “Shippers need to become more educated about what happens to these loads once they’re given to the brokers,” Cunha says. “One simple solution would be to require that the original freight rate be posted on the bills.”

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Failing in that, there’s always good old-fashioned business sense. ” You have to pick and choose what loads you take,” he says. “Once you start taking the cheap ones, they never let up. You become a garbage disposal.”

“I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

Cunha, of Portuguese descent, is the grandson of a whaler from the Azores archipelago, one Theodore Cunha, who defected to the United Stares in the early 1900s while docked at the Port of  New Bedford, Mass. The insignia on the Azores’ coat of arms perhaps best describes this proud owner-operator’s  view on life: “It is better to die free, than to live in peace, subjected.”

Raised in California, he “couldn’t wait to get out of there, with all their rules and regulations, and their class-consciousness.” This reporter has known Kemosabbi long enough by now to know that when he does something, he does it “All the Way,” which is the motto for the 82nd Airborne. Just as soon as Uncle Sam was finished with the paratrooper, he moved to Maine. Yes Maine, where an old Army buddy’s dad had a trucking company.

But his beginnings in the industry, like most, were bumpy. “The old man could see I knew what a wrench was for, and it got to where he wouldn’t  let me out of the shop,” Cunha says. So “I rebuilt an old junk truck that a neighbor down the road had, and made myself a job.”

Forty-seven years later, his 2001 379 Peterbilt, appropriately dubbed Truck C130, eases into into the Franklin, Kentucky, Flying J. He gave it that number because the Pittsburgh Power-enhanced Caterpillar engine, pushing 650 horses to the ground through aero-muffled six-inch straights, has more of the low fluttering rumble of that perfectly good Lockheed C130 he was so fond of jumping out of in the 1960s. With 26 wheels, seven axles, 12 chains and an 18-speed Eaton Fuller tranny, the whaler’s grandson taxied into position, an oversize dump truck chained and bound tightly into the belly of his 55-ton RGN like some massive Shamu.

So that’s what a $10,000 load looks like. He hits the hole on the first try, and steps out of his truck with the build and gait of a man half his age. It was one of those moments when you realize there is nothing you will ever be able to do in your life that will make you quite as cool as this hombre. If he was anyone else but Kemosabbi, I would have hated him instantly.

The tall money doesn’t come without its risks, though. The veteran heavy hauler told me he is currently contesting a seven-figure fine he received in the South when a  clerical error with a third party compliance agent voided his permit. “I usually do pretty well dealing directly with the DA,” he said, all nonchalance. It struck me just how many skill sets a heavy specialized independent must possess to remain profitable — part mechanic, part attorney, part diplomat. The air he or she occupies is about the most rarefied in the industry.

I think I’ll just stick to turnip greens.

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