Following distance management, work-life balance key to safety, success of five-time Owner-Operator of the Year finalist

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Updated Sep 25, 2021

Bryan Smith is one of three finalists for the 2020 Owner-Operator of the Year award, produced by the Truckload Carriers Association and Overdrive. The winner, who will receive a $25,000 cash prize, will be announced in September at TCA’s annual convention in Las Vegas. The sponsors of the Driver of the Year contests are Love’s Travel Stops and Cummins. The other two finalists are Glen Horack and Doug Schildgen.

Bryan SmithBryan Smith

Bryan Smith, 51, of Asbury, Iowa, has been driving in some form or fashion for Tucker Freight Lines (formerly Art Pape Transfer) for nearly 28 of his 30 years in trucking. He got his first trucking job with Schneider when he left the United States Marine Corps in 1991, then joined Art Pape in 1993.

He became an owner-operator leased to the company in 1994, and he has now been named a finalist for the Owner-Operator of the Year award for the fifth time in his relatively young driving career. While not being named a winner the first four times (the most recent was for the 2017 award), Smith is honored to have his name in the mix so many times.

“That’s always a feather in your cap,” he said. “It feels good to be appreciated. Guys who have won in the past, [the judges] made the right choice. I’m younger, so I don’t have a problem with that. I would say that even being considered among people that have been at it 50 years already feels good.”

Throughout his nearly 30-year trucking career, Smith has amassed more than 3 million safe driving miles, a milestone that he surpassed in 2019. He’s done so pulling a step-deck/RGN, hauling a variety of freight, including machinery, steel, stone, brick and lumber. A lot of the machinery he hauls, he said, is oversized, so he has to be mindful of the restrictions that come with that.

“I think I’ve stayed accident-free by the grace of God,” Smith said. “Anyone can go out there and crash at any time. Following distance is my biggest thing. If someone has to slam the brakes or loses control up ahead, I still have time to get stopped. And you have to make sure what kind of surface you’re on in the winter. Step on the gas occasionally to see if your rear wheels break free.”

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He’s currently driving a 2016 Freightliner Coronado that he bought new. It now has more than 450,000 miles on the odometer, and Smith said he’s hoping to upgrade after the winter hauling season. He usually takes his trucks to 700,000 to 800,000 miles, but he’s looking at an early trade for this one, which is already paid off.

Thanks to Driver of the Year program sponsors Cummins and Love’s Travel Stops, each grand prize winner will receive $25,000, while the two runners-up in each division will win $2,500.Thanks to Driver of the Year program sponsors Cummins and Love’s Travel Stops, each grand prize winner will receive $25,000, while the two runners-up in each division will win $2,500.

On the business side, Smith said much of his success stems from partnering with a good company and keeping up with his equipment.

“You can’t afford too many breakdowns,” he said. “I do a lot of the smaller work on my truck myself. I think if I was advising others, I’d say to learn the basics of electricity and mechanical, and do what you can yourself. It keeps expenses and downtime down.”

Smith usually gets home every weekend, but he doesn’t have any downtime in his time off between teaching martial arts, being involved in church, attending his children’s sporting events and more. A normal work week for Smith starts on Sunday afternoon after church and ends on Friday afternoon.

“I try to make it to my kids’ sporting events, and I have my own events I have to do,” he said. “I’ve cut down on some church activity – I’m only doing music once every three weeks now, so that brings some of the burden down. And of course, COVID cut down on the martial arts some, but I’m doing more online videos and things for online training. On Saturdays, I go in and teach once in a while.”

In the past couple of years, Smith also got involved in Wreaths Across America, hauling wreaths to veterans cemeteries.

“I like the idea of what they’re doing, so I’m happy to help them out with that,” he said. “I usually go to smaller cemeteries, and it’s usually just the guys that work there putting them out. I like that – more of the forgotten soldiers. They should also have that honor.”

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