Allen F. Reid, North American automotive reporter for Reuters news agency, and Chris Miller, reporter for WWL 870 AM radio, were the only other challenge contestants. Mike Russell, public relations manager for American Trucking Associations, and account executives from championship sponsor ExxonMobil's PR agency also drove the course.
My points total included maximum scores on two problems and a 90% on a third, scoring 145 points. The maximum score was 250 on this abbreviated version of the course set up for the state driving champions due to start the real Driving Championship on the following day.
We were let loose on a three-axle test, driving a short Sterling two-axle tractor pulling a short 28-foot pup trailer. As trucking commentators, we didn't have to do the backing maneuver, but had to perform a remaining five tests:
1. Sidewalk delivery, where the back of the trailer has to be within a pair of lines while the outfit sits along a curb line, no more than 18 inches away from it.
2. Scale stop with the right front wheel within a small box.
3. Right turn around a pylon
4. A row of cones simulating a roadworks area
5. Stop no more than 18 inches behind a line.
I strapped in, and with America's Roadteam Captain Lisa Fortun sitting in the passenger seat to make sure I was not going to do anything wrong, started the engine. The trick in these driving championships, I had learned last year, is to go slowly, so the technique is to complete the course with the engine never revving beyond idle. Most of the time you are even slower than idle in first gear, as you are allowed to pop out the clutch and just tease forward. But unless the problem calls for a stop, you don't want to let the wheels stop turning. That's a fail.
The first test was a stop with the right front wheel adjacent to a cone. It was just to get us acclimatized and didn't score. Next came the curbside stop, and I regretted not spending more time getting into position in the driving seat. During the walkaround I had spotted where the rear wheels needed to stop to put the rear of the trailer in its "box." What I failed to do was check that I could see the trailer wheels in the mirrors. I couldn't. So I had to wing it, finishing along the curb OK but with the trailer doors/ICC bumper short of the 18-inch box.
The next test was easier: I trickled up to the "scale" -- a 2-foot square with the scoring line through the center. A 1x4 taped to the leading edge of the box provides the clue as you are enter the "scale." Directly after dropping off this 1x4 I waited a second before setting the brakes, exactly on top of the line. Score 50 points. (See photo)
From here was the right-angle right turn with, at the apex, a little rubber duck stuck to the road and a strip of masking tape, with 50 points for passing with 6 inches of the duck and 25 points within a foot. Last year I had used my usual 53-foot trailer turning technique and missed the tape by a country mile. This time I got it in the right-side mirror and squeaked around the duck, scoring the maximum 50 points. This sounds like an easy maneuver, but in equipment you're not used to, it takes a lot of concentration and, probably, a greater degree of luck to ace it.
Next was the drive-by of five cones in a line, offset from the straight-ahead. Each had about 8 inches of masking tape projecting out divided into 5 and 10 point segments; the nearer the cone, the higher the score. On this one I managed to hit four of the five in the 10-point area by taking it nice and slow and using the mirrors all the time.
The final test was to stop at a line, no more than 18 inches from it, but with no part of the truck over it. I erred on the side of safety and set the brakes about 2-1/2 feet from it. In my defense, the test is made more difficult by setting this line at an angle to the direction the truck is traveling.
It was by no means a perfect drive, and in the true championships would have eliminated me from contention immediately. Drivers in this ultimate driving test get round these courses with perfect scores. But then, they practice and practice, sometimes every weekend of the year. It shows the dedication the entrants have to being the best.
What you don't see unless you are at the championships is the camaraderie and the team spirit. Most drivers have their families along for support; often companies like Roadway, Yellow, Con-Way and Hadley bring big supporter groups, all in corporate attire. They sit in the bleachers set up inside the giant convention center halls and cheer when their drivers are announced over the PA. And while drivers are all head-to-head competitors, there's an amazing expression of brotherhood and goodwill between them.
The championships are a tough test, but they are good fun for all. Usually centered in convention cities like New Orleans, the four-day event coincides with driver appreciation week and culminates in an awards dinner where the Champion of Champions is announced to wild acclaim from the audience - all of them already State Champions.