Competitors at the IFDA Truck Driving Championship show their pride in being there. Photo courtesy of the International Foodservice Distributors Association.
Professional football players have the Super Bowl. Professional drivers have the IFDA Truck Driving Championship or the ATA National Truck Driving Championships.
And in the world of truck driving championships, these drivers are the equivalent of Jerry Rice, Tom Brady, and Jim Brown, all rolled into one.
Can you snake a 73-foot semi backward between two tennis balls with just four inches of clearance on both sides? Can you back a trailer into a dock and get within an inch of it without hitting it? They can.
But for drivers, state and national truck driving championships are more than just a competition. They’re a means of driving themselves to be safe.
‘The best of the best’
That’s because to even set foot at a truck driving championship, drivers must be collision-free for at least one year prior to the competition. A simple scratch on a bumper or blown out tire can be grounds for disqualification.
Both state and national competitions consist of a written test, a vehicle inspection, and a timed driving skills course. A standard skills course measures just 240 feet long by 130 feet wide. Obstacle contests may require drivers to get very close to an object without hitting it, maneuver between tennis balls backward, drive between a narrow lineup of bars, and more.
“The IFDA Truck Driving Championship is designed to allow drivers to showcase their skills, knowledge and strong commitment to safety,” said Brian Lynch, vice president, Industry Relations, IFDA. “We like to make it challenging. The drivers like it that way because they’re the best of the best—and they want to compete against the best of the best.”
State and national truck driving championships are just as much about bragging rights, camaraderie and driver recognition as they are about safety—and drivers make lasting friendships through the competitions. But safety is their centerpiece. With nine classes of competition and about 180 drivers vying at the state level, the winner of each class goes on to compete in nationals against more than 400 others.
“The nationals are the Super Bowl of truck driving, whether drivers win, lose or draw there,” said Don Egli, CDS, who heads up the Iowa state truck driving championships and chaired the 2017 National Truck Driving Championships. “The drivers are in it to win it.”
Technology key to National Truck Driving Championships training
Video telematics plays a vital role in keeping safety top of mind for drivers and preparing them for safety contests. It’s especially important in an age when it’s a risk just driving across town. At a time in history when distracted driving is on the rise, video telematics programs and other safety technologies can play a vital role in increasing drivers’ vigilance—and preparing them to vie against the cream of the crop at the National Truck Driving Championships.
Having a deeply ingrained safety mindset helps immensely in competition, said David O’Neal, vice president, Safety Programs and Industry Engagement, for the Arkansas Trucking Association. “If you exhibit unsafe behaviors in your daily driving, then you’re not even going to get in the front door of competition. Drivers can’t even have a ding on their record to get into these competitions.”
Contests’ long-term impact
It’s proof of how technology and truck driving championships work together to create safer, more vigilant drivers.
Just as in-cab technology increases drivers’ awareness on the road throughout the year, championships change the way drivers think about safety, said Kelly Osburn, safety analyst, Less Than Truckload, for XPO Logistics—a fleet that produced three grand champions in state contests in 2018.
“Every day on the job is practice for the championships,” she said. “It comes down to training and experience. These drivers exhibit a heightened sense of safety awareness on the job every day, looking ahead down the road and using safe following distances. You can’t reach the championship level without that mindset.”
Drivers who compete at the championship level want to return every year, Osburn said. “It takes an enormous amount of self-control, awareness and professionalism to be a perennial competitor,” she said.
Increased safety awareness is the thing that makes state and national truck driving championships so worthwhile, O’Neal added.
“These competitions are a tangible reflection of your safe driving record, so they can be a motivating element to continuing your safe driving record,” he said. “Drivers want to get home safely every day—and I think these events help keep that goal front and center.”