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CALGARY, Alta. - Everyone makes rookie mistakes, but when push came to shove at the 2011 National Professional Truck Driving Championships, it was a rookie who made the fewest errors - and ended up driving off with the title of Grand Champion.

CALGARY, Alta. – Everyone makes rookie mistakes, but when push came to shove at the 2011 National Professional Truck Driving Championships, it was a rookie who made the fewest errors – and ended up driving off with the title of Grand Champion.

The rookie in question was Claude Tessier who, while he may have been a “Roadeo rookie,” has actually been driving trucks for the best part of 30 years – 22 of them with Groupe Robert out of Montreal, Que.

Tessier hauls a bit of everything to the Midwest and east coast of the US – including hospital and bathroom products – and he told Truck News via an interpreter that what finally got him to enter the championships in his home province was pretty much a dare from a friend.

“It started when (a previous champion) and I arrived from a trip and it took him two or three times to back the load into the dock straight,” Tessier says. “I teased him that for a champion he had problems and that he should watch me do it.”

Tessier says he’d been joking, but then he did back the load in on his first attempt, which prompted his friend to remark that he had a good eye for the task and maybe he should start entering competitions himself.

The results speak for themselves: Tessier copped not only the title of Grand Champion but was tops in the Single Tandem category and, not surprisingly, won the 2011 National Truck Driving Championships Rookie of the Year award as well.

Tessier says he loved the event, though he found it extremely challenging, with no one section much easier than another.
The rookie champion was accompanied to Wild Rose country by his 20-year-old son, Donald, and his girlfriend Marjolaine Allard, who he says adored the weekend as well, especially a side trip to Banff.

The Banff outing, along with a spouse’s program, was held the day before the actual Roadeo on Saturday, Sept. 10. It was a bonus trip set up by the Alberta Motor Transport Association, which hosted this year’s nationals. According to event organizer Bud Rice, “We let them loose (in Banff) for three hours and some went up in the gondola, some hung around town, then we had a barbecue.”

The championship itself actually got into gear that Friday morning, with the written test and the pre-trip inspection challenges. The written exam consisted of 25 questions culled from a list of about 120.

“It’s all relative to what they do for a living,” Rice says. “For example, how many pounds of tire pressure would there be in a bias or non-bias tire, or at what temperatures on the road would you need to start worrying about ice? There’s safety stuff, dangerous goods stuff, everyday regulations and the like.”

For the pre-trip inspection, trucks were set up before the event with five or six flaws and it was up to the driver to do a complete vehicle inspection and find them all within a limited time.

“For a straight truck you get eight minutes,” Rice says. “And for a B-train you get 11 minutes to find all the problems.” The faults could be anything from a seat belt or fire extinguisher missing, a removed glad hand, etc. “They don’t do anything major,” Rice says, “but it’s things a driver should spot.”

The driving tests on Saturday were the main event and brought out a small but enthusiastic group of supporters. Organizers kicked off the hostilities with the smallest trucks, working their way up from there to the longer vehicles.

Also on-hand at the competition were a number of displays, including a miniature tractor-trailer that was used for photo-ops and simulators (driving and rollover) from Bison Transport and the Sheriff’s department.

As it turned out, the competition ended up going a few hours longer than expected, which caused some angst among organizers and participants.

“Looking back on it we could have used a second truck,” Rice says. “We figured we’d be done by 2:30 but they didn’t finish until about 5:30.”

According to Don Wilson, executive director of the host AMTA, the late finish meant a bit of discomfort for some of those involved.

“I did hear from our judges – the enforcement guys – that it was a very, very long day out on the pavement,” he says. “It wasn’t so much a complaint but that they wished they’d been told up front so could have brought in some relief and maybe worked in shifts. It was hot out there in their black uniforms.”

The most pressure, of course, was on the people behind the steering wheels. Drivers had to start from a standing stop and navigate such challenges as an offset, an alley stop, a serpentine section that basically put them through a figure eight, a right angle turn, etc. Points were deducted for mistakes – for example, in the right angle turn, drivers had to stop within six inches of a fixed point, or else.

A total of 34 contestants vied for the various trophies, five from each province except for Atlantic Canada, which brought four. Rice says the results (the top score of the day was 470 points out of a potential 500) were comparable to those in other years, and a testament to the quality of drivers who get that far in the competition.

“You have to have a pretty good day, especially at the nationals,” he says, “because the tendency is to make things even tighter than they were in the provincials, so you just about need a shoehorn to get through some of those events.”

It was an interesting cross-section of drivers who found their way to the Stampede city as well, including a female from Quebec and, from the Atlantic provinces, an 81-year-old man who’s been driving for 63 years. And driving well, obviously.

Not everyone was happy with the turnout of spectators who populated the bleachers to encourage the drivers, but not for the reason one might expect. Lane Kranenburg, who emceed the Saturday driving event, said he was disappointed with the lack of trucking company executives on-hand. “I’ve been involved with the truck Roadeos – provincial and national – since 1972,” he says, “and the only executive I can remember who was constantly there was Darshan Kailly with Canadian Freightways.”

Kranenburg, a longtime advocate of paying drivers the respect he says they’re due, says “We have the executive of this industry sitting in their corner offices, driving the fancy cars and they’re not here supporting their drivers. The reason they drive those fancy cars and they’re in those offices is because of these drivers.”

Kranenburg realizes the executives have busy schedules, but “What we need to do is put a higher emphasis on that highly skilled occupation of professional truck driver and with the executive not here, I think it’s a stain.”

Wilson agrees, noting that it isn’t just a problem at the nationals. “That’s been a disappointment with the provincial championships, too,” he says. “And I think we would get some more interest in a number of areas if some of the big guys were showing up. The drivers are there and they know the value of it and we do too.”

Wilson would like to see more interest from the general public as well. “I want to get this out to more people so they come and see what this is all about,” he says. “What the trucks are about, what they can do, how professional the drivers can be.”
Wilson points out that the championships are extremely positive for the industry and he doesn’t think enough is done to promote them. “It’s such a good news, a positive event and nobody comes except the ones who are participating and their families. People might think it’s a neat thing to go and see – and it’s free!”

As for Grand Champion Tessier, he’s understandably thrilled with how the 2011 National Truck Driving Championships worked out, including the affair itself.

“I liked how I was greeted,” he says. “I liked the courtesy of the people, how the event was organized.”

Tessier says people were really friendly regardless of where they were from and described the whole experience as “A beautiful weekend, a dream vacation.”

And now that he’s cut his competitive teeth
with such success, he’ll be back to defend his title. “It’s a nice challenge,” he says. “It was a pleasure to do the provincials and the nationals, to compete at that level.”

Tessier has a bit of advice for up and coming truckers, whether they’re planning to drive in competitions or not.

“The first thing is to never be impatient,” he says. “Be calm, and be courteous toward other people on the road. Those qualities give you a better chance to have less aggression against truck drivers and give people a better view of truck drivers in general.”

Though organizer Rice was happy with how the 2011 National Truck Driving Championships turned out, he’d like to see more drivers participating in the provincials that lead up to them.

“Don’t be afraid to get into this thing,” the former contestant says. “The guys get a lot out of it, and they get to travel to wherever the competition is for the nationals – and it doesn’t cost the driver anything. The company and the trucking association pays for it all.”

Next year, it’s Moncton’s turn to host.

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