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National champs prove their skills

LAVAL, Que. - By 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23 the clouds had parked just overhead, drenching trucks and drivers alike as those at the wheel attempted to watch barriers through the steady whap-whap of...


LAVAL, Que. – By 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23 the clouds had parked just overhead, drenching trucks and drivers alike as those at the wheel attempted to watch barriers through the steady whap-whap of windshield wipers. No matter. The 33 truckers at the 2000 National Professional Truck Driving Championships were out to prove they could answer any challenge thrown their way.

Only the first few contestants enjoyed the benefit of a dry course. But these six B-train drivers still had to worry their way through the offset alley; chase their tailplates in the cloverleaf; bend toward the loading dock; park by an imaginary car; dogleg around the right turn; line up for a pass through two rows of tennis balls, set a mere six inches wider than the outside edge of their duals; and sweep through a 220-degree diminishing curve. The final pair of markers offered two lousy inches of room on each side of the rigs, whose drivers had to run straight as an arrow for 150 feet in their quest for a perfect score.

Circle checks were graded on the first day of competition, Sept. 22, under the watchful eyes of Societe de l’Assurance Automobile du Quebec (SAAQ) controllers. Saturday, however, was the day of reckoning, begun with a 7 a.m. truckers’ breakfast – “less grease, though,” offered one participant – followed by a 137-question written exam. Afterward, groups of truckers and supporters lounged and chatted in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel, waiting for judges to finish fussing over the course.

“I’ve come second many times. This is my first kick at the national can,” said Dwight Fisher. He competed in 14 Saskatchewan rodeos before winning first place and a spot at the national competition.

When the time came, organizers herded everyone out behind the hotel. Rigs, the SAAQ mobile highway inspection bus, bleachers and other support vehicles butted up against the obstacle course, which was tucked into a corner of a Laval shopping centre parking lot. The course was only 15 feet from a two-story parking garage; when the rain started, most people took shelter there.

The train category contestants were first up. After a walkthrough of the course, they were sequestered in the yellow, 48-foot Saint-Jerome Truck Transport Training Centre (CFTR) recruitment trailer. One by one they were called out for their turn.

Any nervousness was well hidden behind jokes and tales. “I thought I would be a lot more nervous, but (I feel) nothing,” one participant offered. “I was a lot more nervous at the provincials.”

Left to simmer in the company of a coffee machine and a large box of doughnuts, waiting drivers became like subjects of a test of self-discipline and the ability to focus under adversity; there was no way to relieve the mounting pressure.

This was Manitoban Remi Van Der Driessche’s first time east of Thunder Bay, Ont. Van Der Driessche – who competed in the four-axle, single-tandem category – only began driving in ’95, but made the ’98 nationals in Edmonton. He began to feel the pressure after an 1-1/2 hours in the CFTR trailer but didn’t lose his cool and captured second place.

Waiting his turn in the three-axle/single-single category, Saskatchewan’s Eric Magnusson talked about life during the 12 months between competitions: “It is something to strive for, keeping your record clean, to be able to come to the rodeo each year.”

The eligibility rules are strict. In the year prior to a competition, qualifying drivers must have worked as a full-time, professional truck driver with no more than two employers, and have had no suspensions or preventable accidents. They must also have gone five years without a Criminal Code conviction, and have claimed first place in their category at rodeos held in their home provinces or regions.

Still, chance does play a role in getting to the nationals. One driver once blew his eligibility after flattening a tire by rolling over a wheel chock hidden under a fresh layer of snow in the loading area.

Roy Mattinson is a straight-truck competitor from Nova Scotia with 50 years as an O/O under his belt. After 10 hours at the course he had outlasted half of the 60-odd competitors, spouses and supporters who had gradually drifted back to the hotel before the competition finished at nearly 8 p.m.

This was Mattinson’s sixth time at the nationals. “My best (national standing) was a third once, and a second in Regina in ’96,” he said. “I love to watch.”

When a trucker negotiates an obstacle, it looks easy. But ask one who has done it. Take the serpentine: Alberta’s Lorne Greyson, B-train driver, said, “You can get turned inside out. You can get really buggered up. I was thinking, two rights, two lefts? Which way do I turn?” Grant Brown, who competed in the four-axle/single-tandem class for the Atlantic provinces team, had some difficulty maneuvering through the alley dock, where participants back down a narrow alley and dogleg left to within six inches of a dock platform. “Once you start screwing up in the dock, I don’t think there is any way to get straightened out,” he explained.

Conditions deteriorated as night fell. Organizers trotted trays of coffee out to the on-course judges and people started stretching stiff leg and back muscles. But the tougher the driving got, the more loudly everyone cheered. “Today we’ve got the best of the best,” said Andy Blasetti of the Alberta Trucking Industry Safety Association, the Alberta team sponsor.

By 7 p.m., Brown and Mattinson were done. They then watched Phillip Sanford, their other Nova Scotia team member, work the five-axle/ tandem-tandem in the last competition of the day. “Next year we’ll know more,” Brown said to Mattinson. “It hasn’t done a whole lot for me,” Mattinson shot back. As another parking garage light flickered out, the course sank further into darkness.

Sanford became fouled up in the alley dock and tussled with a barrel in the serpetine. Still, he showed the poise that got him to Quebec, waving and grinning a little as he drove the last few feet to the finish.

Fisher, driving second-to-last, pulled off a spectacular after-dark performance as judges in pink plastic ponchos made ghostly figures in his headlights. He blazed through the course in eight minutes, 38 seconds – nearly four minutes faster than the average time. “He works better by night than by day,” someone joked. Celebrating having seen some sweet driving, the other drivers mobbed Fisher when he came off the course.

Last up was Mario Bedard of Transport St-Isidore. He greased into the ally dock on the first try. “I only saw one other guy get the flag (no pull-ups required) all day,” said another participant. Bedard won third place.

“We will award prizes to the best among the best drivers in Canada,” Quebec Trucking Association’s (QTA) Pierre Charette announced to a gathering held the next day in Salon 1; the once rain-soaked truckers nearly unrecognizable in their suits and slicked-down hair.

When Charette read out Mattinson’s name for second place in the body-jobber class, the trucker let out a holler, rocketed out of his chair, raced to the stage, tore back to his table, grabbed his wife and hustled back to the podium, laughing and whooping along the way. Back at the table, he passed around his trophy watch.

“It’s not something I’ll be running around the woods with,” he said. n


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