They are the champions

by Harry Rudolfs

BRANTFORD, Ont. — There are many excellent truck drivers out there. Just look at some of the astounding safety records compiled by trucking professionals across the country, both city and highway. How does anyone mange to drive 10, 20 or 30-plus consecutive years accident-free doing city work in Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax or Toronto? And there are legions of such drivers. My company alone has drivers who have accumulated centuries, millennia even, of impeccable driving records.

Every sport, discipline or profession has its benchmarks. And top performers are often keen to find out just how good they are. Long ago, in a province called Ontario, forward-looking trucking enthusiasts wondered if there wasn’t some way to measure the best drivers and the skills they use on a daily basis, and even provide them with some truly challenging scenarios. And that’s the reason the Ontario Truck Driving Championships (OTDC) have been around for 62 years.

This year’s Ontario finals were held at the Brantford Municipal Airport on a glorious hot July weekend and included 56 entrants from across the province, each of whom had to qualify at regional or in-house competitions earlier in the year.

Although a few drivers pay their own way, most drivers in the regional competitions are sponsored by their company. This is a big commitment on the part of the sponsoring company, but those companies who get involved do so in a big way. Tim Horton’s, Home Hardware Stores, Maple Leaf Foods, FedEx, Canada Cartage, Con-Way Canada, SLH, and Erb Transport finalists come supplied with team shirts and set up their own awnings and tents, rows of lawn chairs, kids and barbecues.

Kevin Bradshaw, a driver for Canada Cartage explained how he got to the championships: “I was asked if I would be interested in the Regional Truck Driving Championship in June at the Woodbine Centre by our safety and compliance manager. I said of course…I thought I would take this opportunity to upgrade more of my skills but also meet some awesome drivers and hear their stories. But in saying that, I did not expect to win my class and rookie at the Regionals, let alone go to the provincials!”

Each team staked out its own territory on the infield, identified by the colourful shirts. The FedEx area included some activities for kids, and cooked up burgers and samosas. It was also good to see this competition reaching a broader spectrum of fleets. The city of Brampton was represented, and there was increased participation from waste management drivers in the straight truck section.

Classes were divided into straight truck, single-single, single-tandem, tandem-tandem and trains. Two separate courses ran simultaneously overseen by 55 volunteer marshals, as well as several MTO officers, helping out with the pre-trips. The spirit of volunteerism is robust at the OTDC. No one gets paid, but the volunteers as well as the committee members work tirelessly and return year after year.

The Ontario Truck Driving Championships have been running consecutively since 1947, and our drivers have been going to and winning at the National Championships for almost as long. It’s much more than a “roadeo.” Focus is put on the skills aspects of the competition and that touches a lot of bases.

For the competitors, the event begins at 7 a.m. Saturday with a sit-down exam, followed by a mass exodus of vehicles down Hwy. 403 to the Brantford Airport, where the trucks and trailers are waiting. Participants are required to complete a comprehensive pre-trip inspection, overseen by MTO officers on staged vehicles. Each driver has to finish the inspection within eight minutes and find the five “planted” defects.

It’s worth mentioning the MTO, because they hold their National Safety Code Challenge at the same time Friday night; the Best Western hotel parking lot was full of MTO cars in the parking lot. As a professional driver, I’m respectful of the truck enforcement officials, but wary at the same time.

So it was intriguing to see these MTO officers with their spouses grazing at the steam tables and enjoying the bad karaoke over drinks. I didn’t see any horns!

Seriously, it was great to see the best drivers and best inspectors in the province getting a little social time together. Like the winners of the OTDC, who usually go on to do very well at the Nationals, the winners of the National Safety Code challenge go on to represent Ontario at the North American championships in Salt Lake City. MTO officers always score well at this event, often bringing back the grand prize.

Through the kind intercession of vice-president Ewen Steele, I managed to cajole a drive around the course. I’d been pacing by the side of the course all day, and was hoping to take a turn at a tandem-tandem unit, but was slotted in with single-axle Freightliner and a pup at the last minute. This was much appreciated, as the course marshals had been standing in the sun for six hours.

After about four or five tries, I got the trailer into a very tight dock, but I came too close on the serpentine section and rubbed a barrel. Even more embarrassing, I was whistled down in the offset alley section for contacting the plastic tubing which served as alley walls. But this was amazing fun and I’m hooked. Now to get my manager to let me set up some pylons in the yard.

This is really the case of taking your skills to a higher level, nervousness aside. As Bert Weykamp, a city P&D driver for Con-Way Canada told me before his run, “I can back into any pick-up, first time, just about every time. But when I come here it seems a little more difficult.”

Obviously Weykamp didn’t have any problem on that Saturday, taking first place in the singe-tandem category.

Some of the drivers were repeat champs. Bryon Winfield of Home Hardware Stores has been coming to the provincial championships for nine years. In 2011, he took first place in the tandem-tandem class and finished second at the nationals. “I love it,” he told me.

The fleets that participate love it, as well.

“This is our fifth year in the Ontario Truck Driving Championships and there are 23 competitors on behalf of FedEx Freight,” said Pat Reed, executive vice-president and COO of FedEx Freight. “Through events like these, drivers can sharpen their skills and reinforce the key elements of safe driving that they use every day. We encourage a commitment to safety as drivers share the roads with the motoring public, and we are glad these competitions bring attention to the skills that professional drivers demonstrate daily.”

The championships are also time to renew old friendships and meet the families of the participants. Earlier, I had breakfast with Gaurav Wadhwa and his wife and two kids. A driver for Erb Transport, Wadhwa has been coming to the provincials for four years but this was the first time he’d brought his family.

“It’s a way to celebrate the professionalism of our job. I’m also very proud to be representing my company,” he told me. His son was wearing a t-shirt that said: “My daddy drives an Erb truck.”

Erb Transport is one of those companies that’s particularly enthusiastic about this competition. The company’s safety and compliance director, Tom Boehler, is a big proponent of the event and has himself competed at the regional, provincial and national levels. “I can say without a doubt, it was the driving championships that led me to my career in safety,” he said.

Boehler feels that the competition is a great way to test one’s skills, and is a great learning tool. “I feel it is another excellent source for recruiting, but mainly demonstrates the company’s commitment to training excellence.”

It’s interesting to see some of the same names of winners and fleets re-appear year after year, but it’s also refreshing to see new faces and companies getting involved.

This year Rennie Barran of the Speedy Transport Group took first place in the tandem-tandem category, and this is only Speedy’s second year in the competition.

“For a company with 270 owner/operators, we’re always looking at engaging them with safety,” said president and CEO Jared Martin. “The first year we had about three guys compete in the Regionals. This year we had eight or nine and we now have a provincial champion and rookie of the year. Next year, I’m hoping for 15 or more.”

Is it worth the investment?, I asked Martin on the phone. “In terms of return on investment, it’s very difficult to quantify that kind of thing. But it terms of getting our brand out there it’s a great tool. It’s very good for the culture of our company.”

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