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Truckin: NDN reporter gets taste of driving a big rig

When I was young, my grandfather worked on heavy equipment at the main garage for the City of Des Moines and before his retirement, at the Des Moines International Airport. Bob Mendenhall Sr. was always outside in his shop turning wrenches on “some deal,” as all in the family lovingly put it. From restoring antique Ford tractors to hauling brush and junk for friends, my grandfather was pulling a heavy load.

Breaking his back for others, his work was his passion. But this was not the beginning of a love affair with trucks for me. I was the kind of kid whose imagination was too supernatural for big rigs — more entranced by Power Rangers, action figures and VH1 than the sturdy Tonka trucks parked in the play room in my grandparents’ basement.

But watching my grandfather gave me a deep respect for the drivers. And at no time has that respect grown more than during my participation in the Media Driving Challenge during the Iowa Truck Driving Championships at the Iowa Speedway Saturday where — to my surprise — I took home the first place plaque in the media division.

Put on by the Iowa Motor Truck Association, the championships are held annually “to showcase the best of the best,” said Association president Brenda Neville.

This year’s competition hosted 88 drivers in 22 different trucking companies. Neville says that attendance has been down in recent years, attributing the dip to a troubled economy. But 14 more drivers competed in this year’s events than in 2010. A normal year boasts more than 100 participants. Companies such as Walmart, FedEx Freight, UPS and Hy-Vee were represented with Walmart taking home the top overall team prize. Winners go on to compete in a national competition.

“We were once again very pleased with the caliber of competition that we had at the 2011 event,” Neville said in an emailed statement. “As a professional truck driver, these men and woman are the foundation of the trucking industry.”

My experience Saturday was exhilarating, but if that foundation hadn’t been there to guide me it would have turned to exasperation quickly.

As the truck pulled up to the starting line, I was rocking from side to side, anxiety building. Of course I played if it off beautifully, with only every driver standing next to me able to tell my slight terror.

The professional driver riding with me on this crash course was named Michael. I introduced myself and shook the pro’s hand. “Well I’m Michael too, so we should get along pretty good,” he said with a smile.

I climbed the steps into the cab of the Volvo semi which pulled a Walmart cargo carrier. I did a little bounce in my seat noticing the comfort of the captain’s chair — although there were probably a lot of other technicalities that deserved my attention. My eyes did a span of the console, looking at the knobs and switches while Michael got situated next to me.

He explained how to turn the truck over, and after the extensive 30 seconds of training he laughed and said, “alright, you ready?” With a nervous grin I agreed, pressing in the clutch and flipping the ignition. I pressed the brake at my feet and released the air brake knob on the console.

Micheal explained that I would be staying in first gear on our trek and said that I could idle through the course, which was good because I don’t believe the accelerator and I would have made good friends.

Navigating the route, the idea was to get as close to obstacles as possible without hitting them, running over a cone or driving off course. Pieces of multicolored tape on the concrete gave judges scattered throughout the lot a basis of score. If a driver missed the tape, no points. If they hit the cone or barrel, no points. But my concern was not scoring, but keeping my 18-wheeler from rolling off the track.

It was a rough start, jarring the rig when I stopped at the first measurement which tested my ability to align the rear of the truck with a specified point. It put my patience and depth perception at odds.

As I went into my first turn, I eased a bit. Adjusting to using exclusively mirrors for line-of-sight. I nearly scored on the barrel in turn one and scored big on turn two, missing the barrel by inches.

I approached the final straightaway with a line of cones that I had to navigate. Two-feet of clearance on either side, my confidence was at its peak of the drive. I came to a stop at the final task, attempting to get all four back wheels of the truck marked flat. Michael shook my hand again and congratulated me.

A reporter for our sister paper the Creston News Advertiser, Amy Hansen also sat behind a big rig’s wheel for the first time Saturday. The only woman competing in this challenge, all the male contestants and drivers seemed impressed with her tenacity to take on a traditionally male dominated activity.

The 5 minute drive gave me perspective. I envisioned road raged interstate drivers speeding by truckers, honking and cursing in their blind spot. The difficultly of this job, and the skill it takes is not in question. Bolstering our lifestyles and contributing to our standard of living, without these drivers dealing with hellacious working hours and weather conditions to delivering our food, luxuries and other goods, our lives would be immensely different. A popular slogan according to Neville,”if you have it, a truck driver brought it.” When I’m on the road I will always show these men and women the respect earned and remember to yield, let’em pass and give’em a wave.

Mike Mendenhall can be contacted at 792-3121 ext. 422 or via e-mail at

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