Charles "Shorty" Whittington donned a smart gray suit and tie yesterday, yet they just served as a backdrop to the countless truck pins, badges, temporary tattoos and stickers adorning his clothing.
The juxtaposition was nothing out of the ordinary at the 72nd annual National Truck Driving Championships, which Mr. Whittington helped organize as chairman of the American Trucking Associations, of Arlington, Va.
Dubbed the "Superbowl of the Trucking Industry," the competition -- which kicked off Tuesday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- pits hundreds of professional truck drivers from across the nation against each other.
They're representing their states and companies, and trying to prove themselves to be the most knowledgeable, capable and safest drivers.
"This is the cream of the crop, the elite group," Mr. Whittington said yesterday. "They're ambassadors for the trucking industry. They're showing off their skills and letting the world see how safe we really are."
To get to the national level, drivers indeed have to be the best of the best. All 415 contestants are state champions in their vehicle classes, no small feat in a nation of more than 3 million professional truck drivers.
The four-day competition involves three different rounds, all with a spotlight on safety.
On Wednesday, truck drivers moved out from behind the wheel to take a written exam covering information from a 300-page manual about safety regulations, modern technology, first aid, fire safety and health.
The hands-on portion of the championship began yesterday with a pre-trip test, during which truckers had eight minutes to identify as many defects in their vehicles as they could, ranging from brake problems to oil leaks to light problems. Local companies donated trucks for use in the competition.
Yesterday also was the start of the driving action, with a six-stage skill test that measured drivers' dexterity and accuracy. The test will finish up today.
The result was a scene in which 45 trucks representing 77 companies were crawling around the inside of the exhibit hall yesterday at 8:45 a.m., maneuvering around barricades and backing into tight corrals.
Amidst the boom of announcers' voices over loudspeakers and applause from the audience, drivers completed an obstacle course that mimicked real-life situations.
To test their ability to gauge distances, they had to drive as close to rubber ducks as possible without touching them and stop precisely 15 feet away from a masking tape "railroad" -- replicating federal regulations -- without the guide of anything but their judgment.
Along the way, they were scored by judges and accumulated points that, if high enough, would lead to the revered titles granted at the end of the competition.
Tomorrow, the top three drivers in each of nine classes -- ranging from three-axle to flatbed to tank truck -- will be paraded into the obstacle course once more to determine the overall winners. Awards include cash prizes, ranging from $250 to $1,000 for the first place in a class, plus trophies and rings.
Yet the most coveted award may not be money or any fancy baubles.
"The title is something I'll always have," said Dennis Shirar, the grand champion of last year's competition held in Houston, Texas. "This is a really high class of drivers, so being named the best among all of them is pretty incredible."
Mr. Shirar isn't competing this year, since he placed only second in the straight truck class in his home state of Arkansas; but he came to support the contestants from his company, Heritage Transport.
Yet his excitement was no match for the enthusiasm and anxiousness among the competitors waiting for their turn to drive the course.
"It's going to be tough, tight and challenging," said a man who introduced himself as "Paul Gattin, 33 years, 3.2 million accident-free miles."
"You spend your entire career practicing, but this is testing your skills at a different level."
The really challenging part of the competition may not have anything to do with trucks at all.
"Waiting," laughed Timothy Dean, a four-axle driver with Werner Enterprises, a truckload carrier based in Omaha, Neb. "Just the anticipation, that's the hardest part."
Though obstacle courses and truck pins might seem frivolous, the championships are only one facet of an industry that impacts every aspect of American lives.
"Without trucks, America stops," Mr. Whittington said. "Where did you get your clothes, your food? There's nothing that trucks don't touch."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, trucks carry 85 percent of the total value and 66 percent of the total weight of U.S. cargo. In 2000, the trucking industry generated more than $600 billion in revenue, or 87 percent of the total national freight revenue.
Trucking has not been immune to the turbulence of the times.
During the recession, the industry was "badly hurt" by the nationwide decrease in buying and shipping, said Elisabeth Barna, spokeswoman for the American Trucking Associations.
There's also an environmental downside to the nation's dependence on trucks. According to the EPA, freight trucks and locomotives consume 35 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually, emitting 350 million metric tons -- or 18 percent -- of transportation-produced carbon dioxide.
Trucks also account for 32 percent of transportation nitrogen oxides and 27 percent of transportation particulate matter emissions, both of which contribute to health and respiratory problems.
Like many other industries, this one is working on its sustainability issues.
By 2012, the EPA's SmartWay Transport Partnership -- which aims for greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions from the freight industry -- expects to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 33 million to 66 million metric tons per year, and save about $9 billion in fuel costs and 150 million barrels of oil per year.
"Trucking will only get stronger than ever," Ms. Barna said. "It's essential."
Liyun Jin can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1410.