In what can charitably be called a most challenging year, veteran driver Scott Smith rose to the top of his profession, earning recognition as 2020 Driver of the Year by the Minnesota Trucking Association (MTA).
“I was totally shocked. I never expected to win anything,” Smith said. “When they announced the annual winner, I’m like, ‘Really? Seriously? Is this for real?’”
Smith, a Minnesota native and driver for BarOle Trucking of Roseville, Minnesota, received the honor during a virtual award ceremony held Feb 25. The 67 year old may not have suspected anything was up, but his wife Karol who serves as safety director for BarOle, cannot say the same.
“The only person that knew was our vice president/CFO guy. And the night before, our safety director found out also,” Scott Smith said. “They were the only two that knew basically ahead of time and (Karol) was dying trying to not give it away. She was avoiding talking to me. She had to go to bed early to avoid being around me.”
It’s been a long road since Smith first fell in love with big rigs when, as a child, he watched a road construction project take shape out in front of his house.
“Watching the guys do construction, they dug up the whole street. They were putting in sewer and blacktopping afterwards,” he said. “All the big equipment, all the trucks. I thought, ‘Boy, that looks pretty neat,’ you know?”
Despite this early fascination, Smith’s first job wasn’t behind the wheel, but rather under the hood. After high school, he took a job with 3M’s service garage and spent years working on brakes, tune-ups, exhaust and other tasks. He might be there still, had a buddy not inadvertently piqued his interest in a career change.
“A friend of mine was looking for a career change and wanted to get into driving. He didn’t want to go by himself, so he talked me into going with him,” Smith said. “We went and learned driving on the weekends while we still worked our regular jobs Monday through Friday. After we completed our training, we jumped ship from our regular jobs and got into driving.”
Smith completed driving school July 4, 1977, and began a love affair with the road that’s still going strong. Over the next 20 years, he would drive for a fuel oil company and Coca-Cola before buying his own truck in 1990. He eventually started driving as an owner-operator with BarOle, and by 1997 was in a company driving position. At each stop in his professional journey, he says he learned something new.
“You learn a lot in the beginning,” he said. “I had never been hardly anywhere all my life, maybe northern Wisconsin on vacation. All of a sudden, you’re driving to these places out east, upstate New York all the way up Northeast Coast and places like that.
“You kind of just learn as you go,” he continued. “You keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Listen to the guys that have experience, and you learn in a hurry to weed out the guys that are telling the tall tales compared to the guys that actually are giving you some useful information.”
Smith must have chosen his mentors well — officials with MTA noted during his award presentation that he’d racked up 4.6 million safe miles and counting.
“Driving safe is no easy task, especially when you take into consideration his daily driving conditions like congestion, driver distractions, Minnesota winters and the added challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” said John Hausladen, MTA president, in a prepared statement. “Having over 4.6 million safe driving miles is an outstanding accomplishment.”
As for his secret to staying out of scrapes, Smith said it all boils down to common sense and a cool head.
“Just stay calm. Don’t get excited about traffic,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing you can do about it. Some jerk cuts you off, you’re not going to be able to chase them down, and what good is it going to do if you do? I mean, you’re never going to see him again. You gotta let it go.”
Still, if anyone could be forgiven for losing one’s cool, it would be truck drivers trying to get from point to point during pandemic-ravaged 2020. Smith said COVID-19 gave him some of the biggest challenges of his career.
“A lot of it was the rest areas closing down for a while,” he said. “Truck stops, a lot of them, even though they’re open, you were not allowed to bring in your own mug to refill with coffee. You have to use one of theirs. Some, you weren’t allowed to go in, except some would just come to the door and you hand them the paperwork, you wait in the truck. You weren’t even allowed to go inside to use their restroom. A lot of them now, at least, have put Porta Potties at their facilities for drivers to use.
“The biggest thing that I noticed with the shutdown, of course, was we kept going full bore,” Smith continued. “We didn’t really slow down. Things still were getting shipped around the country, overseas. Biggest thing was the change in traffic, the lack of it, which I’m not going to lie, was kind of nice.”
Smith is equally well regarded for what he does when he’s not on the road. He’s a longtime volunteer with Boy Scouts and volunteers with MTA’s Trucks & Toys campaign, which provides toys to children in need throughout the state during the holiday season. He also enjoys judging at the Minnesota Truck Driving Championships. All in all, it’s a good life, with more good things to come, he said.
“The way the trucks are now, they really are user-friendly, comfortable, and I think it’s going to continue on like that,” he said. “Sometimes I think these young guys today just don’t have a clue what we did 40, 50 years ago. But then, when I started the (older drivers) back then were probably thinking ‘Boy, you guys got some nice trucks these days.’
“The trucks are getting better, and we’ve still got good guys out there,” he said. “There’s lots of good drivers on the road.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.