Most drivers of tank equipment will tell you it’s different from other forms of trucking. In addition to unique driving characteristics — like top-heavy loads and dealing with surging and sloshing cargo — there various cargos have unique characteristics. Often, loads require special handling and paperwork, as well as trailer washouts between loads. It can be a daunting task just to keep up with it all.
That’s one reason winning the National Tank Truck Carriers’ (NTTC) William J. Usher Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year Grand Champion award for 2021-2022 means so much to Thomas “Tom” Frain, even if the initial announcement was a surprise.
“I just stood there, thinking, ‘Why did he call my name?’” Frain recalled. “I had met the eight finalists and I thought there was no way. The fellas that I met, their years of service, how they carried themselves.”
Frain drives for Knoxville, Tennessee-based Highway Transport, running out of the Knoxville terminal about 10 miles from the company’s headquarters.
He and Carol, his wife of 26 years and partner of 35, moved to Knoxville from their home in Upstate New York. Frain says the couple discovered the area because of his in-laws, who lived in Florida but frequently vacationed near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Frains enjoyed traveling to meet them and spend time together.
“I remember sitting on the front porch for Thanksgiving in shorts and a T-shirt, thinking, ‘If we’re gonna move, we need to do it now while the children are young,’” Frain said.
He has driven with Highway Transport for seven years, joining the company after a long career of hauling for the food service industry.
“Even as a child, I was always fascinated by equipment,” he said. “My mother would joke, ‘All anyone has to do to babysit Tom is sit him in front of a tractor.’”
The late ’80s, however, weren’t the best of economic times in Upstate New York as industries shut down or moved away. One of Frain’s friends had an uncle who owned a small trucking company — and that quickly drew his interest.
“I tried college; that didn’t work,” said Frain said, adding that he was too young at the time to get his CDL. “I worked full-time during the day, and I’d go up there [the trucking company] and fuel the trucks from around the yard for free.”
After a year — and when Frain had turned 21 — the company provided a truck for him to test in and gave him a ride to the CDL testing center.
With new CDL in hand, Frain hired on at Maines Paper and Food Service.
“They were team runs with two drivers,” he said. “Due to my lack of experience, that’s the only opportunity I had there. They put me with a mentor and I rode with him for two years.”
Frain stayed with the food service industry for years, until a friend went to work for Highway Transport and called him.
“We spoke over the years about how the job was just breaking my body down, and he said I needed to check this out,” Frain said. “I interviewed and fell in love with the company, the people there. It was just a different environment for me.”
Frain spoke about the process of learning to drive with tank trailers.
“There was a level of arrogance, because I was looking at (other drivers with) 23, 24 years of experience,” he recalled. “So, one day I got with my trainer, Greg, hooked up a trailer and gave it a tug test.
“That thing slapped us!” he continued, describing the first time he felt the effects of a liquid cargo surge.
The memory of those early days pulling tanks inspired Frain to help new drivers at Highway Transport. He now trains new drivers at the company, helping them to improve their driving skills and teaching them the details of tank trailers and liquid cargos.
He also works with the company’s safety department to film instructional videos for other drivers. He has accumulated more than 2 million safe miles of driving and was selected as a Road Team Captain for the Tennessee Trucking Foundation, an arm of the Tennessee Trucking Association.
Frain was nominated for the NTTC award by Highway Transport Director of Safety and Quality, Rick Lusby.
“It started with basically a paper application,” Frain said. “They wanted years of experience, safe driving miles, community service and leadership roles that you may have taken. It was, if you will, a driving resume.”
Frain has plenty of experience in community service, working with the Boy Scouts, the American Youth Soccer Organization, Little League USA Softball and other organizations.
Finalists for the award were flown to Washington, D.C., where they appeared before a panel for questioning and were evaluated in front of a camera to assess their communications skills. The panel consisted of five members, including Road Team Captains from the American Trucking Associations, a representative from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Great West Insurance and the NTTC.
The winner of the award was announced April 25 at the NTTC’s Annual Conference and Exhibits in San Diego. As the grand champion, Frain will serve as a spokesperson for the NTTC and Highway Transport at industry events.
When he’s not driving, mentoring other drivers or working in the community, Frain enjoys camping, kayaking, fishing and hiking. He and Carol have two children who live nearby.
“My daughter just graduated from Maryville College with a degree in elementary education. She’ll be working as a fourth-grade teacher. We’re super excited for her,” he said. “My son Thomas just graduated from high school and he’ll be attending the University of Tennessee School of Architecture.
“Carol and I, we started with nothing — and we still have most of it left,” he continued with a chuckle.
For Frain, the mission is clear.
“I want to represent myself and my industry with pride,” he said with a smile.
Frain will be driving a brand new, specially decaled Mack Anthem tractor, presented by Highway Transport, and the company gets to show off the spectacular trophy won by Frain for the next year.
Whether he’s in uniform behind the wheel, in a classroom or in a suit and tie at a speaking engagement, Tom Frain represents the best of the trucking industry.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.