Chuck Small has reached a milestone that’s the envy of any driver’s career — one million safe miles. To put that into perspective, a million miles would take you around the world 40 times, or cover the distance between the moon and the earth three times. On average, it’s estimated it takes a driver between eight and 10 years to reach that million-mile mark.
And while that’s impressive enough on the face of it, to rack up that many miles — in all kinds of weather, traffic and terrain, during the era of distracted driving — without a single incident is nothing short of astonishing.
Small credits a safety-first mentality and an inborn desire to constantly improve at his craft as key elements of reaching the mark. Keeping a level head helps, too.
“You’ve got to keep your cool. (When) someone does something in front of you, just kind of take a deep breath,” he said, noting that even normally even-tempered drivers can easily become riled up. “I’ve got a friend, he’s a born-again Christian, and he gets upset when he gets behind the wheel. He gets on the CB and yells at them and everything.”
It’s also important to take your time.
“The biggest thing is rushing, rushing around, because you’re on a time clock nowadays. Just slow down,” Small advised. “Watch your surroundings. Like backing up, you have to take your time. Your following distance, that’s another big thing. Also, you can actually feel somebody is going to come over into your lane. You can feel it by his actions.”
It’s a long way from zero to a million but the events that put Small on that path began in the small town of Wareham, Massachusetts, the place he was born and still calls home.
“It all started when I was a young lad. My stepfather’s father had a mill that cuts wood, and I used to visit him on the weekends,” he said. “They left the keys in all the trucks. I’d go in there and start it up and put it in gear, go forward, backward. I was fascinated with trucks.”
As a young adult, Small retained that fascination.
“Later, I was working for a paint company. The paint came up from Kentucky and they’d tint it to a certain color, and I delivered it to paint contractors, hospitals, colleges,” he recalled. “And this guy would come in with a cabover. It was all red, I remember, and I said, ‘Do you mind if I jump up in there and see what it’s all about?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ I sat in the seat and (thought), ‘Wow, this is nice!’”
Small attended New England Tractor Trailer School and then was recruited by J.B. Hunt, based in Lowell, Arkansas, and paired with a trainer.
“(He was a) very good trainer. They don’t make them like they used to, like he was,” he said. Small earned his commercial driver’s license (CDL) in 1990, and a new life on the road was born.
“When I was with J.B. Hunt, I did every state except for Montana,” he said. “Back in the ’90s when the company was starting to roll, they started getting into the rail business. I think I hit every railyard in the United States.”
For the past decade, Small has hauled for NAPA Transportation of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. During that time, he’s driven as part of a team, which took him as far west as Colorado. More recently however, he’s been a solo driver; his range is primarily the East Coast but has reached as far as Illinois, Florida and Georgia.
Small said in all the years he’s been driving, he’s never seen anything like the conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As soon as the pandemic hit it was all go, go, go,” he said. “My wife, she has an illness; she didn’t want me home, so she said, ‘Stay out, stay out, the virus.’ I stayed out five months. Oh, yeah, I constantly ran. The only time I really stopped was for a reset. You’ve got to do your 34-hour reset and then I would just load up.”
His expertise and professionalism landed him recognition as NAPA’s 2020 Driver of the Year, but it was a load delivered to a New Jersey Costco that really demonstrated the value of Small’s craft. In March of 2020, he delivered a load of toilet paper from Proctor & Gamble, one of NAPA’s biggest clients and, as reported by The Trucker, people who were standing in line, waiting for that rolled “white gold,” cheered him as he pulled to a stop.
“What a feeling that was to have everybody clap. That must be what a celebrity goes through,” Small told The Trucker last spring. “It is usually, ‘Park over there and we’ll call you when we’re ready for you.’ It could be hours upon hours. I felt kind of wanted, and like I’m doing something.”
Small, who’ll be 59 in July, has a lot more miles in him, and thanks to improved truck technology, he says those miles are safer and more comfortable than at any time during his driving career.
“The truck itself, it’s so cushiony now. The cabover was a spring ride; you hit a pothole, your head would hit the ceiling. Oh, yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “They got all these technologies now. Like back in the day, you had to pull over to make a phone call. They called them ‘Superman booths’ at the Flying Js. And when you get up to the booth, there’s always someone in there. Now you’ve got iPhones, hands-free.
“There’s so much technology to help you with your job,” he continued. “I have a lane control now; I put on the blinker to move to my right lane, and if there’s a vehicle there, it sets off a loud signal. A lot of people don’t like all these noises they have in trucks now, but I like it. It’s going to save me, save my life — save their life.”
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.