Rob Howell took home $25,000 and the title of the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) 2021 Company Driver of the Year at the closing banquet of the association’s annual convention, held March 19-22 at the Wynn Las Vegas.
TCA, along with partners Overdrive and Truckers News, teamed up with long-time sponsors Cummins and Love’s Travel Stops to present the award, which recognizes top company drivers and owner-operators in the U.S. and Canada who provide reliable and safe truck transportation in moving the nations’ goods.
Howell and his wife, who live in Shelley, Idaho, cut short a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Hawaii to attend the Las Vegas event. They made up for the lost time by remaining in Las Vegas after the banquet and seeing a few shows together.
The couple has modest plans for the prize money.
“We’re going to get a new mattress for my wife’s bed at home,” explained Howell. “And I’m gonna go buy that zero-turn riding lawn mower I’ve been wanting.”
Howell has seen a lot of potatoes (and potato products) during his 38 years of driving. At the age of 14, he started out piloting a 10-wheel Chevrolet farm truck, delivering potatoes to a local processor. He later graduated to larger trucks, still hauling potatoes from sellers to processing plants.
“I’m a self-taught driver,” he said. “On the farm, you just get things done. I couldn’t even leave the state.”
Once he turned 21, Howell began working for a large carrier in the area.
“I worked for them for six months, but they could never get me home,” he shared. “Then I went to work for Doug Andrus.”
He’s been with Doug Andrus Distributing ever since. When Howell was hired, his demands were simple.
“First thing, ‘I don’t cross the George Washington Bridge,’ I told them,” he remarked. “New York, New Jersey, new job.”
His second requirement was also simple: “Don’t lie to me, because I’ll quit.”
Howell said he actually did quit once.
“I only quit for two hours,” he shared. “Then we got it straightened out.”
All in all, it’s been a good relationship for both company and driver, according to Howell.
“They’re honest,” he noted. “I’m paid every week, just like clockwork.”
The company had about 25 trucks when Howell was hired on and has grown to a fleet of more than 250 today.
“I’m driving a four-axle Peterbilt with a three-axle reefer trailer,” said Howell. “They just ordered me a new one, a Peterbilt 389 with a Cummins engine in it.”
Just as the trucks have evolved since Howell started driving, so has the freight.
“I run West mostly — Oregon, Washington, and Montana,” he explained. “We haul French fries, sometimes both ways, and we have a customer that ships dehydrated potatoes in Washington. Most of the time, I’m home every other night.
“When you leave, you gotta have enough clothes and groceries to last all week, just in case you don’t get a load going by the house,” he shared. “But that’s kind of rare, I’m usually home more often.”
Howell said he was surprised to win the top honors as Company Driver of the Year for 2021.
“The other guys got as much experience as I do,” he said. “I was really surprised — and the boss was too — and I was kind of proud of myself.”
When he’s not hauling potato products, Howell enjoys working in his large vegetable garden in the summer, as well as camping with his wife and daughters.
“If the kids got something that needs fixing, I’ll go fix that,” he explained. “But you know, when you’re working five, five-and-a-half days a week, they’re ain’t a hell of a lot else you can do. But I try to take care of my family and take care of my grandkids, because they kind of like their ‘Popsie.’”
Howell said anticipating the mistakes of other drivers is the key to staying safe on the road.
“(Sometimes) you knew they were gonna pull out in front of you,” he remarked. “You just start to look way ahead. They’re gonna pull out some time, so just keep yourself ready. You might as well just plan on it.”
Howell said he plans to continue driving for a few more years, at least.
After all, there are a lot of potatoes yet to haul.
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.