Berg Humbled by Mack Challenge

Sept. 28, 2010

Non-triumphant editor poses after his unremarkable performance at Mack's Driving Skills Safety Challenge at Las Vegas Convention Center. The contest was trickier than it looked.
Stations 1 through 7 started with a pre-trip inspection and ended at the stop line. Maneuver stations were marked with cones, tape and golf balls. Drivers had to put trucks as close as possible to boundaries without running over them.

The "alley" (marked by tape) proved a bust for our editor, who couldn't judge the rear limit well enough to stop so the truck's rear bumper was within a foot of the red tape.

Turning-radius test required the driver to go around the barrel while getting the right-rear wheels as close as possible without hitting it.

Can you see the defect? A tail light is missing — one of many "bugs" planted on this truck for the pre-trip inspection test.

Judge Stacey Olson decreed that the bumper was right on the stop line, as required, and gave Berg 50 points. He finished with 225 out of a possible 350. First place winner got 325.

This is the April issue, so it'd be appropriate for me to begin by admitting how I made a fool of myself in Mack Trucks' Driving Skills Safety Challenge, held during the recent World of Concrete show in Las Vegas, but I didn't. I got a halfway decent score, and while half is not enough to win, I did enjoy the experience.

The challenge required competing drivers to simulate the pre-trip inspection each is supposed to perform every morning. They had to find the mechanical "bugs" in a Granite mixer truck, then maneuver another truck through a maze of stations marked by orange cones and red tape on a parking lot. The red tape was literal, not figurative, because entering was easy.

We showed up at a tent outside the Las Vegas Convention Center (which was bustling with thousands of attendees looking at hundreds of exhibits inside and outside the halls). We each filled out a simple form and presented a commercial driver's license to staffers, who issued score cards and instructed us to wait a bit. Some of us read an instruction booklet and watched a how-to video, then strode into the arena and attempted to grab some glory.

About 150 people entered, making this the "best year ever" for the contest that was in its third year here, according to Derik Beck, Mack's manager for marketing projects who was in charge of the event. It's also held at the annual Waste Expo, using trash trucks. Using mixer trucks here, nine people finished in first, second and third places in individual and team categories. They and others shared some $10,000 worth of merchandise and gift-card prizes.

First place winner was Curtis Schuur, of Schuur Concrete in Chandler, Minn. He ended with a score of 325 out of a possible 350. Everyone started out with 350 points and lost 25 to 50 points for each foul-up. The second and third place individual winners each got 300 points, and the first and second place winners in the team category each finished with 575 points out of 700. Ties were broken by adding up all the deviations from ideal placement of the trucks at the six maneuvering stations, with the lower number of total inches deciding who was the better driver or team. You follow that?

Station 1 was the pre-trip. Most "bugs" on the waiting Granite mixer chassis were obvious — loose caps on the radiator surge tank and windshield washer reservoir, for instance, along with a missing tail light and a loose lug nut. Each contestant had to find at least five defects, and I spotted seven or eight. The judge indicated that I could've stopped at the required five, but just smiled tolerantly as I kept walking smugly around the truck pointing out the additional bugs while he marked a 50 on my scorecard.

The maneuvering was harder. All trucks had Allison automatics, so there was no clutch and shift lever to complicate things. But we had no chance to practice the events or to jockey a truck to see how it turned. Guys who didn't drive often or who weren't familiar with Granites were at a disadvantage, but that was probably most of us. An exception was Steve Ozga, a salesman at Penny's Concrete, an all-Mack fleet in Olathe, Kan., who said he has driven a lot of hours in Granites. Yet he finished with just 25 points more than I. Tough luck, Steve.

Each contestant was assigned a judge who followed him through the six maneuver exercises. Mine was Stacey Olson, a marketing staffer at Mack's Allentown headquarters, who explained that she'd be in touch by two-way radio with instructions. This speeded things because she could easily tell me, "OK" or "Go ahead to the next station," and I didn't have to lean out the window and yell, "What?!" I climbed into a waiting truck, buckled up, released the parking brake, punched D for drive, and moved a few feet to the first maneuver station.

This was the Parallel Park (number 2 on the schematic), which looked easy because the red taped "curb" was on the truck's left side, in plain view. But I had to back into the parking slot without pulling forward to adjust, and stop before crossing a perpendicular line at the truck's rear. I ended up putting the tires 15 inches away from the curb — 3 inches more than the preferred 1 to 12 inches, but still under the 18-inch outer limit. You keep just 25 points, Mr. Berg, Judge Stacey could've sneered over the radio but didn't, because she was much more pleasant than TV's Judge Judy.

Next was the Alley Stop (station 3), where I had to back the truck into a taped stall and stop within a foot of the rear line. When I was driving trucks many years ago, I noticed when I was 20 that I began losing my rearward depth perception, and this old weakness has stayed with me. Since then I've never done well in such backing tests. I didn't here, either; I stopped too far from the line and lost another 50 points.

But I passed the Turning Radius test (station 4), where I had to do a right-hand turn and put the tandem's right-side wheels as close as possible to a barrel without touching it. Then I successfully backed the right-rear wheels onto a simulated scale (5) without going over its red tape. And I ran the truck's right wheels through the straightaway (6), a narrow gauntlet of golf balls, without bumping or running over any. So I kept 50 points for each of them.

Station 7 was the Stop Line, which I needed to approach and halt without putting the truck's bumper over it. Judge Stacey measured it and decreed that I was right on the line, and gave me the 50 points (I think this was a gift, as the bumper looked a bit beyond the line, but I gratefully took the last 50 points). So, I ended up with 225 points — not bad, but not real good, either. I knew from being at the previous day's awards presentations that it seemed to take 300 points to win anything, so I didn't bother returning later this day, and no one called to tell me to come fetch a prize. Yes, I was a loser.

Yet it was fun, and I got to reacquaint myself with the Mack Granite's features, which included good comfort, excellent outward visibility and a tight turning radius, at least with the set-back front axle that the contest trucks had. They also had EPA '07-spec Mack Power diesels that were quiet and powerful — not that much power was needed during these maneuvers — and whose emissions control equipment really cleansed the exhaust gases.

We were told to leave the engines idle when we got done, and with several engines running, there was no smoke and no odor to stink up the premises. I remark on this every time I write an article about one of the new diesels because I think it's amazing. And clean exhaust is, after all, the point of this expensive technology. Still, when I got done with my "run" at the Challenge, I shut off the engine, partly to be contrary and partly to save fuel. Hey, it's getting precious.