By Al Muskewitz
Editor in Chief
It might have happened more than a decade ago, but Alphonso Lewis remembers everything about the biggest day in his trucking career as if it were yesterday.
The veteran YRC Freight driver from Montgomery became Alabama’s first and only Grand Champion of the National Truck Driving Championship back in 2007. The pride of that day was still very evident as he talked about it during the Alabama Truck Driving Championship last week.
He can remember in vivid detail every bit of that weekend in Minneapolis – each obstacle on the road course, the voices in the crowd, the Italian restaurant around the corner his family went to celebrate and that little voice in his head that probably saved his title.
“I remember it all like it was yesterday,” he said.
Lewis had been competing in the state Truck Driving Championship with modest success since the late 90s, but he never broke through to the nationals until 2005.
He went as the state Grand Champion in 2005 and returned in 2006, improving in the national standings each year, before breaking through to win the Super Bowl of Truck Safety in 2007.
The experience of the previous two years helped him immensely.
“I had gotten a little bit comfortable in the nationals because I know what happens,” he said. “In ’07 I was more relaxed because I had been there. The first year you’re nervous as all outdoors. The second year I just put too much pressure on myself trying to ‘50’ everything out on the course and ended up missing stuff.”
Like a golfer who can recite every shot after getting to play one of the great courses in the world, Lewis can replay his championship run challenge by challenge and what he scored. His first obstacle was an offset alley – no problem. His second challenge was a rear stop and he admitted he had concerns, but he aced it.
“Back then they used to hold the score up,” he said. “That was the only problem I looked in my rear-view mirror as I went away and I saw the 50. From then on, I just relaxed.”
He was so relaxed he was able to hear his wife offering encouragement from the stands, which were located right next to the station for the rear-axle turn/front steer combination.
Things were looking good, but he still had to complete the rest of the run – a curb stop and a front-line stop. It was after completing the latter maneuver he almost slipped up, but something told him to hold off doing something he normally would do to satisfy the rules of the game.
“I remember stopping and thinking I did pretty decent,” he said. “Well, they’ve got a process and their process was do not do anything once you get to the front line. Do not touch anything, just stop and wait for the official to come open your door, verify you have a seat belt on and then he’ll tell you to pull the parking brake.
“I stop at the front line, blew my horn for them to measure and as he came and measured and walked away I reached for my parking brake. It’s a natural habit and then I hesitated.
“I just so happened to look out my window and one of the judges was sitting there. He just stood there staring at me, because he can’t tell you anything. I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me, my hand was up there and I just slowly moved it back and set it down.”
Lewis scored 270 on his run, which tied for highest score on the course that year, but his scores in the pre-trip and written tests put him over the top. Had he continued to follow his instincts and set the brake, the mistake would have cost him a 25-point dedication for failure to follow instructions and the crown.
It wasn’t the first time on the trip a little birdie gave him a heads up that saved him some pain. At the awards banquet later that evening, the winners were seated on the top riser of the stage and the emcee, before announcing the Grand Champion, reminded everyone there was a four-foot drop behind them so don’t celebrate until coming down to the podium.
“I’m so glad he told me that,” Lewis said. “All I could do was hug my wife and she wouldn’t let me go for like 30-40 seconds.”
His acceptance speech was only about five minutes, but it brought some in the audience to tears.
“I remember saying I may be the one who is standing here today, but we’ve got millions of safe drivers out there,” he said. “By me winning, it was a win for the industry in a sense, a win for all drivers; I didn’t feel like it was just me. This is the safest and best driver today, but tomorrow someone else could step up here and do the same exact thing that I did.”
Frank Filgo, the president and CEO of the Alabama Trucking Association, got the call Lewis had been crowned Grand Champion the next day and couldn’t have been prouder. In fact, he playfully bowed to the champion when they met prior to the banquet that recognized Mark Knight of AAA Cooper Transportation as this year’s Alabama Grand Champion.
“I was so excited I could hardly talk because we have always wanted a national champion from Alabama,” Filgo recalled. “Alphonso is just a prince of a guy, such an ambassador for our industry.”
A lot of good things came with the title. He got the use of a GM vehicle of his choice for three years and had his likeness on the side of three big rigs announcing him as the Safest Driver in America. He traveled more in a year than he ever had in his life. He got to ring the opening bell at NASDAQ and became a captain on America’s Road Team, a designation that never leaves.
Lewis has returned to the National TDC in some capacity every year since his big win, but he's going this year to Columbus, Ohio, as a competitor for the first time since 2011. He won the state title in three-axle.
“The competition gets better every year,” he said. “When you go to the nationals you can’t let your head get blown up because when you get there everybody you’re competing against are national champions, grand champions. Every one of these guys are on the same level you are, so you have to practice harder, study more, have a good pre-trip. You’ve just got to step it up.”
Top photo: YRC Freight's Alphonso Lewis reflects on becoming Grand Champion of the 2007 National Truck Driving Championship, the only driver from Alabama to win the coveted award, at this year's Alabama TDC. Inset photo: Lewis and 2018 Alabama Grand Champion Mark Knight display their trophies from last week's competition.
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