A Columbus woman will represent Indiana in the National Truck Driving Championships in August, after becoming the first woman to win a category in state competition.
Verna Gillen won the Twin Trailers category in which drivers pulled two individual trailers connected to one another at the Indiana Motor Truck Association Truck Driver and Technician Championships in June in Indianapolis.
The nine-year trucker, who drives professionally for Old Dominion Freight Lines Inc. out of Indianapolis, also received the state’s rookie of the year award.
During the event, competitors completed a written examination, a “pre-trip” evaluation of the truck and a driving course. The driving course evaluated skills including stopping and turns.
“It was very exciting,” she said. “They let you go in and see what you can really do under pressure, and you have an audience there watching you.”
The road course is designed to simulate situations truck drivers encounter on a daily basis, such as left-hand turns and various kinds of stops, but on a much more difficult level, Gillen said.
“It’s a little bit tighter than what we are used to,” she said. “It was much more difficult.”
Gillen, 49, will compete at the National Truck Driving Championships in Pittsburgh from Aug. 12 through 16.
James Seifert, Gillen’s supervisor, said he expects she will drive just as well in the national competition as she did in the state one.
“I’m optimistic that she will do well,” Seifert said. “She’s a pretty determined person. I think it’s phenomenal she has this opportunity, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.”
Gillen, a line-haul driver, begins a normal shift around 9:30 p.m., when she inspects her rig before heading on the road. She then transports twin trailers five hours to Rock Island, Illnois, performs a “meet-and-turn” with an Iowa-based driver, and then makes the five-hour return trip home, usually arriving at 9 a.m.
When she’s not driving long hours for work, the mother of five and grandmother of two enjoys spending time with her family, gardening and taking lessons in taekwondo. She is working toward her second-degree black belt.
Although Gillen said she loves driving a truck, it wasn’t always something she had an interest in doing, even though her husband, James, had been a line-haul driver for more than 20 years.
“A year before I decided to do it, if people asked me (if I thought about driving a truck) I would say, ‘I’ll never do that. You’ll never catch me driving a truck,’” Gillen said. “And then I made up my mind that I can do this, and I never gave up. I just kept going.”
Even though she is now an established driver who is known for her safety, Gillen said learning the trade was challenging, and having to remember everything she was taught while driving at night added to the difficulty.
“First of all, you’re not used to driving (a semi), and second of all, it takes a lot out of you because you’re not used to driving at night,” Gillen said.
The transition from driving passenger vehicles to driving a semi forces a person to see the road and their surroundings differently, she said.
“Something I found coming from being a regular driver is now I see everything around me. You learn to not just pay attention to what you’re doing, but you look to see everything, and you’re constantly looking around to see what everybody else is doing,” Gillen said.
James Gillen said learning to watch everything that is going on can be difficult for beginning truck drivers. He was forced to retire from truck driving after suffering a mini-stroke two years ago.
“You see the van full of kids being rambunctious in the back seat, or you see a husband and wife laughing at a joke they hear on the radio,” he said. “You can see it when they pass you so you know whether of not they are distracted.”
Although it was tough at first, the new Twin Trailers champion now said everything is second nature, and “it’s much easier than it used to be.”