Duaine Conrad climbed into the driver’s seat of his cabover Mack, 300 horsepower under the hood and five speeds at hand. It was sometime in the mid-’80s — the exact year escapes him — he was 23 years old and had agreed to fill in for a driver who called in sick. It was his first run for Filippo & Sons, a trucking company based in Plymouth, Wisconsin.
Not surprising, he was hauling cheese that day. At the time, Plymouth was home to the National Cheese Exchange, and the city still takes pride in billing itself as the Cheese Capital of the World. Like most of the trucking companies in the area, Filippo’s freight primarily is cheese.
Conrad was headed east, where he would deliver the cheese to a pizza factory in Totowa, New Jersey. It was a familiar route — he had ridden in the passenger’s seat a few times with a friend who made that same run, and Conrad had even put in some unofficial miles himself in relief. But the responsibility of safely delivering that load nearly 1,000 miles was now squarely on his shoulders. It was a vastly bigger stage than his only other experience, driving grain trucks on his family’s farm.
“Oh, yeah,” Conrad recently recalled to FreightWaves. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But it worked out.”
Indeed, it did. Conrad made the delivery in New Jersey, refilled his trailer with Heineken beer and headed toward Chicago for his next stop. When he returned to Plymouth, he went home and showed the paystub to his dad — who was immediately impressed and offered some straightforward advice.
“You’ve got to be crazy to come back to the farm.“
“What I made in one week, you just couldn’t make on the farm,” Conrad acknowledged in telling the story. “That sort of turned me on to trucking.”
Thirty-seven years later, Conrad is still turned on by trucking. After his early stint with Filippo and then a summer behind the wheel of a dump truck — “I’ll never do that again,” he said firmly — Conrad signed on in 1991 with Sargento Foods, the Plymouth-based company with the famous cheese-themed trucks. He’s been part of the family ever since.
In celebrating National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, Sargento recently honored Conrad for his incredible streak of accident-free miles: 4,246,322. It’s a milestone that Conrad doesn’t take lightly, yet an achievement that was by no means — ahem — an accident.
“That was the goal I had in my head, to get to 4 million accident-free — and I made it,” he said. “You don’t think about accident-free, but you’re always working at it, all the time. If you’re not sitting on the edge of your seat, then you’re going to have a problem.”
Reaching that 4 million-mile total in 37 years requires spending an average of nearly 115,000 miles a year behind the wheel. During a particularly heavy four-year stretch, he averaged about 154,000 miles a year. Most of the time, he spent his “34” – the federally required 34-hour reset rule — at home, thanks to a schedule that had him leaving Saturday night and returning on Thursday.
“That’s a big plus there,” he said.
“That’s how we are with all of our drivers,” added Sargento Public Relations Director Portia Young. “We make sure that they have a weekend.”
Secrets to staying focused behind the wheel
Schedules like that certainly can benefit a driver’s mental focus. That’s really the secret to reaching 4 million accident-free miles, according to Conrad.
“You have to stay in tune all the time at what you’re doing,” he explained. “Your eyes have to constantly keep moving. You can’t just focus on one thing. You have to keep going from mirror to mirror.
“Say there’s a black pickup coming down the ramp. Now that’s in my head. Where did that black pickup go? If I’m seeing it in my mirror, fine, but the minute I don’t see it, I get a little bothered by it until it goes by me. You’ve just got to keep that in your mind until it passes you.
“You’ve got to be focused on what you’re doing. If you’ve got family issues or something going on, that’s when things happen, when you’ve got something else on your mind. That’s when the close calls come up.”
Asked for his closest call, Conrad recalled a situation early in his driving career, back in that same cabover Mack in which he drove mile No. 1. He hit a slippery patch coming off a bridge deck during a winter run in Michigan and turned his entire truck around, his cab coming to rest in a snowbank.
Luckily, he was running empty, there was no traffic and no damage done to the rig. But it was an early reminder to never take any stretch for granted.
That’s why he continues to find ways to maintain his focus and stay on top of his game.
One way is by taking extended walks during his off-hours. He especially likes a 5.5-mile stretch around a little reservoir lake in Blackfoot, Idaho, where he picks up supplies. “It just clears your head, gets you moving,” he said. “I see more of us doing that.”
He also maintains a healthy diet, adhering to the ketogenic diet espoused by Road Dog Trucking’s Kevin Rutherford on his SiriusXM radio show. He said it has produced beneficial changes in his blood pressure. “A lot of drivers are getting into that diet,” he said. “I tried it and it helped me a lot.”
And he continues to set goals, giving him a chance to work toward something instead of merely drifting through the work hours with no sense of achievement. Previously, he was heavy into truck shows and even appeared one year at the Mid-American Trucking Show in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s now centered on maximizing fuel efficiency.
Of the 32 drivers at Sargento, he currently has the top average of 8.92 miles per gallon. That’s an improvement over recent years of hovering between 8.5 to 8.7 but still not good enough in his mind. His aim is to average 9 miles per gallon in a single year, and he plans to achieve it by utilizing a driving tactic he was taught many years ago.
Go low, slow and easy.
“Since I quit showing trucks a few years ago, that’s my big push right now,” said Conrad, who remembers the long-ago days when his average was 4.2 mpg. “It’s a game to me — gives me something to work for. … I don’t run fast — 60, 62, that’s it. I just won’t run faster. Every time you do it, something happens.”
Speaking of goals …
Is 5 million miles in his future?
Having reached 4 million accident-free miles, what about the obvious next step? Is Conrad chasing 5 million? At age 60, it would require several more years of intense focus, of having to battle issues such as finding appropriate places to park his truck — an especially touchy subject for him.
“If you’ve got about two hours,” he said, his button obviously pushed, “I’ll give you more insight on that.”
Meanwhile, he’s not ready to commit to a specific number like 5 million miles. He merely says he’s happy where he’s at. “As long as I stay happy and the job is fun, I’ll keep doing it. The minute that changes, then I’ll need a change.”
Said Young, the PR director, with a laugh: “He can’t retire. We love Duaine.”
Who doesn’t love a trucker who drives accident-free for 4 million miles? Certainly Sargento is appreciative of Conrad, not only for his safe miles but his long tenure with the company. That kind of loyalty is becoming less common in an industry short on drivers and long on signing bonuses and other job-hopping incentives.
Maybe it was fate that kept him to Sargento.
After making runs early in his career, Conrad would drop off his Sargento truck for one of the youngsters to clean. Among those doing the washing back then was a kid named Louie Gentine — whose family just happened to own the company.
Gentine is now Sargento’s CEO.
“He’s still a little wet behind the ears,” Conrad joked.
No worries. When you’ve run 4 million accident-free miles, it’s OK to throw a little shade now and then toward the guy signing the paychecks.