Ronald Baird never stops trucking
He just keeps going and going and going—and he’s been doing it far longer than the Energizer Bunny, which only debuted in 1988.
G&D Trucking/Hoffman Transportation’s Baird started driving trucks professionally the day he turned 18 years old, back in 1963. He surpassed a staggering 7 million safe miles last year, and now stands at approximately 7.2 million after 22 years with Hoffman, and 57 overall—with no plans to retire any time soon.
“I’m doing what I always wanted to do, and I still enjoy it,” Baird said. “I set goals, and I set a goal for 6 million miles, and then 7 million, and I want 200 truck trophies (he currently has 183 trophies won at truck shows), so I’ve got to keep going.
“I would like to set a goal for 8 million, but my wife (Wanda) doesn’t really want me to work that long.”
Jerry Curl, director of operations at G&D/Hoffman, says only half-jokingly no one at his company wants to win the National Tank Truck Carriers’ Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year award until he does, and this is a dry and liquid bulk carrier whose drivers average 35 years of experience and 3.5 million miles of safe driving.
That’s how much they respect and revere the life-long trucker from Thorntown, Indiana.
“Everything he does is above and beyond for a professional driver,” Curl said. “He’s the first one to help, he’s the first one to offer assistance, and he just does everything right all the time.
“You can tell the words he speaks are true in his heart.”
Curl’s insistence that no one deserves the distinction more is equally sincere, and that’s why G&D/Hoffman—which has claimed two North American Safety Contest championships in the last three years—nominated Baird for Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year for the third consecutive time.
Baird is one of eight 2019-20 finalists revealed in January 2020. NTTC intended to name a winner last May at its 75th annual conference, but that was cancelled due to the coronavirus, leading the association to suspend the program and instead crown one of the current candidates at the 2021 Annual Conference May 2-4 in San Diego, California.
“This is the Purple Heart or Medal of Honor for our drivers,” Curl said. “It such an unappreciated job. It’s unglorified. People don’t realize how important are people like Ron Baird because of the role they play in our economy and our world.
“His record speaks volumes, but his love for the industry, and of trucking and the people involved, speaks just as loudly.”
Baird’s résumé includes 57 years of truck driving experience. That’s the “official” count. The true tally is even greater.
The 75-year-old says he first piloted a tractor on the family’s sprawling Indiana farm at 5 years old, taking the wheel while they collected bales of hay, and he graduated from farm trucks to tractor-trailers as a teenager.
“My dad and I, when I was a freshman in high school, used to make two trips a day in the summer to the elevator,” Baird recalled. “I didn’t quite have my driver’s license yet, but I would pull up semis as they loaded grain on the scales.
“That was my driving school, and man I just loved it.”
Baird’s first experience hauling pellets was with Parker Feed Service, who recruited him to drive a cabover Ford straight truck because they heard about his prowess on the farm. And while he still was 18, he became the proud owner of a 1960 International Harvester Emeryville and went to work for Paddack Brothers.
That first truck purchase led to 34 years as an owner-operator. During that time he spent 11 years hauling food-grade products for Kreider Truck Service and 12 years with Dyna Bulk, before it was bought by Bulkmatic. At one point, Baird had 13 trucks, three trailers, two of which were pneumatics, his own shop and a wash rack.
Baird also ran heavy equipment for the U.S. Navy’s construction division in 1969 and 1970, and two years hauling classic cars for the rich and famous—which paid well but took him away from home for five weeks at a time—just before going to work for G&D/Hoffman in May 1998, when the company still had only 28 drivers.
Twenty-two years later, he’s part of bulk transportation fleet that includes 140 drivers, 155 trucks and 350 trailers.
Baird primarily hauls plastic pellets. In a typical week, he makes the 150-mile trek from Thorntown to G&D/Hoffman’s Channahon IL terminal, which includes a rail transfer facility, to begin his week-long run on Sunday evening, and returns home Friday afternoon, taking his 2016 T680 Kenworth sleeper truck with him.
When home, Baird parks the tractor in a 24-foot-by-80-foot shop on his 10-acre property.
“We load the trucks off railroad cars ourselves, and then I take pellets to a place that makes forks and spoons for Walmart out in Kentucky,” Baird said. “That’s my main haul. And then about once a week or three times a month, I come back down to Annapolis (near Indianapolis, Indiana) and get recycled plastic to take up to Minnesota, and they make tape for baby diapers out of it.”
The key to safe loading is paying close attention to the truck scales, Baird said, making sure not to overload the trailer. And that’s the easy part of his job. The hard part is staying safe on the road, yet Baird has more than 7 million accident-free miles to his credit, without a single traffic ticket on his record.
“The first million is the hardest,” he said. “If you make it through that, it gets a lot easier.
“If you stay back and pre-plan, you can stay safe. You must think about everything that can happen, because it might happen. And you might have a close call once a year, and you remember that one, and think ‘I don’t want to do that again.’ And if you add up all those close calls over 7 million miles, you watch for a lot of things.”
G&D/Hoffman provides many incentives, and plenty of driver recognitions for safety, but Baird says he doesn’t worry about money on the highway. His only concerns are avoiding accidents and making sure he doesn’t hurt anyone—two admirable endeavors made easier by the company’s top-notch maintenance team.
“I have the safest possible equipment you can get,” Baird said.
Baird’s been trucking so long, he’s seen a few changes along the way.
Tractors are more efficient, trailers are safer, and the best carriers go to great lengths to take care of drivers. But Baird isn’t a fan of electronic logging devices and current hours-of-service regulations, which he says make the job more stressful, and have forced many of his favorite truck stops and restaurants out of business.
“You can’t stop where you want,” he said. “You’ve got to drive three hours before you can stop, if you’re going to work all day, so you go right by your favorite restaurant that you’ve been eating at for 50 years.”
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped. With restaurants forced to switch to take-out only early on, finding healthy places to eat was more difficult. And while traffic decreased, many people still on roads think they’re NASCAR drivers—and their renewed appreciation for truckers spanned “about two weeks,” Baird said.
“It was really cool while it lasted.”
Baird has lasted this long through tireless hard work, and his steadfast dedication to the industry, often to the detriment of other life pursuits. He’s on the road so much he doesn’t have time for volunteer work or trucking competitions, which he knows are key considerations for the top driver awards like NTTC’s.
“Any one of the guys in it this year could win, and I wouldn’t complain at all,” he said. “They’re a bunch of nice guys.”
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t pictured himself hoisting the championship trophy. “I feel better about it this year … but I don’t want to be greedy,” he insisted. “And I don’t really want to brag on myself or anything like that. If it’s just miles, then … all you’re doing is getting a trophy for being old.
“(But) it really would mean a lot to me to win this competition. When they asked us that in Washington, I got all choked up … because it would mean the world to me and my family. My wife has stayed home 10,000 nights by herself, so I would love to leave them a legacy.”
Whatever happens, Baird plans to keep on trucking. He figures he needs “only” eight more years to reach 8 million safe miles.
“I don’t want to drive too long,” he said, while pointing out he’s insured to 86½ years old. “If I start losing my reaction time, I don’t want to endanger anybody. My wife says, ‘You know, you could have an accident now and a lawyer will put you in jail for the rest of your life, even if it wasn’t your fault.’ And I don’t want to spend my retirement in prison and not be around my grandkids (he has nine, along with five great-grandchildren).”