2017 Volvo Drivers’ Fuel Challenge

By: Steve Brooks


Truck drivers probably cop more flak than any workers in any industry, but they are not without some staunch supporters. Among several valuable initiatives showcasing the skill of operating heavy trucks, the Volvo Drivers’ Fuel Challenge brings together those who do their companies, their industry and themselves proud. Very proud! Steve Brooks reports

 

From the outside looking in, the Volvo Drivers’ Fuel Challenge has all the appearances of just another publicity exercise by a company highly skilled in selling marketing messages to the masses.

But step inside and take a closer look. Talk with the executives and organisers who make it all happen. Ponder the extraordinary efforts and expense of bringing together such an eclectic bunch of individuals from all over Australia.

Spend time mixing with the drivers as they first shrug it off as a bit of fun, a couple of days outside the ordinary, before suddenly becoming intensely serious, and very determined.

 Competitors in the 2017 Volvo Drivers’ Fuel Challenge. A great bunch of proud and professional people
Competitors in the 2017 Volvo Drivers’ Fuel Challenge. A great bunch of proud and professional people

Consider, if you can, the personal satisfaction and surprise of realising you’re someone at the centre of something very special, instead of a daily routine where derision and ridicule are everyday events.

Then, after two days of fierce competition measured down to the last drop of diesel, smile at the humour and humility of a group which has grown incredibly close, despite the desire to win the highly coveted prize of a trip to Sweden to compete in Volvo’s world championship.

And finally, witness the flattery of being guests at a location normally reserved for the rich and famous, and best of all, revel in the sublime, shared thrill as winners are announced.

Then, and only then, will you be able to see this extraordinary event for what it truly is.


Check out our video on Victorian DFC finalist Cameron Simpson


A marvellous, exciting, rare and totally professional exhibition of the competency and pride of some extremely capable and impressive people. Truck drivers.

But of course, celebrating the skill and competency of truck drivers is far from normal, isn’t it! Let’s face it, for whatever reason they take a flogging from just about every angle.

Publicly and privately, whether deserved or not, they’re routinely hammered for being too rude, too ignorant, too stupid, too arrogant, too tired.

To the average motorist they are intimidating, careless, confronting, cranky and worst of all, dangerous.

 Volvo Group Australia senior driver trainer Paul Munro outlines strict rules for the Mt Cotton fuel challenge
Volvo Group Australia senior driver trainer Paul Munro outlines strict rules for the Mt Cotton fuel challenge

People to be avoided, even feared, in trucks that are too big, too loud, too fast, too heavy, and in most minds, too many.

Given such opinions and periodic outbursts, it’s easy to wonder why anyone would want the job, let alone try to actually do it with a sense of professional pride and purpose.

Especially when a fair portion of the offense comes from within their own industry in the form of some foul-mouthed clown on the end of a radio.

Or worse, company owners who see drivers as little more than a commodity, a necessary evil, to be manipulated and blamed when something goes wrong, or vilified when a poorly managed and marginal business finally fails under the stress of fierce competition.

Sure, there are crook drivers, no question.

There are also crook companies, crook plumbers, crook mechanics, crook businessmen, crook regulators, crook doctors, crook lawyers, crook coffee-makers, crook cooks, crook politicians, crook drunks, and dare I say it, crook commentators. 

BEST OF THE BEST

But in every endeavour there are also the good ones, like the 16 men and one woman invited to Brisbane’s Mt Cotton Training Centre for the 2017 Volvo Drivers’ Fuel Challenge.

They weren’t there for their stylish demeanour or articulate speech, their academic abilities, political smarts or athletic agility.

 Headed for Sweden: the only female in the group, Tasmania’s Kerri Connors took out the top award, also winning the respect and admiration of her male counterparts
Headed for Sweden: the only female in the group, Tasmania’s Kerri Connors took out the top award, also winning the respect and admiration of her male counterparts

They were there because they are truck drivers. Good truck drivers, and each one had set a particularly high standard for fuel efficient driving of a Volvo truck in their daily work, gaining them entry to an event where they would pit their abilities against each other and in the process develop a mutual respect and admiration which would inspire and surprise them all.

Surprise also came in Volvo’s decision to this year add for the first time an off-road course, placing the drivers at the controls of loaded FMX eight-wheeler rigids on a demanding track and almost certainly unlike anything encountered in their normal driving duties.

Again though, there was plenty of incentive to do well with the most fuel efficient driver on this section also winning a ticket to Sweden for a shot at the world title.

Then again, surprise was not for drivers alone.

The first Australian ‘challenge’ was held in 2013 and despite previous invitations, this was the first I’d attended. Tasked to ‘front’ a video on the event, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than a couple of trucks running around the Mt Cotton circuit with a bunch of different drivers.

But this much I did know: Volvo rarely, if ever, does things by halves.

 Winning grin: Volvo Group Australia (VGA) chief and strong advocate for drivers, Peter Voorhoeve (left) with off-road winner Cameron Simpson from Victoria
Winning grin: Volvo Group Australia (VGA) chief and strong advocate for drivers, Peter Voorhoeve (left) with off-road winner Cameron Simpson from Victoria

Even so, the level of expertise and commitment given to this exercise was indeed surprising and way beyond anything I envisaged.

What I found, in fact, was a thoroughly professional and superbly organised event which in the first instance takes a rigidly enforced and highly technical approach based on data processed by Volvo’s advanced Dynafleet trip information system, to determine the most fuel efficient driver over a series of laps around the testing Mt Cotton circuit.

More to the point, and for me most surprising of all, were the attitudes of everyone involved.

First, Volvo. At the top of the tree, Volvo Group Australia boss Peter Voorhoeve is certainly no naïve newcomer to the truck business.

Nonetheless, he makes no secret of a profound admiration for truck drivers generally, for their critical role in maintaining the efficient and endless flow of goods and services to every nook of a nation almost entirely reliant on a dynamic road transport industry.

It was Voorhoeve who launched the phrase "Without Truck Drivers, Australia Stops" and it’s an attitude never more evident than at Mt Cotton this year.

From the top executive ranks to the driver trainers manning the two identical FH16 models, and the team from Volvo processing the data and ensuring the smooth operation of the entire event – the resources, care, consideration, genuine warmth and respect accorded each of the drivers was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And I’ve seen plenty!

REV RHETORIC

As for the drivers, those who own their trucks or those who drive for others, it didn’t matter.

 Top three: (L to R) VGA boss Peter Voorhoeve, Scott Hughes from Glen Cameron Group, Kerri Connors, Kent Ditton from Ditton Bulk Haulage, and Volvo vice-president Mitch Peden. It was a close contest between the drivers
Top three: (L to R) VGA boss Peter Voorhoeve, Scott Hughes from Glen Cameron Group, Kerri Connors, Kent Ditton from Ditton Bulk Haulage, and Volvo vice-president Mitch Peden. It was a close contest between the drivers

They were all part of the same big picture, equal in every sense, determined to do their best, harbouring the hope of heading off to Sweden, yet talking openly and wisely among themselves about how to best tackle a particular pinch or exactly where to back off, where to apply the retarder, or where to put a tad more power on. Revs were everyone’s rhetoric.

Sure, the competition was intense, but the camaraderie was infectious and the transition from a bunch of insular individuals to a gregarious group bound by a common thread was nothing less than extraordinary.

Beyond all else, though, was the sense of gratitude. The unbridled regard for an event providing the opportunity to demonstrate the abilities and the aptitude so commonly dismissed or ignored.

And the absolute appreciation that a truck company cares enough to showcase the performance and efficiency of its trucks in the hands of drivers proud of their skills and their conscience.

2017 Volvo Drivers’ Fuel Challenge
 

Still, there could only be two winners and it was the female in the group, Kerri Connors from fuel distributor Caltas in Tasmania, who took out the major award, while winner of the off-road section was another fuel distributor, Cameron Simpson from Simpson’s Fuel in Victoria.

Of course, the celebrations were big and if there were disappointments, they didn’t show.

What did show, however, were the genuine regard for each other and the sincere appreciation for an event which above all else celebrates the skills of people so critical to the function and efficiency of an entire nation yet so often the butt of ridicule and ignorance both inside and out of their own industry.

Anyway, here’s what some of the drivers thought about a few things …

What’s the best thing about an event like this for drivers?

"Maybe it’ll help make people see we actually care about what we do. We cop a lot at times, usually because we all get tarred with the one brush."

"Pride’s the big thing. I think it shows how good we can be but without a company like Volvo organising something like this, we’re just drivers to most people."

Drivers used to get flak about driving a Volvo, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore?

"Say what they like. I’m here, they’re not. This is an incredible event, nothing like I imagined. It’s a credit to Volvo for caring."

"I’ve driven ’em all and I’ll take a Volvo any day. Besides, I don’t see any other brand doing anything like this for drivers."

Do you get much incentive from your own company to get good fuel?

"Verbally I do, but a bit of incentive in the pay packet wouldn’t go astray."

"I’ve been told the incentive is I get to keep my job, but you hear everywhere that good drivers are hard to get. Some owners need to take that on board."

Why is getting good fuel consumption so important to you in your normal work?

"It’s a way of challenging yourself, I think. It feels good to achieve something. It comes down to pride in yourself and what you do."

"Don’t know really. I guess it just feels good to do something well. All up, I think it makes you safer, too. Maybe I do it for myself more than anyone else."

Are you nervous about competing?

"Yeah, a bit. These are obviously good drivers, otherwise they wouldn’t be here. Besides, it’s not every day you get the chance to win a trip to Sweden. The effort Volvo puts in is incredible. It’s a tough event but really well run."

"Not nervous, just excited. I feel very fortunate but more than anything else, grateful for the opportunity."

Are you confident you’ll be on a plane to Sweden?

"No, there are too many good operators here to be confident, but I’ll give it a big shot. I’d love to go to Sweden. The competition and the experience would be incredible."

"Yeah, I’ll do okay but I know a couple of them will be hard to beat. I think the girl’s a threat. Women tend to be pretty soft on the gear."

So Kerri, you’re the only woman in the group. Does that concern you?

"Not really. I’m usually the only chick in the group and I’m probably just the token female anyway. There’d be some good drivers amongst these guys."

So Kerri, you’ve now won it. You’re off to Sweden. What have you got to say for yourself?

"I just can’t thank everyone enough. Volvo, the driver trainers, the other competitors. It has just been such a great group but seriously, my passport is packed!"

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