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King of the Road -- again

LAKE PARK - The view from the driver's seat of a semi trailer truck is a lofty one, prompting many a driver to get a sense of being "king of the road."

But Lake Park's Steve Johnson has more claim to the title than most of his peers: For the second year in a row, Johnson took first place in his division at the North Dakota State Truck Driving Championships on May 10.

Though Johnson lives in Lake Park, he drives for Conway Freight in Fargo, which is why he competes in North Dakota instead of Minnesota, as Johnson explained in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The win will send Johnson to the national truck driving championships in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 19-23. It will be his second straight appearance there, and Johnson hopes last year's experience will allow him to finish a little better than middle-of-the-pack, as he did his first time around.

"Last year, I made it to about 30th (place) or so," he said. "This year, I'm hoping to take first. I'm a little more prepared -- I was more overwhelmed last time than anything."

Besides the additional experience, Johnson said, he will have another advantage this time around: a cheering section.

"I went by myself last time," he said. "It will be nicer to go this year with a lot of people I know."

Conway Freight cleaned up at the North Dakota championships this year, with its drivers taking the top spot in five of the eight competitive categories. (Four of them work for the Fargo company, while another works for Conway in Bismarck.)

"Our company kind of pushes us to compete (in the championships)," Johnson said. "They like to see us there because they know it will better each of us as drivers... everybody did really well this year."

Drivers compete in four areas: A road test, a written examination, a pre-trip inspection (where they are asked to spot flaws that have been placed on or inside the truck for them to find), and an interview with members of the North Dakota State Troopers Association, in which the examiners "are trying to feel you out and see how professional you are."

"I struggle with the interviews, but it's getting better," Johnson said.

The national competition includes the same basic four categories, but with winners from all 50 states (including Alaska and Hawaii) competing in each of the eight divisions, the level of skill required is quite high.

"The nationals are pretty much the same as state, but with more competitors, and they (the examiners) are a little more tight about things," he said. "There are three days of competition, and you pretty much have to stay in your room and wait -- you don't get to watch anyone else in your class drive or see where they made mistakes.

"For me, it's all a learning experience," Johnson continued. "I learn a lot about being safe in my driving."

And driving is something Johnson takes very seriously.

"It's a job I enjoy totally," he said. "Being out there driving has always been enjoyable for me, and I like being out there and seeing the people on my route."

Johnson grew up in Lake Park and has lived in the community pretty much his whole life -- "except for 5-6 years when I was in Colorado, working for a snowmobile dealership."

Though he is unmarried, Johnson still has strong family ties to the community. "My parents are here, and my brothers and sisters are right around the area," he said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454