HURON – Randy Nixon only spent a few years as a long-haul driver when he was a young man, but he’s spent the last four decades of his career keeping other truckers on the road.
Now, at 72, he can still be found at his Diesel Services shop in Huron every day, working and passing down his decades of experience and knowledge of all things diesel to the next generation.
How does he keep up with everything new in technology?
“It’s not easy,” Nixon said. “Every year it changes. The new electronics is good. The trucks run better now than they ever have. But to diagnose them and work on them, it’s not easy.
“It’s hard to find somebody that you can just put in there and do it,” he said. “It takes a long time to learn it.”
Anyone associated with the trucking business in the Huron area knows Nixon. More than likely, he’s worked on their equipment.
To honor him and his contributions to the industry, he has been selected as the 2019 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented at Wheel Jam this weekend. The awards ceremony begins at 4 p.m. on Sunday, in an area just west of Flag Avenue on the state fairgrounds.
Early on, Nixon worked for NTA. After buying a couple of trucks and striking out on his own, he hauled meat to Portland, Ore., for Armour’s, leaving Huron on Friday nights and getting back to town on Monday afternoons, making the trip every two weeks.
In between, he worked on diesel engines in the shop. When Armour’s was sold, the new packing house owner dropped freight rates by more than $1,000, so he decided to sell his trucks and work full time in the shop.
“In town here, I took care of all the owner-operators,” Nixon said. “I could name them off, but there’s quite a few. If they broke down in Omaha, I drove down and took care of them, or if they broke down in wherever.
“I never went after the companies, where you could make more money, don’t get me wrong, but I liked that closer relationship, mainly all the local people,” he said.
His shop is a busy place, always filled with a variety of vehicles undergoing repairs and maintenance. Heavy equipment owned by the federal government is among them, including military vehicles. Stored nearby while awaiting their turn, his inventory is constantly changing as the work is completed.
“We do loaders, dozers, cranes, trucks,” Nixon said. “I do a lot of work for the federal government. I got in a deal with the FBI about 25 years ago, and when I got into that they bring equipment in and I fix it and it goes back out.”
Equipment the FBI brings in had been stolen and later recovered by agents. Diesel Services also works on vehicles from the Federal Property Agency that eventually goes to cities, counties and states, or back to the federal government.
Nixon employs four mechanics, but could use more.
“When you’re working on loaders, dozers, cranes and trucks, and overhaul engines, transmissions, rear ends and electrical systems, it’s really complicated work,” he said.
As for his over-the-road trucking experience, Nixon said, “it was a lot different in the ‘80s than it is now. I think it’s harder to be a driver now and make a living at it than it was then.”
Truckers must abide by more regulations, for example. On the other hand, he thinks the drivers are safer in their cabs as they drive mile after mile.
“The trucks are better, they run better, they run cleaner,” he said.
What about driverless trucks? Testing is underway on autonomous trucks on Phoenix freeways.
“I’m not saying you’re not going to see it, but to me it’ll be several years down the road,” Nixon said.
“They can do it now, but making it safe? No, because a driverless truck can’t think,” he said.
He has been following the progress being made with electric trucks that can travel 500 miles on a charge.
“Yeah, it’s a deal in the future, and I’m looking forward to it. Hope I live long enough to see it,” he said, laughing.
And he pays attention to such legislation that South Dakota lawmakers passed last winter that allows for so-called truck platooning – two trucks from the same company which follow one another on interstate or major divided highways.
The lead truck electronically controls the one trailing 400 to 600 feet behind it, saving an estimated 15 percent in fuel costs.
“We can move that freight cheaper and we need to look into that,” Nixon said. “That needs to happen.”
As he looks back on his own driving days, he said some people can make good truck drivers and some people can’t.
What makes a good truck driver?
“Somebody mechanically skilled so he knows when he’s got a problem,” he said.
And someone that can drive for hours at a time and still be alert.
“Some people can’t, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a good truck driver,” Nixon said.
There’s a shortage of truckers, not just to drive the long-haul routes, but to move freight locally. Many of those runs get drivers home again each night.
Nixon stayed away from pills that would keep him awake on the way to and from the west coast.
“When I drove, like I say, I never took anything at all and I could run straight through to Portland without stopping,” Nixon said.
“But I didn’t. I always went halfway and took a three or four hour nap. I left early enough that I could do that, because it’s not legal to drive that far without sleeping,” he said.