James "Gragg" Wilson
Ups Truck 64edf03f7d914

Inside the journey of trucking's grand champion

Aug. 29, 2023
National Truck Driving Champion James 'Gragg' Wilson tells how it felt to win truck driving's top prize—and details the path he took during a 37-year career to reach the title.
When James "Gragg" Wilson won the top prize at this year's National Truck Driving Championships, it came as a shock to him—but not to anyone else.

When the 2023 grand champion's name was announced, Wilson said he had stayed in his seat, thinking he must have been dreaming.

"I just sat there. My wife was like, 'Gragg, get up! You've got to get up. You're going to go up on stage,'" Wilson, who drives for UPS Inc., the No. 2 for-hire carrier in the FleetOwner 500, told FleetOwner. "It was amazing."

A 37-year driver based in Reno, Nevada, Wilson had won several state truck driving awards but he'd never held a trophy on the national stage. NTDC took place Aug. 16-19 in Columbus, Ohio. The step van championships were also held there.

"It was overwhelming. I didn't imagine that this would ever happen. This was my 14th competition, 14th nationals appearance. I never could get up on stage, and then this time I got up on stage and then won my class and grand champion."

Wilson had felt "one with the truck" during the driving test portions of the championship, which included trials where drivers would have to back up as close to a dock as possible to score points. He'd competed in nationals in the tank truck division twice before, but the last time he'd driven a tank truck was five years ago at the National Truck Driving Championships.

"I don't drive them normally. This year, I didn't even get to practice with a tank truck because we didn't find any for rent."

See also: Full 2023 NTDC results

Despite his good feelings about the driving portion, Gragg still doubted his chances after he hadn't met his own high standards. He'd missed some questions on the written test and felt he'd overlooked some details during a pre-trip inspection.

Gragg told FleetOwner that, during one of the pre-trip inspections, he thought: "Should I even do this anymore? The emotional up-and-down, and you've worked all year, and you're safe and everything, and then you win state, and then you get here, and you just can't get over the top."

But Wilson said he saw his wife in the stands smiling, and she pointed out that he was in a tie for third place.

"I almost started crying, and then I'm thinking, 'I got a chance at this,'" he said, calling that afternoon a "turning point" in the competition.

When he was called onto the stage in Columbus during the awards ceremony, Wilson said he was amazed that he had finally made it there, and he'd always said to friends that, if he ever got in the runoff, he would be in at least the top three.

"So to not only win—to get in the top three, and win the class, and then win the grand champ—it's still kind of crazy." 

Wisdom from a 37-year trucking career

Wilson drives for UPS out of Reno, but he began his trucking journey as a young man while working at a grocery store in the small town of Arcata, California.

"It's way up," he said of his old home. "Almost to the Oregon border on the coast."

See also: Careers for veterans, and scholarships thanks to the 'Dirty Jobs' guy

Though his father drove logging trucks—and the two to this day have a good relationship—it was a chance encounter that would send Wilson down his career path of almost four decades.

A regular customer would, every time he visited, tell him that he should go apply to a carrier called Viking Freight. Eventually, he did. Viking was acquired by FedEx Corp. (the No. 1 for-hire FleetOwner 500 carrier) in 1998. When Viking folded into the FedEx Freight brand in 2002, he worked there until 2019, when he joined his current workplace, UPS.

"I was just an 18-year-old kid getting out of high school. I didn't really have a lot of aspirations."

But does Wilson ever look back at that teenager in the grocery store and wish he'd taken a different path?

"If I didn't like my job, I'd do something else," he said. "I like the freedom of, you know, the office is our window. We have a different window every day."

In his career, Wilson has seen the landscapes of America change as surely as he's observed the landscape of the trucking industry change, he said.

He worries about increasing traffic and the wear it inflicts upon the nation's roadways, as well as how safe parking has become an increasingly scarce commodity. However, Wilson applauded that trucks have become safer and cleaner over the years, though he added: "With all the technology and everything in the trucks nowadays, everything still goes back to the driver. Without a good driver, those things don't apply."

See also: ATRI launches 2023 Top Industry and Driver Issues Survey

When asked what advice he would give new drivers, he said, "Early on, try to really establish your good driving habits. I try to set an example for other drivers."

He cautioned drivers never to do something that makes them uncomfortable, even if they are urged to. "Also, new drivers should always be learning. As long as I've been driving, I still learn something new every day."

Becoming grand champion has been a high point of a successful career, but Wilson shows no signs of tamping down his competitive nature. He said his goal is to, at the state level, get first place in every truck class, and he has in all but two: The twins class and straight truck class.

"Part of me is thinking I might try one of those, but a big part of me ... wants to defend what I did this year and see if I can maybe get another one."

About the Author

Scott Keith

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