It's what goes on behind the scenes that keeps trucks on the road
Vehicle maintenance isn't a sexy job; never has been, never will be. I don't think any fleet manager would disagree with me, either, since many got their start in this business as mechanics. Without good maintenance, fleets go nowhere. They can't haul freight, pave roads, plow snow or put out fires if their trucks are broken down, sitting on the side of the road.
Yet maintenance remains one of those unseen, and often unappreciated, factors in good fleet operations. Fleets never give the maintenance department a second thought when trucks are running well. It's when things go wrong that maintenance and the mechanics that perform it come under the microscope.
Just ask NASCAR stock car driver Jeff Gordon, who came out of nowhere to win three Winston Cup Championships in four years. What does he know about maintenance, much less truck maintenance? Gordon knows all about maintenance. In fact, he can boil it down to two words: Ray Evernham.
Evernham was Gordon's former crew chief; the guy in charge of designing, building and maintaining the cars Gordon drove to his many victories. During the years Gordon was winning, you didn't hear much about Evernham except among die-hard racers and fans.
When Gordon left last year to start his own team, all that changed. And people started to talk about the importance of the man behind the racer. Sports reporters posed a blunt question: Could Gordon win without Evernham? And for good reason. Gordon has had a rough go of it this year; he isn't winning like he used to. Not only is Evernham gone, but Gordon's race-day pit crew has largely left as well, joining the team of rival (and current Winston Cup champion, I might add) Dale Jarrett.
What does all this have to do with trucks and truck maintenance? It's simple: Maintenance does matter. You can have the best drivers and dispatchers in the world, but without good mechanics and good maintenance to back them up, you've got zip.
I talked about this with Allen Wolf, former director of fleet maintenance for Dunbar Armored, a family-owned armored car company based outside of Baltimore. After a 36-year maintenance career, Wolf is now retired and living in Puerto Rico. As Wolf said, maintenance isn't "rocket science." But it is the glue that holds fleets together.
"Fleet maintenance must be based on a quality preventive maintenance program, providing inspections and repairs at the lowest possible cost with the least amount of vehicle downtime," he said.
Wolf also added that this line of work demands that supervisors and mechanics alike get dirt under their fingernails. "I always carried a set of coveralls with me so I could crawl under the trucks and look at them myself." According to Wolf, "It's never the big-money items that get you. If you have even a decent PM program, you're probably not going to have an engine failure on the road. The No. 1 cause of road failure is an electrical problem such as a corroded wire that breaks or a bad alternator. You need a good breakdown analysis so you can pinpoint target areas for future fleet inspections."
To a lot of people, being up to your armpits in grease, dirt and oil seems not only dull, but downright nasty. Yet to Dunbar's drivers, men who rely on their trucks to protect them from gunfire, good maintenance means a whole lot more.
Maybe Jeff Gordon ought to take a trip to Puerto Rico. I hear there's a good maintenance manager down there.