Michael Brad Hinkes and Jeremy Welton went on to place 14th and 18th places, respectively, in their categories at the National Truck Driving Championships in Pittsburgh last summer.
By Hilary Reeves
Michael Brad Hinkes is one of the safest cargo tank drivers in the state of Alaska. Jeremy Welton earned top marks for twin trailers. Together, the Fairbanks-based coworkers traveled to the National Truck Driving Championships in Pittsburgh last summer to test their skills against 430 of the best truck drivers in the country, earning 14th and 18th places, respectively. Now bearing the brunt of another Alaskan winter, Carlile’s best are reflecting on what it takes to move goods over the road in some of the most dangerous winter conditions in the country.
Every 36 hours
Brad Hinkes was born in Phoenix in 1974 and grew up bouncing between Arizona and Alaska, as his parents separated when he was young.
“I had the best of both worlds: Arizona in the winter and Alaska in the summer,” he laughed.
Besides his eighth-grade year in Bethel, Alaska, most of his formal education took place in Arizona.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be either a pilot or a truck driver,” he said. “When I was in high school, I was in Air Force JROTC where I made Cadet Lieutenant Colonel and was second in charge of 128 cadets. I was also in the Civil Air Patrol as a Cadet, and part of their search and rescue team. I was Cadet Commander with the rank of Cadet Captain.”
After a few years of college at Mesa Community College and Northern Arizona University, Hinkes decided to go into the airline business. He began working for PenAir, where he worked on and off for 13 years. After moving from Dillingham, Alaska to Fairbanks, he started his career at Carlile as a local driver in October of 2008. Several years later, he became a trainer.
“I worked with new CDL permit drivers to get them ready for their DOT driver test,” he said. “I’m currently still a trainer for the company.”
After working local, Hinkes took my first line position hauling fuel from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and running to Prudhoe (Bay on Alaska’s legendary Dalton Highway) off and on when needed.”
Starting in 2017, Hinkes said he started mainly hauling explosives to Haines – Prudhoe fuel or freight in his downtime. On a typical day, he leaves the terminal for a 12-hour drive heading north from or south to Fairbanks.
“I end up having to take my 10 hours off at my destination and then a return trip, depending on the load and weather,” he said. “Most of the time, I’m sleeping in my bed every 36 hours. One of the best things I love about this job is the fact that my office window is never the same. The wildlife and scenery I see never seem to get old. As for challenges, as a driver in Alaska, the weather changes so fast from mile to mile, from minute to minute. Making the right choice to chain for a hill or not, pull over and stop, or continue can weigh pretty heavy on this job.”
Jeremy Welton was born in a pullout on Alaska’s Elliot Highway when his parents were on a hunting trip. He was raised on a homestead “way up the Steese Highway” northeast of Fairbanks.
Highways, it seems, made a subconscious impact.
“My childhood was a true Alaskan homestead story where we lived off the land and were very independent,” he said. “My dad says I’ve always wanted to be a trucker. I don’t particularly remember having any particular ambitions as a kid, but I’ll admit that I’ve always been fascinated by heavy equipment and shiny trucks.”
Welton’s career at Carlile began in the spring of 2003. He also started local.
“At 23 years old, I didn’t have a lot of driving experience, but of course, I thought I was an expert,” he laughed. “Over the years, I’ve learned and grown quite a bit here at Carlile. I currently work in our Heavy-Haul department, which typically specializes in oversized moves and special projects. I ended up being a jack-of-all-trades kind of driver when I’m not needed for oversized-type jobs.”
Welton’s typical day consists of “showing up and asking what’s on the plate for the day.”
“I may have to help out with some local driving around Fairbanks; I may be asked to haul a freight load or equipment to Prudhoe Bay for the oil industry – I’ve even been asked to drive loads down into the “Lower 48” to various locations at the drop of a hat,” he said. “I usually accept whatever we’ve got going on, but I have to consult my wife when extended missions are offered..just to make sure she’s cool with me being gone for a few days to a week. The severity of the wintertime driving conditions can be quite an eye-opener to anyone that drives in Alaska year-round – even myself, being born and raised here.”
‘A little ol’ truck driver from Fairbanks’
Hinkes has five first-place finishes and was once named Grand Champion at the state truck driving championships. At Nationals, he’s been named on a list of top-10 drivers in the country. Drivers are tested not only on physical skills but also on their execution of pre-trip safety measures and their general knowledge of driving rules and regulations via a written test.
“I’m also very proud of my lifetime accident-free driving record,” he said.
Meanwhile, Welton had only begun competing in the state championships in Anchorage.
“I entered the Doubles division this past spring and won first place,” he said. “Consequently, I was invited to compete in the National Truck Driving Championships, which is put on by the American Trucking Association. I’ve had a little intel over the years on this national championship thing from my good buddy, Brad Hinkes. Still, as you can imagine, the whole experience was a bit of an eye-opener for a little ol’ truck driver from Fairbanks. I ended up placing 18th out of 48 contestants in my division. I feel the competition is quite a bit stiffer at nationals.”
Kids in the sandbox
As for the future, Welton said driving a truck gets
in your blood.
“Trucking is pretty rewarding in many ways,” he said. “Our business has traditionally relied heavily on the existence of the North Slope oil industry around Prudhoe Bay. I feel strongly that the Alaskan oil industry isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future, so I feel confident that as a truck driver, I’ll be needed for many years to come.”
Hinkes said he also plans to “keep on trucking.”
“I’m working on starting a new chapter of my life with my fiancé, Mandi,” he said. “We’re getting married on February 2, and I’ve never been happier. We’re planning on starting a family here shortly, and I’m super-excited about it. I can’t wait to be a dad.”
Camping, hunting, snowmobiling, water sports – like many Alaskans, Hinkes is all about the outdoors.
“I was also involved in dog weight-pulling contest with one of my rescue dogs, but she’s too old to pull now. Mossy holds the interior freight dog weight record of 1,720 pounds in a wheeled cart.”
Welton, too, is an outdoor enthusiast, and the father of three “rambunctious” little boys.
“I’m proud of growing up and raising a family here in the interior area of Alaska,” he said. “With my bills, life, and family these days, I still try to find a bit of time to dabble in snow-machining, hunting, and working on my house and property.”
But eventually, it’s back to the road.
“One thing that still sticks in my mind is the first oversized load I took up the Haul Road (Dalton Highway),” said Hinkes. “I was still working local but made several trips to the closer pump stations as needed. The terminal manager at the time asked me to take a 65-foot piece of 48-inch pipe up to Pump Station 5. The load was cool for two reasons: one, it was long, and it was the first time I had a pilot car going more than just across town; secondly, it was a piece of the Alaska Pipeline that was installed as a bypass of the pump station. So, I got to haul a section of the functional Alaska Pipeline, which was awesome to me at the time.”
Welton said he’s also had quite a few fun times driving around Alaska for Carlile.
“Most of us drivers are just kids in the sandbox that never really grew up,” he laughed. “We still get to play with all the cool toys that we played with as kids. The toys are just a bit bigger.”