Truck drivin' man: Willis wins world title in Las Vegas

Craig Willis parlayed 30 years of driving semi-trucks into a world truck driving title Dec. 8 when he won the World Championship Invitational Truck ROAD-E-O in Las Vegas. Photo by Rick Swart

It took Craig Willis 30 years and millions of miles but he finally did it - won a big silver buckle that he can wear to the the Chief Joseph Days rodeo next summer.

His brothers, Bobby and Tad, have dozens of them from years of competition on the rodeo circuit.

"This is the first buckle I've won in my entire life," said the middle of three sons of Bob and Pat Willis of Enterprise.

But he didn't win it on the back of a bucking bronco or a raging bull. He did it behind of an 18-wheeler - the kind of rig that he has been driving since before he was old enough to drive.

Willis, 41, claimed the prize and an undisclosed sum of cash as the champion of the second annual world semi-truck driving championships Dec. 7-8 in Las Vegas.

Willis, who was just a lowly car salesman at Courtney Summit Ford before the big competition, is now referred to with much more respect by his co-workers.

"Would Craig World Champion Willis pick up line two," the call rings out over the company intercom system. "Craig World Champion Willis, you're wanted on line two."

"Everybody's having a lot of fun with it," said the personable Wallowa County native who drove semi-trucks for Harold Jensen's Farm Supply Trucking Company most of his adult life.

For Willis, the entry of the world of competitive truck driving was a spontaneous decision. He got a call from his mother-in-law, Darlene Turner, who announced that she had entered him in a truck driving competition in Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo (NFR).

The event, dubbed the World Championship Invitational Truck ROAD-E-O, was started last year by stock contractors who provided the livestock used at NFR.

"Some of them were sitting around waiting for the rodeo and wanted an event," Willis explained. "So they decided to have a truck rodeo. They drove their own trucks and bumped around and had a lot of fun. So this year they decided to really make an event out of it."

To expand the scope of the event the contractors put up some money and sent out invitations to rodeo committeemen from around the country whom they knew would be in Las Vegas for NFR.

Willis, as a member of the Chief Joseph Days board of directors, automatically qualified and could hardly tell his mother-in-law 'no.'

"I've wanted to go to NFR for a long time but have never been able to get away," Willis said. He was either too busy driving truck for Harold Jensen or too busy taking care of his cows at home.

Willis started driving semis when he was 14 or 15 and working in the hay fields of Wallowa County. His dad had a hay truck which he sometimes drove before he had a license from Enterprise to Ontario. When he was 15, he hired an 18-year-old friend to ride along with him because under Oregon law at that time a 15-year-old could drive with a "learner's permit" as long as he was accompanied by an adult.

He continued to drive truck all through high school and after graduation went to work for Harold Jensen.

He remembers the day he went to work for Jensen.

"I asked him if he wanted to drive around the block with me to see if I could drive a truck," Willis remembered. "He said, 'No, If you can't drive I don't want to be in the truck with you.'"

Willis said that he'd been to Las Vegas many times while employed by Jensen but never had time to stop.

"I've been through there in a truck going like the wind lots of time but this is the first time I've ever been able to take in Las Vegas," he said.

When he arrived at the competition Willis thought maybe the fix was in.

At a calcutta prior to the event itself the auctioneer told the bidders that Willis would be one to watch.

"You better watch this kid from Oregon," the auctioneer said. "He's a sleeper. When they start them in Oregon they have wood blocks on the pedals."

Willis concluded from that remark that his mother-in-law must have leaked information about his driving credentials in an attempt to escalate the bidding. She won the bid, which turned out to be savvy bet as she claimed the winner-take-all pot awarded to the "owner" of the winning truck driver - Willis. How else could the auctioneer have known that he did indeed have blocks on the pedals when he started driving semis?

The course was set up for precision driving by Department of Transportation officials from Nevada and Colorado. Each competitor had to drive four separate courses, each designed to replicate conditions a stock truck would encounter driving to or from a rodeo. The competition took place in a parking lot outside of Michael Gaughn's Sun Coast Casino in shiny new Peterbuilt and Kenworth trucks pulling 53-foot cow trailers, the kind of rigs that Willis had driven for untold miles.

"All I know is I've driven too many miles in a semi," he said.

The object of the game was to move through the course and getting as close as possible to orange cones without actually touching them. Every time a driver touched a cone or had to stop or pull a ahead to straighten out a point was added to his score.

"The driver with the lowest score won ... sort of like golf," said Willis, who topped the field with a low score of 50.

Willis said he hopes to return to Las Vegas next year to defend his title, and he expects the event will continue to grow.

"It was a lot of fun," he said, adding, "I think it's going to get to be a big deal."

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