After Trucking School: Smoking the Brakes

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A Load Of Beer

Several months after graduating from truck driving school, I had yet to smoke the brakes on my assigned truck. For all but four or five days per month, the big red Volvo tractor was my home in motion or at rest, towing a 53-foot dry van here and there and everywhere. No longer truly a rookie, I’d never missed a delivery deadline and never wrecked a rig. Smoking the brakes was for dummies who didn’t know what they were doing.

They say pride goeth before a fall. I say inattention leadeth to smoking the brakes. And so it would prove to be.

For the reader who doesn’t understand the gravity of this topic, however, a word of explanation is in order. If you’ve driven any mountainous portion of our nation’s highways, you’ve seen a sign here and there announcing a Runaway Truck Ramp. Those ramps are designed to save lives…supposedly. A big rig heading down a steep grade is often a stupendously heavy 80,000 pounds in motion or as close to it as the carrier can manage. A load of household furniture doesn’t weigh much, but a load of carpet does. So does copper pipe…bagged cement…the list is endless.

In case this is not self-explanatory, consider: A four hundred pound fat man running down a steep hill just cannot stop as quickly or easily as can a wiry, hundred pound gymnast in the same situation. Your personal car is that gymnast. A loaded semi trailer pushing a truck tractor is the fat man. They do try to teach you about this in truck driving school, but a few hours of training is not the same as covering the country day in, day out.

If the service brakes are used too extensively on a long downgrade, they overheat. The “Jake brake” which serves to retard the engine speed does help avoid this problem, but the driver still needs to use his or her noggin. If you settle the rig down into a low enough gear and take your time, there’s no problem. If you’re impatient or careless and choose a gear that is even a litle bit too fast, you will overheat the brakes. Smoking the brakes can lead to (a) losing braking capacity altogether and/or (b) starting an actual fire from the severe friction and unbelievably high temperatures.

My wife, Pam, rode with me some months. The day this happened, she was right there. We’d picked up a super-heavy load of beer at the company’s storage yard in Denver.

How heavy was it? So heavy that we couldn’t fill the fuel tanks all the way or we’d be overweight. We had to play the “fuel game”, running on half full tanks or less.

The load was destined for California. As we headed west on I-70, on up, over, and down Vail Pass in Colorado, life was good. Pam rests well when we’re on the road as long as she knows I’m not fighting fatigue behind the wheel, which (that day) I was not. She went to sleep in the sleeper bunk. Our Moe Key Man travel cat sat up in the passenger seat, watching the road with considerable interest. I listened to a comedy tape by the late Richard Jeni.

We were just a few miles on the downgrade side when I checked the mirrors and about crapped a cruller. Great clouds of gray smoke billowed alongside the rig. It had not just started; it couldn’t have done. How long since I’d checked those mirrors?

More importantly, how could we escape disaster? I didn’t need any truck driving school lectures to tell me this was a life threatening situation. Furthermore, if we made it down in one piece yet with the brakes on fire, there could be untold damage to truck and/or trailer. My employer wouldn’t take that kindly.

There was one thing for which to be grateful: Pam was still sleeping peacefully, confident she was riding with a driver who would keep her safe. Time to Git ‘R’ Done.

When brakes are hot, the only way to fix the problem is to let them cool. That means don’t use them; let the airflow wick away all that excess heat over the span of a few miles of cool running. Truck driving school had taught me stab braking, how to brake down hard for just a few seconds, drop the rpm’s down to enable a downshift. I didn’t dare do that. One hard stab might be the match that set the forest afire. Thinking hard, I believed we had something like eight miles of fairly steep grade still to go….

It was a tap dance the rest of the way down the mountain. We didn’t roll over or lose braking ability, but once things leveled out, it still took another ten miles of highway before the last tendril of smoke disappeared from the rear view mirrors. Truckers going the other way had seen us rolling hard and definitely in trouble, but there was nothing they could do about it. Ya smokes yer brakes, ya deals with it. Or not.

Once I could safely stop with no visible evidence of my foolishness, I pulled over on the shoulder to check things out. Pam woke up immediately, tested the air, and asked, “Smoke the brakes?”

“Yep. Got past it, but I’m mighty glad you slept through it.”

“Me too,” she agreed fervently.

When we stopped at a truck stop near the foot of the infamous Grapevine a few weeks later, both of us got a powerful whiff of that all too distinctive smell….and my song titled Smoke In The Mirror was born.

2 thoughts on “After Trucking School: Smoking the Brakes

  1. Again it’s been a while my friend so I thought I would give you guys a ring and see how you are all doing. Hope you are both well. It looks like you have become a really good Photographer and just great pictures of the county.
    If you reply I will have the write address but you keep on changing the format.
    Lots happening to my wife and I , some good and some really bad.

    Roy McBride

  2. Hey, Roy. We’re both doing all right, although Pam did end up in the hospital one day (bad fall, severe hydration, near death experience), and she’s having quite a struggle trying to get her weight back up. (Anorexia giving her a tussle.) Thanks for the photography kudos; coming from you, that means something. Didn’t even realize I had changed the format, at least not since migrating to my own website in 2013 (after writing at HubPages for 6 years). Awaiting your updates….

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