It’s Friday afternoon the 12th of September, and another typical day at the Waterford Lakes shopping center in Orlando, FL.
With one exception, that is.
The trucks rolling into the back of the center were not delivering to the merchants that occupy it. The load they were delivering is one with a value that cannot be measured by normal means. They were delivering compassion to a special group of folks, the Special Olympians.
The event was the World’s Largest Truck Convoy, a benefit including truckers from across the nation, all coming together to raise funds for Special Olympics’ sports competitions for disabled athletes. While the primary convoy effort, in its third year, showed Florida motorists an impressive nine-mile-long line of trucks, smaller convoys rolled in several other states.
By 2 p.m., about 18 trucks were already gathered at the Florida shopping center. Light conversation and excitement about the coming day abound.
About 3:30 p.m., three vans, supplied by Trans Country Music Group, arrived to transport the drivers to dinner. Arriving at Jungle Jim’s restaurant in Orlando, the truckers were greeted by an abundance of food and entertainment.
The entertainment was provided by Jack Kapanka, of “America Moves By Truck” fame; Kenny Robbins, a staple in the industry; and Chris Pierce and Two Weeks Notice, both local entertainment.
To top it off, two special guests were present — Ron Lantz, the driver who placed the call leading to the arrest of the DC snipers, and Dale Sommers of The Truckin’ Bozo radio network. Both were designated as honorary grand marshals at the convoy.
Cpl. Norm Schneiderhan, the event’s organizer, took the stage and called three drivers up — Herb Witternberg, Don Petersen and OOIDA member Paul Sasso (aka Brooklyn) — to receive another honor. The three were presented with a trophy for their part in actively promoting the convoy through word of mouth, distribution of registration forms and generally helping.
After four hours of fun and food, it was time to return to the trucks and prepare for the convoy.
But after heading back to the shopping center to prepare for the morning, the truckers didn’t just hang out; everyone pitched in to park trucks and try to maintain some semblance of order as big rigs continued to roll in throughout the night.
The sun wasn’t even up yet Saturday, Sept. 13, when the activity started. Folks start to drift across the shopping center for a pancake breakfast supplied by Johnny Rockets, a restaurant in the mall. And all of the proceeds, $800-plus, were donated to Special Olympics.
As the truckers waddled outside to the registration tables, the excitement was starting to grow. After checking in at the tables, which were manned by volunteers from the local UPS terminal, it was time for the drivers’ meeting. Plain and simple rules were laid out as far as order, speed and following distance.
Before everyone went back to the trucks, Chaplain Jerry Lusher of Truckstop Ministries said a prayer for the safe passage of all involved.
With the police in place and the roads blocked, 239 trucks came to life and started rolling out. From one parking lot, then another and another, it was like a centipede rolling down state Route 408.
Not even stopping for the tolls — which were paid by an unknown benefactor — the nine-mile-long convoy was up and running.
Over an hour later, the last truck — manned by Sasso — pulled into the Orange County Fairgrounds. Once again, Special Olympians, their families and the general public greeted the drivers upon their arrival.
After a few minutes, at least one trucker allowed Special Olympians who were present to get into his rig, look around and even toot the horn.
After the benediction by Chaplain Lusher, the food lines filled fast.
The food was donated by Sysco Foods and cooked by the Orange County Professional Firefighters local 2057. The folks showed up at 4 a.m. to slow cook the barbecue pork chops and ribs, chicken and beans. The soda was provided by Pepsi and water by Crystal Springs. Chips by Frito-Lay, and milk, orange juice and ice cream provided by T.G. Lee Dairies rounded it all out.
“Not exactly a Weight Watchers menu, but sometimes ya’ just gotta let go,” Sasso said.
Shortly after that, the entertainment began. Kicking off the festivities was Kapanka, singing “America Moves by Truck.”
PGT trucking of Venice, FL, received two huge trophies — one for the most trucks, 48, and the other for lead truck — a total of $10,000. Cingular Wireless and Exxon/Mobil also received trophies for Guardian sponsorship at the $5,000 level.
Rinker Materials received the trophy for gold sponsor at $2,500 and had 43 trucks in attendance. UPS also got the gold sponsor trophy, and their employees donated their time for registration and selling raffle tickets. One of them won the $3,000 Jacuzzi, donated by Recreational Warehouse of Orlando.
OOIDA got the silver trophy for its $1,000 donation and had more than 40 members present.
“All in all, it was again a successful event that benefited a really great cause,” Sasso said. “People appreciate what our industry is trying to do for them.”
This year’s event raised about $50,000 for Special Olympians. Plans are already being drafted for next year’s event.