By Suzanne Stempinski
“How do you get to do that?”
It’s a question that Richard “Buzz” Sweeden has been asked many times. Whether he’s busy driving a race car transporter, helping to manage truck shows or sitting behind the chutes at Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Buzz seems to be at the heart of the action.
A soft-spoken, sandy-haired man who moves easily in his own skin, the OOIDA member from Manville, IL, still lives just a few miles away from where he grew up in a small farming community about 70 miles south of Chicago.
The youngest of five children, he was a late bloomer – he didn’t start driving tractors on the farm until he was 6 years old. His brothers all started at 4 or 5. With three older brothers and one older sister, his parents had plenty of practice raising children.
His dad used to cut all the boys’ hair on Sunday mornings before church. While his brothers had hairstyles, Richard had really curly red hair. It was always a mess and in his face, getting in his way while playing basketball, so one Sunday morning, his dad just buzzed it off. His brothers started calling him “Buzz” and the name stuck.
Independent and self-sufficient even as a boy, Buzz remembers hearing his mom tell someone at a party, “we just kind of let Richard raise himself.”
It was that independent streak that set Buzz off on one of his first big adventures.
He bought his first motorcycle, a Honda 350, at age 10. It weighed about three times as much as he did and was far too tall for him. He had to lean it over so his feet would touch the ground. But, he still taught himself to ride that bike.
From there it was a short trip to racing bikes. He got started when he was 16 and was old enough to drive himself to tracks around Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Every Friday he’d load his bike in the back of his pickup and go.
At 17, he switched from Motocross to flat track – sliding sideways at fairgrounds around the Midwest. The fairgrounds would run horses on the track during the day, and switch over to the bikes at night. Before he turned 18, having had success as an amateur, he turned pro, earning points to advance through various stages of licensing to make him eligible for bigger and bigger races.
He raced at tracks like Daytona, working at a motorcycle shop during his off time to help defray some of the cost. He didn’t have big sponsors, so he couldn’t make the jump to the big leagues. One day, he just decided that was it, unloaded his equipment, pushed everything into the back of the garage and went back to work on the family farm.
At the same time, he was also working at a local brickyard, driving a forklift, doing maintenance, working in the hammer mill, then driving a dump truck and working in the pit.
In 1977, at the age of 19, he bought his first truck – a 1978 Freightliner conventional with a 48-inch sleeper, a Caterpillar engine and a 13-speed transmission. It had white steel wheels.
He went to work hauling steel from Chicago to Detroit. Not exactly legal, when the company owner asked if he was 21, Buzz replied, “Not yet, but my birthday’s in two weeks.”
Even then, Buzz insisted on driving nice equipment, and he cleaned up his truck and added a little chrome.
Deregulation came along, things changed, rates dropped, load availability was different. Buzz got out of trucking and went back to the farm for a short time. But he was young and wanted a change and decided to head out west to work on a ranch.
Through friends he was able to line up an opportunity working at a ranch in northern Wyoming – about 100 miles north of Casper. The whole town was just a wide spot on the road with a gas station and convenience store. If you needed anything, it required a trip to Casper.
As a cowboy, he moved herds, doctored animals, fenced, put up hay – all the things involved in a ranch operation.
In 1980, he left the ranch to go to a three-day roping school being put on by Butch Myers, who was on his way to his first world championship in steer wrestling. The two hit it off and Buzz ended up staying with the Myers family for about two years, helping to run their ranch, supplying cattle to rodeo contractors, running roping schools and clinics, and looking after youngsters Rope, Ty and Cash.
Rope and Cash were destined to become rodeo legends like their dad.
“We roped anything and everything,” Buzz says. “I had an arena and cattle at my disposal. We were always at schools and clinics and I learned a lot. When we were working the ranch, by about 3 p.m. it was time to head for the pen to do a little roping. Rope was (competing) in Little Britches at the time, so I practiced with him at least three nights a week after school.
After a couple of years, a chance encounter had Buzz moving on again – this time to Colorado, packing groups of tourists and hunters into the Rocky Mountains. Early spring was the time to gather the 40 to 50 head of horses out of their winter pasture in southern Wyoming and drive ’em home to Colorado – all on horseback. Spring and summer was mostly for tourists, with hunters packing in from September to just before Thanksgiving.
While the paying guests slept in tents, the wranglers spent almost every night on the ground with little more than a bedroll and tarp coming between them and the great outdoors.
During hunting camps, they stayed in the tents because it was not unusual to go to sleep and wake to a fresh couple of feet of snow. Sometimes getting back to camp was downright scary – coming down from the mountain in snow that was chest-high on the horses.
Bathing in swift-running creeks was the norm – and usually freezing cold.
“I got to be pretty good at breaking the ice off a crick to take a bath. Jump in, do a couple of push-ups to get wet, lather up, push up a couple more times to rinse off and run out again as fast as you can. In fact, I can do all that in the time it takes you to read about it,” Buzz says with a laugh.
Two summers and two hunting camps later, he headed back to Butch Myers’ place to help again at the roping schools. A trip to the West Coast took him to the heart of California’s team roping community, where he landed a job working at another ranch helping to train and show quarter horses – and roping every chance he could get. He traveled a show circuit that took him all over California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Finally, Buzz headed back home to Illinois to work on the farm again. He built his own roping pen and arena, got a couple of horses and got ready to rodeo more seriously. He was a highly rated team roper, and along with his roping partner, he started a roping supply business. The two had three custom trailers that hauled to roping and rodeo events, selling ropes, bits and other supplies that helped cover their own rodeo expenses.
Then one rodeo weekend, Buzz met a woman – the woman. Carol was a barrel racer, running at many of the same rodeos. In fact, that very weekend, they both had plans to rodeo in Southern Illinois and Missouri. They clicked – and came to find out they lived not very far apart. They rodeoed together for about two years and got married in August 1988.
Well, being young and running the rodeo circuit isn’t a forever thing for most people and Buzz and Carol were no exception. Buzz decided it was time to settle down, be more responsible – he just couldn’t keep living out of the back of a pickup.
He and Carol moved into a little apartment in town near his family farm. In December 1988, he bought his next truck – a 1984 Peterbilt 359 – and leased on with a local company. He took his first load out right after Christmas, heading for Los Angeles. That did not go over very well.
Carol did not come from a trucking family, and honestly, driving truck held no appeal for her. She wanted to be a good trucker’s wife, but it sure wasn’t easy on those “leaving days.” She was in a little apartment, miles away from her family. It was not an easy adjustment. She had an excellent job as executive director of Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation, as well as breaking and training horses.
Buzz knew he wasn’t cut out for an “at home” kind of job. He’d had a taste of working at the mill – it wasn’t for him. As the youngest in the family, he couldn’t count on the farm to support him – he’d have to be “making a living outside the gate.”
So he trucked. He’d be gone for about 10 days at a time, then home for a couple, then gone again. After a while, he started finding freight that would bring him to the house more often. He was working just as much, but getting a little more home time made for a better home life. He did whatever it took to make things work – at one point owning a van, flatbed, grain trailer and dump trailer and pulling a high-pressure tank. He could stay flexible and busy.
“A truck driver’s wife has to be pretty strong,” Buzz says. “Carol has the faith of Mother Theresa and the tenacity of King Kong. When things go wrong, she’s had to handle it without me being there.
“We had a guy come to do some work on our house. He stole some diamond rings. The police didn’t seem to want to help. So Carol tracked him down and confronted him – and then called the police again and had to beg them to show up, at 10:30 at night. She got those rings back. And I wasn’t there except on the cell phone. Heck, for a long time, our cell phone bills were bigger than rent or a mortgage.”
So their lives moved on. Carol built an excellent reputation as a horse trainer and eventually left her government job to focus on horses full time. Buzz upgraded trucks three times before buying his current truck – a 2001 Kenworth W900L that he spec’d and built specifically as a working show truck. When it was done, he competed hard for a couple of years, racking up 25 first-place trophies in 19 shows and earning spots on calendars as well as write-ups in trucking industry publications. In Waupun, WI, at the 14th Annual Trucker’s Jamboree in 2003, his truck received a perfect score – the only truck ever to have done so.
Through a referral from a truck show industry friend about five years ago, Buzz was introduced to Bob Bach and Pat Kestner, owners of B-K Motorsports of Saukville, WI, and began driving the auto transporter for their Le Mans Prototype 2, aka LMP2, which runs in the American Le Mans Series racing.
Buzz not only drives the transporter – which is a seriously head-turning ride – he’s also the fuel man in the pits. During a NASCAR pit stop, everyone works on a car at the same time. In American Le Mans, no one touches the car until the fuel man is done. So he’d better be quick. For the last couple of years, Carol has gone along to help run the hospitality area.
While racing in general is one of the fastest-growing spectator sports in the country, the American Le Mans Series is expanding by leaps and bounds – now fielding teams from names you may have heard of like Michael Andretti and Roger Penske. The 12-race season starts in Florida in March, criss-crosses the country until the final race in October in California.
There’s no racing on the U.S. schedule in June – race teams that have been invited may go to Paris for 24 Hours of Le Mans. To move, test and compete in that race takes several weeks – and not every team makes the journey.
“We won’t be going this year,” Buzz explains, “but we hope to in the near future.”
So what’s he doing when he’s not driving a race transporter, grain hopper, dump truck or van? Helping out with truck shows, maybe doing a little roping at a friend’s pen or visiting with friends and family.
So how do you get to do that?
“Just keep moving and follow your gut instincts about opportunities that come your way. Say yes to the ones that feel right and stay away from the ones that don’t.” LL
Suzanne Stempinski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.