Daniel Kirk is a champion driver with the well-deserved title “Top Gun.”
He’s no stock car racer, though. In fact, his vehicle won’t even touch 200 mph. It does, however, have pretty neat automatic mechanical arms.
With Kirk at the wheel, his side-loading recycling truck can maneuver the toughest of courses. He’s spent 14 years with Frankfort’s Division of Solid Waste and can drive it well.
So well, in fact, that he won this year’s Solid Waste Association of North America International Road-E-O competition, earning him a gleaming crystal trophy in an otherwise dirty job.
“His real name is Jeff,” jokes Solid Waste Foreman Byron Roberts, making fun of Kirk – an avid NASCAR fan – for his dislike for Jeff Gordon.
No, Kirk’s a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan, and he named his 8-year-old son Dale after the late and legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Though Frankfort has won several Road-E-O awards, this is the first time an employee has won the “Top Gun” overall award. Kirk’s colleague of six years, Kevin Meriwether, a rear-loading garbage truck driver, also won fifth place in his division.
The Road-E-O is a driving competition with divisions for each type of solid-waste-collecting vehicle: front-loading, rear-loading, roll-off, side-loading and tractor-trailers. The top two drivers in each division in each state competition qualify for internationals, which are in a different state each year. Conveniently for Kirk and Meriwether, this September, the roughly 60 competitors from several states and Canada gathered at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
Road-E-O competitors must drive their more than 15-ton, 30-plus-foot trucks through a difficult, timed obstacle course: weaving through barrels both forward and in reverse, making a continuous sharp right turn without knocking over cones, backing as closely as possible into a tight area without hitting anything and steering oversized parallel tires in between five sets of tennis balls 2 feet apart without hitting any.
How can the drivers see their tires?
“You can’t …” Meriwether said. “The trick is you stay as close to the outside ones as you can, and then you pretty much got the inside ones.”
After that, they must drive between two walls barely wide enough for a truck to fit through and then take a sharp right and left to readjust before moving through another pair. Finally, they must make a forward stop as close as possible to a thin line without crossing it.
Oh, yeah, and they have to parallel park. Even for the most seasoned driver, it’s always the hardest park.
“They don’t give you much room,” Meriwether said.
Kirk said that even if the bulge of your tire is over the line on the parallel parking section, you lose points. Though certainly impressive, how some of these challenges relate to a trash collector’s day-to-day job is unclear.
“We don’t have to parallel park on our routes, we don’t have no barrels on our routes,” Kirk said, laughing.
Out of 400 possible points, Kirk scored 350 in his division, which won him the division and the full competition. He said the ladder on his truck “gets me every time” when trying to squeeze through the parallel walls, but he didn’t even worry about it this year.
Meriwether earned 290 in his division, which Ron D. Lilly of Arizona won with 325 points. So far, Kirk and Meriwether have never seen a perfect score.
“There’s not been one person who’s gone through this course and not hit anything,” Kirk said.
Kirk, who qualified for internationals three times in the past four years and won second in 2008, said he has considered trying to drive a different truck in a different division next year, but he’s unsure.
“I’m doing so well in it, I’d hate to ruin it,” he said, smiling next to his trophy.
Kirk seems modest about his accomplishment, and lets Meriwether do most of the talking. But there is a gleam of that NASCAR spirit in his eye. Though qualifying for internationals allows him to attend conferences in other states, he said his favorite part is the competition.
“Everyone gets pretty competitive,” he says.
“But at the end, we’re all pretty good friends,” Meriwether adds.
Kirk smiles and replies, “To a certain extent.”