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Highway friendship

June 19th, 2024

Sean and I were an hour east of Avoca, Iowa near Des Moines when it became apparent that we would not make it to Cedar Rapids on our extant tank of fuel. I was driving; it was Sean’s truck, and our F1000  race car was in our 24ft trailer behind us.

We were towing to Road America, a trip we’ve done many times, and we really wanted to make our next stop at a particular Kwik Star truck stop on US-151. (They had genuinely good food.) The distance to that Kwik Star: 102 miles. The estimated range per the truck’s computer: 100 miles.

We needed a draft to make it.

The key to a good draft is that you initially need to go just a little faster than your target speed so that you can come up upon a draftee that’s meeting that target on the nose. I considered a few prospect semis, but they were all going too slow. A few more miles ticked by. Then we came upon a blue tractor with an unassuming off-white trailer. Haz-mat, per his placards, “1906” and “1760” – cleaning solutions.

I hopped into his dirty air at a respectful yet efficient distance and instantly saw our mileage rise. He maintained speed with what seemed like cruise control; I modulated to hold station with my right foot.

As with many budding relationships, things soon got a little rocky. Truckers generally don’t like being drafted, especially by non-semis. When the two of our vehicles came up behind a slow-moving truck a few minutes in, my draftee merged into the left lane not far ahead of a passenger car, preventing me from following. He then slowed way down, giving me plenty of room to go in front of him and onward. I chose to stay behind the truck in the right lane, betting that my target wouldn’t like going so slowly for very long. Indeed, he sped back up to his previous pace, and I maneuvered back to my place behind him.

Things might have stayed somewhat strained, but for two truths: first, we came upon more traffic a few miles later, and second, my draftee was courteously aggressive about staying in the right lane except for passing. Of course, the problem with being courteously aggressive about staying in the right lane is that it’s easy to be screwed by traffic in the left lane when someone ahead is driving slowly in the right.

An opportunity presented itself when my draftee changed to the left lane for a pass, I followed, and he returned to the right after completing the pass. I, however, stayed in the left lane, as I could see he would very soon come up behind slow-moving traffic in the right lane. I could also see several cars behind me waiting to pounce. So, to the minor detriment of the cars behind me, I matched his speed but in the left lane, staying slightly back from his rear door. “I’m going to play some 2D chess,” I told Sean. I’d meant “3D chess”.

Sure enough, a minute or two later, he came up on the traffic in the right lane, and I slowed slightly more so as to make a big, obvious gap for him to come back left. Not wanting to be too pushy, I deliberately chose not to flash my lights in signal. He hesitated a moment, then politely merged back left in front of me, and promptly gave me the “hazard light blink”.

“Oh good, we’re friends again!” I told Sean.

And so it went. I’d draft him, then when we came up on traffic, I’d go left and block for him so he could move over without slowing down. He’d go over, give me a couple hazard blinks, and then we’d make the pass together.

This continued along I-80 for over an hour, then onto I-380 towards Cedar Rapids.

I almost dropped the ball on I-380 with a nearly missed block. When I realized the window was closing, I might have been slightly aggressive about moving over to, let’s be honest, cut off a car that was steaming up the outside. “Sorry!” I thought to the car now behind me — hey, I had to protect my friend.

When we got within a few miles of the US-151 turnoff from I-380, I slowed well-down, stayed right, and my semi friend went ahead in the left lane. He gave one more set of hazard blinks in goodbye, and traffic soon blocked my view of him.

I thought that was then end of it, but no! Like the awkwardness of discovering you’ve parked in the same direction as an acquaintance after already completing your goodbyes, it turned out that he too was following US-151, and we came up behind him again on the ramp. I wasn’t sure what to do; I didn’t want to be weird about it.

When we both made yet another turn to continue along US-151, I figured, “Eh, why not?” and we fell back into old patterns.

Thanks to the draft, our mileage in Sean’s truck had improved from 6.2 mpg to 7.5 mpg, and our target Kwik Star came into view with an estimated 35 miles of range left.

Sean and I had shared the previous four turns with our big-rig friend, but not our fifth: at the light for the Kwik Star, he stopped in the rightmost straight-through lane, and we slid into the right-turn-only lane.

As we came up alongside his rig, I slowed more than was needed and looked to my left at his cab with a smile and a wave. Inside, I could see his head turned back at me, a wave on his hand as well. He gave a couple quick toots of his horn in salute, and as his light turned green as we turned right.

Our highway friend lumbered off into the distance; we will never see him again.

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