Tammy Brubaker may not look like your typical trucker. That’s what they tell her, at least, when she and her husband John pull into truck stops while on the road for FedEx Custom Critical, FedEx’s specialized freight operation. The gender gap is wide in trucking, where around 5% of the workforce is estimated to be female. But in 2008, when the downturn upended her husband’s construction business, Tammy began researching what to do and proposed trucking for FedEx.
"I’m an Iowa farm girl," she says. "I can drive anything." Tractors, forklifts, a 48-passenger school bus—she’s tried it all. "The first vehicle I ever drove was a ’56 Ford pickup, three-on-the-tree, with a metal peg for a gas pedal." Her dad taught her how to drive around the farm on her own, to put up fencing. The first time she got behind the wheel, "I kept popping the clutch and killing it, and my dad was giggling and laughing the whole time." He might have cut her some slack: she was 10.
When Tammy’s father was mocking her driving abilities, he couldn’t have predicted the precious cargo FedEx would entrust her with, some 35 years later: last week, Tammy and her husband made headlines by driving a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil from Bozeman, Montana, to Washington, D.C., where they’ll be on display during a 50-year loan period at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The fossils, discovered by a rancher in 1988, represent one of the most complete T. Rex specimens ever recovered.
The Brubakers picked up the fossil (divided into 16 crates) and loaded it into a tractor-trailer, affixed for the occasion with a large T. Rex decal. Their specialized truck, which they more commonly use to haul pharmaceutical loads, is able to maintain a precise, low temperature of between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, says FedEx’s Ryan Henry. The truck was also equipped with a device called SenseAware, which allowed FedEx to remotely monitor not just the temperature but also the humidity and barometric temperature, all of which could affect the specimen. "Not only were we tracking the truck," says Henry of the precious prehistoric cargo, "but we had eyes inside the crates."
The Brubakers once hauled a live bear; another time, they trucked fragments of a pirate ship so old that couldn’t be removed from salt water, lest they disintegrate. But the T. Rex was a once-in-a-lifetime gig, says Tammy. "My husband became the number-one uncle and grandpa. He’s the coolest guy in the world" to their three nephews, five nieces, and four-year-old granddaughter.
And indeed, the T. Rex shipment has cast a spotlight on a curious corner of FedEx’s business, one whose unlikely engine is married couples. Husband-and-wife teams are very common among Custom Critical’s fleet of 1,400 trucks, says Tammy. This reflects a hiring logic that stems back to the fact that Custom Critical promises customers extremely speedy shipping. Since Department of Transportation regulations mandate a 10-hour rest period for a driver after 11 hours of driving, the only way to get a truck moving 24 hours a day is to have a two-person driving team. In hiring a team that can stand each other for days at a stretch, what better prerequisite than marriage?
"Being together 24 hours, 7 days a week can get tough, but we enjoy it," says Tammy. "We’ve been married 18 years, together for 22 years, so we kinda knew we were stuck with each other anyway."
Henry says that Custom Critical sees a lot of husband-and-wife teams who are taking an active retirement. "They say, ‘Hey, we’re both retired from our first jobs, but we don’t feel like retiring. Instead of buying an RV, let’s buy a freight truck and run around for Custom Critical.’" Independent contractors can be strategic about which loads they choose to haul. In the mood to see New Hampshire? Then they might truck something to the Granite State, go out of commission for a few days, and take in the sights. Henry says that a diverse lot—former teachers, accountants, policemen, firemen, and military personnel—all make up the Custom Critical fleet.
It’s not all easy—Tammy points to the moments when "you’re tired and you just need a few minutes away, and sometimes you can’t get that." But she says the good times are much more common, and it’s nice, in the end, that the money all goes in one pocket. Also, she says, how else would she have gotten to haul a dinosaur across the country?
"For the most part, it’s been the best decision we’ve ever made."