Trash Haulers Trade Horses for Garbage Trucks in Annual Chicago Road-eo

Every year, truck drivers compete in the Republic Road-eo. (Erica Gunderson / WTTW News)Every year, truck drivers compete in the Republic Road-eo. (Erica Gunderson / WTTW News)

On the cool and sunny morning of Saturday, Oct. 21, 14 gladiators mounted their chariots — you might know them as garbage trucks — and entered the battle arena on the Republic Services parking lot in Chicago. The competitors had a singular focus: to become one with their craft as they safely navigate an obstacle course of trash cans, tiny traffic cones, and most formidable of all, judges with clipboards.

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Ultimately, one driver emerged victorious at the Republic Road-eo: 20-year Republic veteran Jimmy Hernandez, who completed the Small Container course in about six minutes with only minor deductions. And while this wasn’t Hernandez’s first Road-eo — he’s competed for the past five years — it was his first win.

“Best I had done before this was second — so I’ve done pretty well and pretty miserably. Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way, but I felt pretty good after the first section,” said Hernandez of the first-place finish that earned him a $1,000 prize. “I feel like, as a whole, we have the best drivers in the country in Chicago, so we’re just showing at the Road-eo that’s what we do every day — cars double parked, cars in the alley, working the lakefront. We encounter stuff like (course obstacles) all the time.”

Hernandez was the first driver to tackle the course, which comprises six challenges set in an oval around a roughly 150’ x 250’ lot. Republic Services Chicago general manager Joe Scaglione said the drivers use the finely tuned skills they’ve developed piloting their lumbering, rumbling trucks through Chicago’s narrowest alleys, suburban backlots and serpentine downtown tunnels.

“The width of (Chicago) alleys is only about 8 inches wider than their vehicles,” Scaglione said. “People have asked me, do your drivers practice for this? Every single day they practice for this. The bar is set much higher in Chicago, and I’m proud that we’re able to do that and everybody comes home with no injuries and no accidents.”

On their everyday routes, drivers use rearview cameras to avoid obstacles — but the Road-eo disposes with that layer of technology, meaning drivers must rely on mirrors and memory to muscle their trucks around obstacles. 2022 champion David Mangnall, who completed the 2023 course in under four minutes but received a few deductions, said while he’s speedy on the course, he’s slow and steady on the streets.

Video: Driver David Mangnall takes WTTW News on a ride-along at the Republic Road-eo. (Erica Gunderson / WTTW News)

“Out in the streets, you’re not trying to do anything fast, you’re taking your time and being careful because you don’t want to hit anything, that’s for sure,” Mangnall said. “If you hit something (on the course) it’s just points, it doesn’t matter, but yeah, out there you have to be super careful.”

The Road-eo is part of Republic’s annual employee appreciation event, where employees and their families enjoy a barbecue and kid-friendly events while watching drivers compete. Every other year, the winner of each of 14 regional courses is entered in the national contest at Republic’s Phoenix headquarters, where they compete to win a $10,000 grand prize. That title is where Hernandez has set his sights for 2025.

“I think I can bring it home for Chicago,” he said.

Republic Services, a private waste hauler, traces its operations in Chicago back to 1972. The Road-eo competition originated at the Houston-based Browning Ferris Industries and was adopted by Republic after it acquired BFI. The competition was enough of a hit with operators that Republic took it national in 2017, with a standardized course that allows drivers from across the country to compete.

In this year’s course, drivers were first tasked with winding their trucks through four closely spaced trash containers — before doing it again, this time in reverse. They lose points for any cans their truck touches. Then, after rocketing past the stands full of cheering family and colleagues, they must parallel park their truck between barriers set just eight feet further apart than the truck’s length without disturbing them. After that, drivers will back into a set of U-shaped barriers without touching them and are scored for how close the truck is to the rear barrier. Next, they’re expected to drive through a set of 10 tiny traffic cones set just a bit more than a tire’s width apart and barely visible from their position in the cab, again without touching any.

Video: A driver navigates through tiny cones at the Republic Road-eo. (Erica Gunderson / WTTW News)

The fifth obstacle is to steer through two sets of barriers placed in an S-shape without hitting them. And finally, drivers must park their mammoth trucks as close as possible to a piece of tape set on the ground, where the distance between the truck’s nose and the tape will be measured and recorded by a judge. The scores for each driver are tallied by judges, and in the case of a tie, the time it took to complete the course is the tiebreaker.

Mangnall, an 11-year Republic Services driver, said he enjoys the event as much as he enjoys the job itself.

“I look forward to it every year. My kids love coming, they always want to come and see the trucks and watch the race, and they always ask me all year, when’s the rodeo? When’s the rodeo?” Mangnall said. “I love what I do, I really do. You’re out and about, you get to see and talk to people, kids wave at you, and you honk the horn for them. I love it.”

Family and friends cheer on truck drivers at the Republic Road-eo on Oct. 21, 2023. (Erica Gunderson / WTTW News)Family and friends cheer on truck drivers at the Republic Road-eo on Oct. 21, 2023. (Erica Gunderson / WTTW News)

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