The “Rad” Side Of Trucking

By Chris Nowell

There’s something about the way things were done in the “old school” trucking industry that has always captured my imagination. The way older trucks look, sound and smell has always interested me and made me wonder how the job got done back in the day. Not having “been there” myself or had any close family that knows anything about trucks, I have had to rely on the stories of those who lived it. One of those guys is Ralph Wilkerson of Radco Trucking – a “rad” dude, for sure!

Last year, at the Central California Chapter ATHS show in Amador, California, I met Ralph, and within two minutes of talking to him about some of the details on his older Kenworth, I knew I had made a good friend. He was happy to answer my questions, and even invited me to come up to his shop and drive the truck sometime. It is rare to find a person who would put a kid he didn’t know in the driver’s seat of his super-cool truck. Looking back, I couldn’t be happier with how everything turned out. Driving my first Kenworth A-Model at just 19 years old was an experience that I won’t soon forget.

Ralph’s easy-going attitude shines through by the friendly relationships he has with his drivers and customers, which I saw first-hand. Add to that, the way in which Ralph takes care of his trucks and equipment, and I immediately thought of him when I was recently given the amazing opportunity to contribute to the magazine. I grew up reading 10-4 Magazine and couldn’t wait to tell Ralph’s story as my official “kick-off” into the wild world of journalism and photography. So, here goes!

While growing up, Ralph often visited his grandparents’ ranch in southern Oregon. He was always intrigued by the log trucks that passed by on a nearby highway. Then, when he was about 14, his grandparents’ neighbor gave him a ride in his log truck, and Ralph caught the trucking bug. Some 43 years later, as the co-owner of a proud, local fleet of matching silver and caution yellow trucks, Ralph has made quite a name for himself in California’s Central Valley – and beyond.

In 1976, while he was still a senior in high school, he borrowed $4,000 from his parents and bought his first truck – a 1962 Kenworth cabover. That summer, he hauled wheat and tomatoes out of Woodland, California. Later, he sold that truck and bought a 1956 Kenworth conventional, which he worked and restored while he was going to college. Ralph attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and when he wasn’t in class, he was hauling hay and sugar beets. He eventually graduated with a degree in Mechanized Agriculture.

After graduation, Ralph moved to Woodland and started Wilkerson Trucking. He pulled walking floor and grain trailers for the first 15 years of his trucking career. During that time, Ralph also learned how to fly and flew crop dusters for 12 years. Ralph ended up selling his company to a bigger outfit, and then took a year off of trucking and moved up to Biggs, California, to continue flying. Eventually, he started driving trucks on the side again, and one thing led to another and Radco Trucking was born. And, 18 years later, they’re still going strong.

At the date of this article, Ralph has 12 trucks in his fleet and 20 trailers (hopper doubles and lowbeds). Ralph has always loved trucks and takes pride in having nice equipment. “Having nice trucks makes the job fun,” he said. “If I had a bunch of plain white trucks with steel wheels, it wouldn’t be very fun!” Operating nice equipment also helps attract better drivers – and helps keep them around longer, too. Ralph’s very first driver, Brad Shafer, has been with Radco since the beginning, and is still driving with the company today! That is a testimony as to how Ralph runs his business. Ralph is happily married to his wife Diane and has two boys – Brian (16) and Tyler (18).

When Radco Trucking came to be nearly two decades ago, the first truck they had was a 1987 Kenworth (Ralph bought another one recently and has been building it into a show truck) with the same silver, red and yellow paint scheme seen on all of his trucks today. The original owner of the truck, Glenn Ringer, designed the paint scheme, and when Ralph bought the truck he liked it, so he copied it on all his trucks. The two “special” trucks featured in this article are the two oldest trucks in the fleet, but they are also arguably the coolest!

In 2001, Ralph bought a two-axle 1974 Kenworth W900A with a 3408 Cat under the hood that is mated to a 13-speed transmission with 4:11 rear-end gears. The truck was in great shape – all they had to do was give it their signature paint scheme and put it to work. These days, Ralph mainly works it in the summer months, using it to haul grain and hay. In 2008 he purchased another A-Model. Also in great shape (Ralph was only the second owner), this second classic rig is a 1973 model, equipped with a newer 3406 Cat engine, a 13-speed, and 4:11 rear gears. After they got the truck painted to match the rest of the fleet, they gave it lowbed ramps and added dual exhaust, new fuel tanks and rear half-fenders.

Ralph has always had a thing for Kenworth trucks, so it should come as no surprise that all of the other trucks in his fleet wear the KW badge out front, as well. Consisting mostly of newer T800s and a few older W900B and L-Models, all of the tractors in the Radco Trucking fleet are well-maintained and super clean – and they all have a pretty “rad” look, thanks to that cool paint scheme and eye-catching color combination!

This was the first “official” photo shoot that I had ever done on my own, and I had very little idea about what exactly to expect. I knew where I was going and what trucks he had (the last time I was at Radco they let me tour around the town behind the wheel of the ‘73), but I had never done photography for a magazine before, nor had I ever done any serious kind of interviewing. I would like to thank Ralph and Troy for hanging in there while I tried to figure out what I was doing, and for being so accommodating when it came to moving the trucks around for the pictures. They also bought lunch at a local pizza shop in Biggs, where I was treated to the best pizza I have had in my life (for real). I even got to ride along with Troy while he went to haul a couple of loads across town.

Troy has been with Radco for five years, but has been “lowbedding” for 15 years. He was the first driver who started the “lowbed division” (as he calls it). While we drove across town, he pointing out places to stop for pictures the whole way, and he came up with the locations you see on these pages, and for that, I thank him whole-heartedly. Red Top Rice Growers of Biggs, California, was also kind enough to let us shoot on their property. They are located just around the corner from Radco, and they have been in business together for years.

Ralph really enjoys working with his employees and is happy with the size of his company. At 57 years old, Ralph still has a lot of years left in him to keep the company running while his children are pursuing their own dreams and getting a college education. However, it is unclear at this point whether or not one of his sons will decide to pick up the reins and keep their father’s spirit – and company – alive. But one thing is sure, it will still be a “rad” operation, if and when they do!

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