STAR NATION STORIES
Alaska’s Rocky Wagar: Ice In His Veins & Under His Wheels
Horizontal whiteouts. Sixty degrees below zero. A road made of ice. Nothing can bring out the “Never Back Down” fearlessness of our Star Nation brethren more than Alaska’s Dalton Highway. Rocky Wagar, owner of Wagar Transport in Fairbanks, hauls drilling pipe, explosives, and heavy-haul fuel along this treacherous stretch of road, relying on his Western Star 49X to get him through the Arctic extremes without batting an eye.
Growing up in a Montana trucking family, Rocky always wanted to become an owner-operator. “I was riding in trucks with my dad since the day I learned to walk and helped him maintain trucks since I could understand directions as a kid,” recalls Wagar. At 18, Wagar started driving log trucks in Kalispell, Montana. At 21, he added interstate to his license endorsement and took his first long-haul trip from Missoula to Dalton, Georgia, hauling paper rolls in a dry van.
While working for the family business, Wagar got a taste of several truck makes, including Kenworth, Volvo, and Peterbilt. Says Wagar, “I loved the 389 Pete, and I never thought I’d get away from that.” But when the more financially rewarding opportunity of ice road trucking called him northwards to run his own business, he went with a heavy-haul Western Star 49X as his first-ever truck purchase.
“The biggest thing was the ride. It was like going from an old Dodge power wagon to a Cadillac,” Wagar recalls. Even though he had never sat behind the wheel of a Western Star, nor had he any preconceived notions about the brand, the new owner-operator absolutely loved it. “Our Alaska trucker community is as friendly and helpful as they come, but we are old school and resistant to change. That was me, but once I got into this Western Star, my eyes were opened.”
Comfort is key when you have 15-hour drives and 400 miles of gravel road gouged with washboards and potholes. “It can really take a toll on a person’s body, so the smooth, quiet ride is a huge deal,” Wagar points out. Longer drives and workdays are common in Alaska, which has its own trucking regulations apart from the lower 48 states. “You can’t make it from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay in the 11 hours you’re allowed to drive in the lower 48, so the work hours are a whole different ballgame up here.”
Alaska is larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined and has a one-thousand-mile trunk line through the center of the state where most residents live. The FMCSA recognized the logistical challenges of Alaska’s weather and road conditions, allowing for 15-hour drive times, a 20-hour duty time window, and there are no mandatory 30-minute breaks
Also unique to Alaska are the greater weight limits compared to the continental U.S., explains Wagar, “The legal weight on drive tires in Alaska is 38,000 lbs. compared to 34,000 lbs. in the lower 48. I typically pull a five-axle fuel tanker and will gross 114,000 lbs. going to Prudhoe Bay.” In the winter months, the DOT allows all loads with a destination of Prudhoe Bay to transfer 4,000 lbs. from the trailer to the truck to aid in traction, allowing trucks to legally haul 42,000 lbs. on drivers and 34,000 lbs. on a tandem axle trailer. Wagar adds, “Come summertime, I pull double hot oil tankers grossing 150,000 lbs. with 11 axles. For my X-Series, it’s all just another day out on the road.” A stretch of road known as the Atigun Pass is particularly challenging. “You’ve got 12 to 14 percent grade hills up there, so I’m pushing my truck to its limit pretty much every day,” says Wagar.
Wagar’s 49X has plenty of muscle to do the job, powered by a Detroit® DD16®, which delivers up to 2,050 lb-ft. torque and 600HP. His Eaton Fuller 18-speed manual transmission and 391-rear axle ratio get him up and over the toughest terrains. And his 46,000 lb. rear ends and 14,600 taper leaf front suspension make his X-Series capable of handling the heaviest hauls.
When asked about the danger of running the Dalton Highway, Wagar shares a little wisdom.
"So, I always check the weather forecast because once you get into a blow [an Alaskan term for a blizzard], it’s not like you can stop; you have to keep going. If your truck shuts down, it can be hours before anyone gets to you. And at 60 degrees below zero, you may not have THAT long.”
Equipped with triple door seals, Wagar’s 49X cab stays plenty warm. “With the high wind speeds up here, the cold would cut right through the door of an average truck,” says Wagar. Another difference-maker for this owner-operator is the visibility afforded by his truck’s one-piece windshield, sloped hood, and heated headlights. “It opens up the whole world; you’d be amazed at the difference,” he claims. Excellent visibility matters when your view can range from the spectacle of the Northern Lights and herds of Dall sheep to the hazards of icy roadways and avalanches.
Wagar’s X-Series was the first in service in Alaska, but he’s now seeing quite a few on the road as word of mouth has spread across the Alaskan frontier. “Western Star is becoming the go-to brand up here, and everybody talks highly of their comfort and reliability through all kinds of road conditions. It seems like every trip I take, another driver is asking me about my truck.”
Wagar’s daily challenges may be an extreme example of Star Nation’s “Never Back Down” way of life, but he thinks of it like any other Star Nation faithful.
Wagar says, being that it’s the first truck he’s owned, he’ll probably hang onto his 49X forever. “It’ll be a lawn ornament someday for me,” he smiles. And why not…Western Stars make a comfortable home away from home, even parked in your front yard.