Brad Finken drove north of Rochester, Minn., on Hwy. 52, heading into a foggy landscape.
Light drizzle had started to freeze in the corners of the windshield, and the temperature had dropped since he left the Kwik Trip Distribution Center in La Crosse about an hour ago. It had been sunny and warmer there.
Finken is among 55 Kwik Trip drivers who deliver gasoline and diesel fuel to the company’s 363 convenience stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
The company owns 110 tanker trucks, stationed at 19 locations throughout the three states it serves.
Finken lives near Owatonna, Minn., and works out of a Kwik Trip truck stop on Interstate 35 in Owatonna. He works 12 hours a day, 60 hours a week, usually starting at 6 a.m., driving his assigned Mack truck to a gasoline terminal and then delivering fuel to a store.
When he returns to Owatonna, usually by 6 p.m., his partner driver is waiting at a truck stop to take over for the overnight 12-hour shift.
Each truck delivers each store about 8,500 gallons of fuel from one of many area terminals. In effect, each driver replenishes the fuel supplies of a store per shift.
Last fiscal year was the first with 100,000 petroleum loads, said Kwik Trip Petroleum Superintendent Marty Fellenz, who supervises drivers.
“We’re 24 hours, around the clock,” Fellenz said.
Finken, 44, has worked for Kwik Trip about a year and a half. Before that, he and wife Valerie owned their own semi, and for about nine years Finken drove loads of gravel in a 35-foot open-top trailer known as an “end dump.”
He was a truck mechanic before he got his commercial drivers license.
Driving petroleum for Kwik Trip involved “quite a bit of training,” he said.
He also had to pass inspections to be able to come into terminals — the most strict being the Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend Refinery on Hwy. 52 near Rosemount, Minn., south of the Twin Cities.
“You have to prove to them that you know what you’re doing,” he said.
He never knows where he is going to be sent, he said, until a copy of his itinerary becomes available online at midnight. And a fax with revised plans might await him when he gets to the Kwik Trip truck stop the next morning.
This day’s run did prove to be a little out of the ordinary. Instead of the Mack truck he usually drives, Finken had to deliver a Peterbilt truck from Owatonna to La Crosse, pick up a new Volvo truck, use it to haul a load from the Pine Bend refinery back to La Crosse and then take the truck to Owatonna for other drivers to use.
Pine Bend is high security. Finken pulled onto a private frontage road that parallels Hwy. 52 and stopped at Gate 1, which is closest to the gasoline terminal.
He must wear a hard hat and eye protection inside the terminal. A reader scans the identification card for him and the truck.
Kwik Trip trucks have three separate compartments in the tank, for 87 and 89 octane gas with ethanol and the “clear” 91 octane premium gas without ethanol.
Terminal Operations Manager Grady Kinder said Pine Bend makes about 70 different recipes of fuel for its customers, depending on what kind of additive they want.
Kwik Trip gasoline contains more engine-cleaning additives than other formulas, Kinder said.
The extra additives are part of a “Top Tier” gasoline program developed by General Motors and other automakers, said Steve Loehr, vice president of operations support for Kwik Trip.
Finken hooked up large nozzles to each of three connections on the truck to get each type of gasoline. He also hooked up a ground cable and a vapor recovery hose to make sure vapor isn’t released into the terminal.
Filling the tanker takes about 15 minutes, and the whole operation can be done within a half-hour if no line of tankers is ahead of him, he said.
That sometimes happens, he explained, when truckers know the price of oil is going up by 6 p.m. That’s not the case today.
After disconnecting and doing a walk-around inspection of the truck, he sets out again for La Crosse.
The Volvo semi he will take back to Owatonna is among 10 new ones with automatic transmissions Kwik Trip purchased. Most of the Kwik Trip semis have 10-speed manual transmissions, Finken said.
His cab has a computer the federal Department of Transportation can access. It records the fuel purchase and serves the same purpose as a log book.
The computer also tracks speed and compression braking. Most companies use these truck “governors” to control costs by controlling speed, Fellenz said.
Kwik Trip restricted its trucks to 60 mph after fuel costs rose to $4 a gallon. Though costs have dropped, the limit remains.
A warning goes off on the computer if the driver exceeds 60 mph, Finken said. He then has 30 seconds to get the speed down to 60 or lower.
Navigating the sometimes narrow streets in a city can be an issue as well. A city light post too close to an alley prevents Finken’s rig from reaching the Kwik Trip lot from Cass Street at Fifth Avenue. So he drives around the block to enter on the Fifth Avenue side.
After about 20 minutes, the store has its fuel and he’s on his way home to Owatonna.