Randy Johnson of Ashland is looking for a little guidance with his senior project, building a long-haul truck. He shows the pieces he's collected in a field behind his grandmother's house while his dog, Ransom, offers encouragement. - Bob Pennell

Student plans to build semi from scratch

Ever since he saw "Smokey and the Bandit" when he was 3 years old, Randy Johnson of Ashland knew he wanted to be a truck driver — the sort of professional semitrailer driver who could build and operate his own rig and be his own boss.

Gradually, the dream is coming true. Johnson, 17, is a senior at Armadillo Technical Institute in Phoenix. He's starting to piece together the parts of a truck he can take on the road to haul freight after he graduates from high school next June and earns his commercial driver's license from Rogue Community College.

Johnson lives with his grandmother, Bev Sele. In the alley behind her house, Johnson has collected some of the pieces for his rig. There's a cab and hood from a 1972 Kenworth, a frame from a 1999 Peterbilt and a sleeper cab from a mid-'90s Peterbilt.

He still needs an engine, transmission, rear end, radiator and tons of other parts, but right now he'd like to find a mentor, somebody who knows all about truck repair who can answer questions as Johnson works on his homemade rig, which is his senior project.

He calls his project the Wayside Special "because all the parts were tossed to the wayside," he said.

He picked up the cab and hood in exchange for washing and waxing trucks in Siskiyou County. The frame was free but had to be towed from Yreka, Calif. The sleeper came from a junkyard for $350. Normally, he said, it would cost $1,000 in that condition.

Johnson said he's looking for "someone who has been a driver or mechanic. They'd have to answer questions about how things go together. That would help a lot."

Johnson earns money driving a forklift and stacking and weighing landscape rocks at Leave Your Mark in Talent.

"I can always trust him," said his boss, Pete Cislo, a former dean and counselor at Ashland High School. "He's a unique boy. He's got a work ethic and commitment, and he's someone who loves trucks,"

Bev Sele said her grandson's interest in trucks has stuck with him his whole life.

"He's never veered from it," Sele said, noting Johnson's mechanical ability.

"If he doesn't know how to fix something, he will figure a way," she said.

"I'm known for feats of what I call 'redneck engineering,' " he said with a laugh.

A former student at South Medford High School, Johnson said he loves Armadillo Technical Institute, a school designed for students with different learning styles and those who don't work well in big classrooms.

He's already removed all the wiring and air lines from the cab so he can build it from the ground up.

"I'm going to try to make it modern enough so it will be a practical working truck," he said. "I'm going to shine it up, paint it green, I think. It should cost about $30,000, which is $100,000 cheaper than if I just bought it. It'll take about two years."

The life of a long-haul trucker has been romanticized in movies, but Johnson said those portrayals have given people a view that is "misinformed at best."

"Truckers don't get to interact with the general public as much as most people," he said, "so anyone who doesn't know a driver personally, well, the movies don't give a very accurate description."

Johnson said the prospect of being alone on the road doesn't bother him.

"I like alone time," he said, noting that there are also plenty of husband-and-wife teams on the road now and "women are as good as men at driving. Some say better."

Johnson wants to own his truck to preserve his independence and be his own boss.

"Otherwise you drive for a company in their trucks," he said, "and they tell you when to come and go."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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