Saturday marked the fourth time Wes Carter has competed at the state Solid Waste Association of North America Road-E-O. It was time to add another garbage truck driving trophy to his trophy room.
"This is big business in Largo," he said.
Their drivers practice for hours on weekends and after work. The trophies and plaques they bring home fill two large display cases in the public works building.
"These are the champs," said Mike Gold, Largo's coach.
Everybody's out to get Largo. Or Largo's out to get everybody.
It depends on whom you're rooting for.
Largo Commissioner Harriet Crozier is there. She turned garbage groupie after riding on a recycling truck five years ago. She pumps the guys up before their big day, cheers at all their competitions, and has mastered the trash lingo.
"Out on the roads these days," she said, "it's tough driving those big trucks."
Cars parked every which way. Narrow alleys. Winding streets and low electrical lines.
Somehow, the garbage collectors manage to steer their orange trucks every day with finesse. And time and time again, in competitions like this, they've proven themselves to be among the creme de la creme of the nation's waste haulers.
But last year, Largo's drivers took a beating from their biggest rival, Clearwater.
They're convinced they were jinxed because the St. Petersburg Times printed a story before last year's state Road-E-O. They're not taking any chances this year. They need to redeem themselves after last year's embarrassing losses.
"I need Lady Luck on my side," Jimmy Mark explains to a reporter. "If I win, you can say whatever you want.
"I know my competitor's name but I'm not saying it."
* * *
Mark's opponent, as it turns out, is named Mark Beery.
Mark, 34, has won a trophy every year but one. The veteran driver has been competing since 1996. Last year, though, he lost his state front loader championship title to Clearwater's Beery.
It's a sore point for him.
On Saturday, he points out the Clearwater guys in gray shirts. Maybe the reporter could pester them with questions, he suggests. Ask them how nervous they are.
Beery, reigning state and international champion in the front loader, appears calm. His teammate, Nick Fritz, is pacing, smoking one cigarette after the other. Bobby Lillico, Clearwater's coach, used to chew a straw down to its nub before competing.
Their wives and children gather to watch, wearing T-shirts that say "Daddy's #1" and "Your the Best Go Wes Go."
Mark waits for his turn in his 30,000-pound orange truck. He rubs his hands over his face and bends over the steering wheel.
"I can't watch," said Kim Mark, clutching daughter Kaitlin on her lap. "I don't watch."
She covers her face with her hands as Mark threads two rows of tennis balls with his tires without touching them. She sneaks a peek only when she hears clapping and cheering.
Mark is having a great run. Maybe he'll even get a perfect score. Victorious, he leans on his horn as he pulls away from the finish line.
The pressure is on.
"We need a clean sweep," hollers Largo's solid waste manager, Bennie Boyd. "Bring out the broom!"
Largo's Joe Jayne hits a barrel. It was bigger than it looked.
Teammate Wes Carter is next. His hands are freezing cold. He leans over to get a kiss from his wife.
He maneuvers his truck through the first set of yellow barricades, but scrapes the second set. That'll cost him 15 points.
"He always hits that," said his wife, Kimberly Carter.
He snakes through an obstacle course of barrels, but has to stop and pull up before trying it in reverse - a 5-point penalty. Parallel parking his truck, he ends up too far from the imaginary curb.
"Come on baby," said Kimberly, wringing her hands.
His fans console him later, pointing out that Fritz hit a barrel while he blitzed through without jostling any cones, barrels or tennis balls.
"I'm all right," Carter said. "I'm all right."
* * *
Every year, Mark swears it's the last time he's competing. It's too much for his nerves. The suspense builds before the awards banquet, when no one knows for sure who's going to win.
A comedian distracts the audience with trash talk, as the drivers wait for their names to be called. The winners get a free trip to this year's international competition in Texas.
Joe Jayne beat Clearwater's John Murray in the side loader competition.
Jimmy Mark trumped Clearwater's Mark Beery in the front loader.
Largo's Wes Carter snagged first place over Nick Fritz in the rear loader.
And Largo's newbie, Andy Henjes, placed second behind Clearwater's Rick Clark in the rolloff contest.
All in all, Largo's drivers brought home three first-place trophies and one second. Clearwater won one first and four seconds.
"I'm on Cloud Nine," said Carter, 34.
The ultimate Top Gun prize went to Mark, who scored 440 out of 450 points for his written test, vehicle inspection and driving competition.
"I just got lucky," said Mark. In the past couple of years, he messed up on the parallel parking event. This year, he aced it.
And maybe it pays to be superstitious. No one jinxed him this year.
Next year, he thinks he'll compete with another truck. He's dying to drive the tractor-trailer. That has to be one tough truck to drive.