The long road on Thanksgiving nothing new for Notre Dame equipment truck drivers

Notre Dame equipment
Courtesy: Bernie Ferro and Tony Imel

Notre Dame’s tradition of ending the regular season in California has created a unique Thanksgiving tradition for the two people responsible for transporting the team’s equipment: more than 80 hours in a semi-truck.

Bernie Ferro and Tony Imel have driven the Irish equipment truck to road games for 10 years, including to the usual finale at Southern California or Stanford. 

The latest installment of the long trek began Monday at 11 a.m. ET, two days earlier in the week than they left for every other game this season. By the time they arrived at the team’s hotel on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. PT, Ferro and Imel had driven for an estimated 40 hours. During a phone interview when they were near Flagstaff, Ariz., on Wednesday, the duo told Inside the Irish they typically drive until about 11 p.m. or 12 a.m., sleep at a truck stop and resume the trip between 6 or 7 a.m. 

When mapped, the fastest route from Notre Dame to Palo Alto, Calif., would take 33 hours, but that path cuts through Wyoming and the northern regions of Utah and Nevada, which have often already seen snowfall by the end of November and therefore could pose hazardous driving conditions for the semi. So Ferro and Imel opt for a southern route instead, heading from Chicago to St. Louis before cutting through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Once in California, the path sends them north on Interstate 5 to Stanford Stadium.

According to Google Maps, driving that route in a car would typically take about 36 hours. But with Ferro and Imel driving a semi-truck hauling 40,000 pounds of trunks containing standard and backup sets of gear, they said it usually takes them closer to 40 hours.

Ferro and Imel have traveled the same route since they started driving the equipment truck. Except for last season’s COVID-adjusted schedule, the two have made the drive every year for the last decade, when the Notre Dame football program upscaled its equipment travel operation.

“It was basically just a small Penske Truck up until about 10 years ago,” head equipment manager Chris Bacsik said. “And we would have two guys just hop in it on Monday and take it out there for us. We traveled a lot differently, a lot lighter.”

Bacsik said the program contracted Towne Air Freight, which was later bought out by Forward Air. The company is responsible for supplying the truck and its drivers; Ferro and Imel both previously worked for Towne Air Freight and stayed on with Forward Air after the buyout. Ferro and Imel have been with the companies for 39 years and 30 years, respectively.

Over the last 10 years, the two have grown accustomed to fans’ excited reactions to the novelty of the truck, which features the “Wake Up the Echoes” slogan over a picture of Notre Dame Stadium on its side.

“A lot of fans drive by us, and they’re waving to us and giving us a thumbs up, taking pictures of the truck as we’re going on,” Ferro said. “Last night when we stopped somewhere, we pulled in to get something to eat, and all of the sudden, there’s people all around taking pictures of the truck.”

During the latter half of the season, the truck is always transporting cold-weather gear in addition to the team’s standard equipment. It’s an added precaution that makes sense given the wide range of possible weather conditions in Northern California, especially when the truck carrying that equipment leaves multiple days ahead of the team.

“A lot of the stuff, in a best-case scenario, it never even comes off the truck,” Bacsik said. “But we have it on there just to be safe. So that if the truck for this game leaves on Monday, say all of a sudden on Wednesday, the temperature drops and it’s a 15-degree swing, we’re already covered because it’s on the truck.”

In charge of arranging the gear is associate equipment manager Dan Glynn, who visualizes and plans the equipment’s truck placement based on the team’s schedule for the weekend. For example, according to Bacsik, Glynn might arrange equipment differently if the team uses a local high school for an additional practice or walkthrough like it will on Saturday morning before the primetime kickoff on FOX (8 ET).

Then, on Saturday night, Ferro and Imel will start packing up the truck as soon as the team takes the field for the second half. They will be assisted by a former and a current manager, with four people being enough to ensure the truck will be ready to leave when the team does.

“When the (game) clock hits zero, in about 55 minutes, everybody’s on the (team) bus and rolling, and the truck’s fully packed,” Bacsik said.

But while the team enjoys the relative comfort of a chartered cross-country flight, Ferro and Imel will set off on the second half of their journey — with 40 hours of asphalt between them and South Bend.

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.