Ice Road Truckers star Lisa Kelly talks about driving, TV, her message, horses and what’s around the bend.
Lisa Kelly might be the face of women in trucking, but she wants to use her platform to promote something broader: the benefits of a strong work ethic.
“I want to empower everyone to live their dreams,” she says. “My motto has become: If you work hard and make the appropriate sacrifices, you can live your dreams. I’m not saying don’t ever quit, because I’ve tried other careers and didn’t like them. Then I found what I liked, and I went for it with everything I had.”
The 37-year-old Alaskan who starred in eight seasons of the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers reality TV show built her career from scratch. She started as a courier driver for the oil fields – a job that didn’t require a commercial driver’s license – and practiced driving a heavy-duty truck around the company yard during her off time. Once she earned her CDL, she ran local routes, then became a line driver, eventually making her way to the ice roads, where she drove for several years before joining Ice Road Truckers in 2009.
“I just worked my way up to where I wanted to be,” Kelly says. “I was raised on a farm, and my dad was good at teaching work ethic, so I always do my best. I picked truck driving, and I wanted to be the most versatile truck driver I possibly could, so I’ve driven on and off road, in major cities and over ice. I’ve hauled doubles and live stuff and high stuff.”
Kelly’s experience, courage and work ethic are evident in episodes of Ice Road Truckers and its spinoff, IRT: Deadliest Roads. After other drivers turned back, deciding conditions were too hazardous, Kelly became the only North American trucker to complete season one of IRT: Deadliest Roads, which was filmed in the Himalayas.
We asked Kelly to tell us more about her experiences on both TV shows and to fill us in on what’s keeping her busy these days.
Q: Were you surprised by the popularity of Ice Road Truckers?
A: Yes. Every year we shot it I thought it was the last year, but it just kept going and going, so I thought, well, all right, as long as it’s going, I’ll do it.
Q: How were you selected to be on the show?
A: I worked for Carlile Transportation, a trucking company the production crew was working with. They were trying out people within the company, and the boss recommended me. He thought I’d be an interesting character. I know they had to really fight to get a girl on the show, and I ended up doing well, so they’ve let other girls on.
Q: What was it like being the only female driver on the show for awhile? Did it mirror your experiences as a woman in the trucking world in general?
A: As a truck driver, I’m kind of used to being the only girl. So being the only girl on the show was fine. I kind of laid claim to it.
Q: How did things work out when another woman joined the show?
A: It ended up working fine. Maya [Sieber] was the next woman on the show, and I thought for some reason they were trying to replace me, but I ended up really liking her and getting along with her. She had a lot of potential and she was open to learning.
Q: What was season 11 of Ice Road Truckers like for you without Darrell Ward?
A: It was sad. It didn’t really hit me until I went back there and didn’t have my partner. It also put a lot of pressure on me to get things done because Darrell usually took care of a lot of things, like arranging loads and taking loads down really long roads. I could only take one, but he ran a lot harder than me, so he could get there and get back really fast while I might still be sleeping on the side of the road somewhere.
Q: What has happened to the company you and Darrell founded?
A: I got Reno, his son, to help me out. It was really good working with him, too. The first year he was around, he was kind of a young punk kid. And the second time he came around, he had really grown up a lot and was super knowledgeable and a lot nicer. He was fun to work with the second time. The company is purely winter road, so it’s winter-time only.
Q: On IRT: Deadliest Roads, you kept going when some drivers wouldn’t. What do you attribute that to?
A: I don’t know, I just took on the challenge. I thought, I’m here, I might as well do it to the end.
We drove in India, Bolivia and Peru. It was really scary, but really fun, and it challenged me. I thought it was cool that you could see what people in other countries do. So I thought that was more interesting than Ice Roads, personally. India was the first time I’d been out of the country besides going to Canada. I was dropped into the middle of India, thinking ‘holy culture shock.’
Q: The driving must have been very different from what you were used to.
A: It can’t even compare, it was so different. We drive semis here with trailers. We didn’t have that – we just had straight trucks there. But that’s all you could fit on those roads. You wouldn’t want a semi-truck.
Q: Were you given any kind of training?
A: A little bit. They let us practice driving our trucks on a driving course or just around town so we could get used to how they worked. A lot of people didn’t go, but I went every day. I said, ‘I’m going to know everything about these trucks before I hit these deadly roads.’ The trucks are super under-powered, and they’re overloaded all the time. I learned how to put one foot on the clutch and the other foot on the brake and the gas at the same time. You could hold your truck on a hill with your heel, but really rev the engine and then let the brake off. If you let off the brake without doing that, you could slide down the hill.
Q: What’s the status of Ice Road Truckers?
A: I really don’t know. We didn’t shoot this year, but it just kind of slipped through the cracks somehow. It’s not cancelled, so maybe it’ll get done next year.
Q: What have you been doing recently and what’s next for you?
A: I haven’t been doing much trucking. It’s hard to hold down a company job when I’m filming several months out of the year. I fill in for a company when they need some help, and that lets me get back in a truck for awhile. I’ve been playing with my horses a lot, and I’ve been rescuing horses, training them and fixing them. I have six horses now, all different kinds.
Q: What sorts of situations do you rescue horses from?
A: Mostly from people who don’t have the resources to take care of them or figure out the medical problems they have. One horse kept going lame. We had her knee X-rayed, and it has a bone chip. It’s not really worth surgery to take it out, but it causes her to favor that leg and put more weight on the other leg, so it’s the other leg she’s lame in. We give her Adequan shots once a month, and it helps her joints.
Q: Did you work with horses before you started trucking?
A: I had horses growing up, but not when I was starting my career. When my husband and I moved into a place of our own, I really wanted a miniature horse. I figured you could fit a miniature horse in the backyard, but not a full-sized one. So I got a little miniature horse. And then I wanted my old horse back. It’s on the show where I buy my horse Sky back. I got her when she was 6 months old, then sold her and had to find her. She’ll never go anywhere again.
Q: Do you live on a farm now?
A: We ended up buying the duplex where I had the miniature horse and then bought the property around it. There’s only 2 acres here, so it’s kind of gotten out of hand. I built a barn, and then I put a mother-in-law apartment upstairs. And I just extended the barn for two more stalls.
Q: Are you still into dirt bike racing?
A: I haven’t done it in two years, but this past Sunday was my first time back on a dirt bike, so I’m really sore now. It was really fun. I’ve still got my 125(cc), my 250(cc) and my little 110(cc) mini-bike. I met my husband through dirt bikes. We were racing at the same track.
Q: I understand you were in the Diesel Spec booth at MATS this year. How did it go?
A: I really enjoyed working with them. They were casual, and we were just hanging out, talking with people. It was my first time working at a Diesel Spec booth, but Darrell worked with them, so we’ve met before. I talked with Mark Springer and Tamera Sturgis from Shipping Wars. I also saw Reno Ward. It’s fun that you can go to these events and meet up with your friends and make new friends.
Q: Have you been going to a lot of trade shows?
A: I did last year. Not so much this year. I’ve been doing a lot of trade shows in England, Scotland and Ireland. I did eight or nine last year. I was only home two weeks each month last summer.
Q: Is the show really popular in Great Britain?
A: It seems like the Brits really like their TV shows. When I first started going to trade shows there, I would ask people, ‘How long have you been standing in line?’ And they would say, ‘three hours.’ Over the last few years, it’s kind of quieted down. I still get the regulars who come to every show, and I get to know them by name. It’s really fun to get to know fans.
Q: Have you used Diesel Spec’s ECM tuning product?
A: No, I have not because I’ve never had my own truck. I’ve always driven a company truck. I really want to get an old junker semi-truck, let Diesel Spec beef it up and then race it around the track. There are a couple guys and me who do half-time races at the local dirt track. It’s small, but we also have a drag strip here.
I’ve heard good things about the Diesel Spec product. Especially for owner-operators, it’s all about fuel economy or how much power you can get to pull up a hill. And Diesel Spec helps with both those things.
Q: What are some things fans usually ask you?
A: The most asked question I get is, ‘What happened to the dog from India?’ And the answer is, ‘He went home to Hollywood with my producer.’ There are so many dogs on the street in India, starving, and I felt if I adopted a dog, I would be doing my part. So I rescued a little puppy and kept him in the truck almost the whole season. I couldn’t take him home because I was in an apartment situation, but my producer fell in love with him.
I saved another dog in Peru, but that wasn’t featured on the show because I got her on the last run. We had her for four years, and she passed away two years ago. I also rescued a cat in Canada, and he lives here and is really cool.
Q: Are a lot of your fans women?
A: Yes. Last year I went to Love’s Travel Stops as part of a tour, and a lot of women came up to me who were either inspired to become truck drivers or were already drivers and said, ‘Thank you for making women look good in the industry.’ That’s pretty cool. Some guys do that, too.
There’s a quote – aspire to inspire before you expire – and I love that quote. One guy wrote a letter and said he was contemplating suicide when he saw me driving in India on TV. I had come to a corner, and it was just too much – it was uphill, and there was a bus coming down, and I stopped in the middle of the road and was going to quit – but I got it together and went up the hill. And he said, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’ and kept living. If I can change one person’s life like that, every hard thing, every dangerous situation, every heartache was worth it.