This School Moves You From Big Rigs To Celebrity Gigs

In his 23 years as president of tour bus enterprise Nitetrain Coach, Chip Huffman averaged 20 calls per month from truck drivers, tractor-trailer drivers and bus drivers inquiring about driving entertainer coaches for celebrities.

"My answer to them was always that my company and every company I know of in the industry requires at least two years' [experience]," Huffman says. "Of course, the second question was always, 'How do you get that experience?' For 23 years, there was never an answer for that."

Not so anymore. Huffman teamed up with former Country Music Assn. head Tandy Rice in 2009 to launch Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy, a hands-on course that teaches seasoned drivers how to helm the wheel for artists. The program recruits drivers with five years' driving experience and offers $1,000 three-day training sessions specifically for music tour-bus drivers.

The first of the academy's semiannual classes kicked off last June and features specialists in how to deal with the physical nuances of an entertainment bus, including electrical systems, Internet setups and overall repairs. Along with the basics of the business, revolving panels of veteran drivers and tour managers provide insight into the transition from the usually solo experience of driving an 18-wheeler to becoming part of an entertainer's extended road family-without becoming too star-struck along the way.

"You don't get to necessarily hang out with [the artists]," says Michael Brame, 57. He participated in the academy's inaugural class and, since completing the course, has spent time on the road with B.o.B, Salt-N-Pepa and BlackHawk. "Sometimes you get to go to shows or . . . eat a meal with them. I just want to deliver them as safe as I can, and do it again tomorrow."

Instead of operating the Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy out of a centralized office, Huffman and Rice run the class out of the Nashville headquarters of Prevost, the Quebec-based motorcoach manufacturer that signed on as a sponsor last spring. Prevost also provides "shells" of entertainment coaches for the students to train with and technicians to assist in the interactive sessions.

Rice says the academy has already received a number of applications for its upcoming course, although he and Huffman aren't currently looking to expand past 15-20 students per session. That way, the co-founders can continue personally helping participants find driving employment after completing the academy by recommending them to touring managers as driving assistants.

The academy's goal is simple: set an education precedent for the chauffeurs of major tours. "Anybody who is putting together a tour," Rice says, "would be remiss if they didn't have a graduate of our academy ready to go out with them."

••••The Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy's next session begins April 20. For more information, go to huffman-rice.com/driver-school.