Photo by Jason Rhee
The Big Apple Circus' Tom Larson manages a fleet that includes 10 Ford F-350 pickups.
Visitors to the famed Big Apple Circus are treated to a one-ring extravaganza of clowns, jugglers, acrobats, trapeze artists and trained animals. Behind the scenes, general manager Tom Larson puts on a juggling act of his own: It takes five days to change locations, and Larson is responsible for safely transporting the performers, crew, animals and equipment.
“There are a lot of tires on the road,” Larson says. He describes the logistics of each move as “organized chaos,” noting, for instance, that the last rigs to pull out — the trailers carrying the tents — are the first he needs at the next stop.
Planning the Move
The Big Apple fleet consists of 10 Ford F-350s, four Ford E-Series vans, a Jeep and four semi tractors: three Macks and a Western Star. The company also has 38 semi-trailers that carry show equipment and house offices, bunkhouses and a fully-equipped maintenance shop.
There was a time, Larson says, when he could call a trucking company and ask for 30 tractors to tow those trailers, allowing him to complete each move in a single day. But the current economic climate, the diminishing ranks of Class-A commercial drivers and Department of Transportation (DOT) rules have forced the circus to adopt a new strategy.
Today, the moves are made in waves. Several groups of drivers take the wheel over the course of a few days, with legally required breaks in between. “This has caused us to rethink our trucking scheduling,” Larson says. “It affects everything we do, from dismantling and loading trucks to the way they’re received at the other end. It takes us a lot longer to move our show.”
The Big Apple Circus is in an unusual position when it comes to fleet: It has a wide variety of transportation needs, yet they happen in a very short window and, for the major hauls, only six times a year. In fact, the circus fleet only puts about 3,000 total miles per year on the big rigs and not many more on the smaller trucks, which also perform in-town chores.
That means no one is “just a driver;” they all have other full-time jobs within the circus. Larson and other staff members maintain their own Class-A licenses while performing other duties such as lighting, sound, rigging, carpentry, maintenance and more.
“We are a performing arts organization, yet in the eyes of the DOT, we are a trucking company,” Larson says. Tractor-trailer drivers must pass criminal background checks and a biannual physical, and Larson has to keep abreast of ever-changing state and federal regulations. In December, the DOT reduced a truck driver’s allowed work week to 70 hours. But chief among these driver rules is mandated rest periods —
a model Larson must also follow for pickup and van drivers, as dictated by New York state law.
“We don’t [assign] someone who did two shows on closing day and then worked all night tearing down the bleachers,” he says. “We’re not going to let that person drive a truck until they get the rest they need to drive safely.” Those drivers must keep hours-of-duty logs, even during the long breaks between show moves.