It takes real preparation and some serious safety skills to make it to the National Truck Driving Championships. This year, two of XPO’s drivers took very different paths to the trucking competition – but they share a similar love of excellence.
It’s known among drivers as the Superbowl of Safety. The National Truck Driving Championships are a staple of the industry, an annual test of the knowledge, safety awareness and driving skills of America’s best truckers. Thousands compete at qualifying events across the country, but only drivers who take first place in each of eight divisions at state competitions get to move on to Nationals.
This year’s championship in Columbus, Ohio hosted over 400 of the country’s most accomplished drivers, with 27 from XPO making the cut. Some, like Pennsylvania driver Bob Dolan, have competed for decades. Others, such as Louisiana’s Damien Hebert, participated for the first time this year.
Bob’s and Damien’s careers followed very different routes, but the NTDC veteran and rookie have a lot in common.
The 12-Year Rookie
Damien Hebert, 35, has spent his whole driving career with our LTL operation. “Twelve years this August,” he says, remembering his job interview back in 2006. “I was just out of school and didn’t have any experience. It came down to me and one other guy, but I was persistent. I really wanted the job.”
Part of the interview involved a driving test, and because Damien was new to the industry, the manager let him get a feel for the equipment. “He thought I’d be out there for 10 or 15 minutes,” Damien recalls. “An hour later, he came to check on me. There I was, drenched in sweat because there was no AC in the test truck, bumping the dock and practicing different maneuvers. My determination almost got me the job on the spot.”
It might seem strange to think of Damien as a rookie, but the NTDC is a unique challenge. Many drivers work for years to make it to the national level, and the ones who manage it consistently are revered. It took Damien six qualifying attempts, but this past March he finally took first place in the Twins class in Louisiana, pulling two daisy-chained, 28-foot trailers all the way to a spot at Nationals.
Even Legends Practice
At 60, Bob Dolan has achieved just about everything possible as a professional trucker. He’s served on Pennsylvania’s Road Team, travelling around the country as an industry ambassador, and has taken six different first-place wins in various divisions at the Nationals – including the ultimate prize of Grand Champion in 1990.
This year marked the fourteenth time Bob competed at the NTDC since he first qualified in 1988. It’s a remarkable level of consistency that he says is entirely due to preparation. “The competitors that are called up on stage every year, the ones whose names you’ll recognize? They do their homework.”
The competition is divided into three parts: a practical test of driving skills; a pre-trip test, where competitors have 10 minutes to complete a truck safety check; and a 40-question written exam. Both Bob and Damien start practicing in March. Damien fits in practices between his daughters’ sports and gymnastics sessions, and he has to move quickly: “Louisiana is the first state to compete. Our trucking rodeo is usually the last weekend of March. I spend the whole month juggling practice time, study time and family time when I’m not driving.”
The 27 XPO drivers who went to the NTDC finals this year competed for different reasons. For some, it was the thrill of the contest; for others, the annual competition is a chance to travel and meet up with old friends. Now that he has a top 10 finish under his belt, Damien is eager to return in 2019. “I can’t rest on my laurels. I need to practice! My favorite part was being around greatness; being able to shake the hands of those drivers, look them in the eye, and know that while I may not be their equal yet, I’m striving to be better.”
For his part, Bob loves being able to reignite friendships and follow up with his buddies from across the industry, but that’s not why he competes each year. “It’s my job,” he explains. “After my first competition, I was more secure in my truck, more relaxed in close quarters. You may not even realize it at the time, but when you practice and compete, you’re learning. You’re getting better, and you’re preventing accidents.”