10 drivers do battle at Bus Roadeo

A driver starts his turn during the Gainesville Regional Transit System's 15th annual Bus Rodeo on Saturday, March 2, 2013 in Gainesville, Fla. The competition is designed to test and showcase the skills of transit operators and mechanics. Contestants were scored on their ability to park, drive and inspect the bus.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:54 p.m.

The 40,000-pound, dual-tired automotive behemoths, 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, maneuvered around orange cones and between ever narrowing tennis balls and metal barrels.

Many of the buses, their drivers not allowed to practice beforehand, dragged cones underneath their front bumpers or by their undercarriage.

It is normal to hit a few cones and no driver has ever made a perfect run, said Jesus Gomez, director of Gainesville’s Regional Transit System.

“The course is really tight,” he said.

Nonetheless, Andrew Berney, the event’s DJ and an RTS driver for more than 30 years, joked at the drivers’ expense.

“It’s been a tough day for the cones,” he said right before playing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

The 15th annual RTS Bus Roadeo was held on Saturday at the Gainesville Regional Airport’s driving pad. The event, which is modeled after the American Public Transportation Association’s International Bus Roadeo, gave RTS bus drivers an opportunity to show off their abilities by testing their skills.

For the past four years, Gary Sauls has won the competition, but this year he was disqualified.

While he regrets not being able to compete this year, he said he hopes to qualify for next year’s competition.

“I love competition like this,” he said. “I love a challenge.”

Ten drivers competed in the event, which attracted about 100 spectators — mostly coworkers, friends and family.

In order to compete, RTS bus drivers had to qualify based on their safety, disciplinary, attendance, and accident or incident records, Gomez said.

Before the competition began, drivers had to inspect their buses for equipment-related defects, which were planted by organizers. Such defects can be hard to find, Gomez said, and can include broken, loose or missing equipment.

The course included 11 challenges that began with a serpentine obstacle, which had drivers swerving back and forth around cones. Gomez said this is probably the most difficult of the obstacles.

Other obstacles included a series of sharp 90-degree turns, reverse maneuvers, dual clearance maneuvers — in which obstacles become increasingly narrow as the driver passes through them — and simulated bus stops.

The course ended with a short stop, which required the bus to be going 20 miles per hour at a minimum before stopping within 6 inches of the cone.

Drivers could accummulate a total of 800 points — 700 for the driving competition and 50 points each for the personal inspection and bus inspection. Points were deducted for numerous reasons, including touching a cone, reversing when not a part of an obstacle or going over the seven-minute time limit.

Drivers were also judged on safety factors, such as posture and use of the vehicle’s mirrors, and smoothness of operation, such as making sudden stops and starts or abrupt turns.

Speed is less of a factor than maneuverability, Sauls said. And even though the order of the obstacles changes every year, previous experience can be beneficial.

“The more you do it, the more advantage you kind of get,” he said.

In the end, Gomez said, the event is for the employees who want to bring their families and show them what they do on a regular basis. And while drivers often get nervous while competing, the competition is laid back in nature and for bragging rights, he said.

“They have fun … more than they stress,” he said. “When they go to the state competition, it goes to the more professional level and competing that way.”

Antonio Cruz took first place with 525 points and will go on to represent RTS at the State Roadeo in Jacksonville later this month. Cruz, who has been an RTS bus driver for 16 years and was favored by his peers to win, won the competition once before in 2003 and has won second and third place multiple times since.

Dennis Underwood took second place with 433 points, and Charles “C.D.” Hendrix took third with 425 points.

Cruz chalked his win up to the fact that many people who have competed regularly over the years did not compete this year.

After years of being deterred by the stress that accompanies winning first place and going to the state competition, this year he just tried to relax, he said.

“I pray(ed) and I said ‘I have to break the cycle that I put myself in,’ ” he said. “And I came with that belief.”

His daughter Natanya was excited to see her father win.

“I’m proud,” she said. “I can actually remember it now and say that I’ve seen him win, because I was really little when he won (before).”

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