Bus drivers compete for ‘roadeo’ glory

DART bus driver Cesar Chavez won the 40-foot category of Iowa’s Bus Roadeo in 2019 and placed 25th out of 79 in the international competition. Photo: Duane Tinkey

Writer: Anthony Taylor

The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. The drama of competition. Welcome to the International Bus Roadeo.

The event’s long and proud history dates back to 1937, in the depths of the Great Depression, when a loose conglomeration of truckers, teamsters and mechanics decided to compete in a series of mechanical and driving stunts to see who could handle their rigs the best. By the 1940s, the event had evolved into its current format with a series of timed challenges, each more difficult than the last.

The early roadeos were dominated by truck drivers, but in the 1970s, the idea caught on with city bus drivers, too. The American Public Transit Association hosted its first round of regional competitions in 1982.

These days, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) and its counterparts across North America host local events to determine who rules the roads. Local winners move on to state or provincial competitions and then to the granddaddy of them all, the International Bus Roadeo.

The competitions include mechanics and technicians as well as drivers of “big” and “small” buses alike, who have to meet several criteria to participate. They have to have a squeaky-clean driving record for the previous year, without any tickets or accidents (their fault or not). They can’t have too many rider complaints, either, since customer service is another piece of the roadeo glory.

Although many of us take it for granted, piloting a multi-ton bus through city traffic is as much an art as a skill. The best drivers develop an innate feel for the rumbling machine and a sense of spatial awareness to navigate tight turns, multiple stops and pinpoint parking, all without sending riders tumbling up and down the aisle.

It’s an impressive skill set. Just ask any of the amateurs that have tried their hand in the annual DART event. “Driving a bus through the roadeo course was both thrilling and terrifying all at the same time,” DART Commission Chair and West Des Moines Mayor Russ Trimble said. “I have so much respect for DART bus operators and the skill it takes to safely maneuver a 40-foot bus.”

Drivers from cities and towns from across Iowa compete in the annual state roadeo, but the competition often comes down to two cities: Ames and Des Moines.

For years, Ames has been represented by superstar CyRide driver Paul Klimesh, who finished 10th in the international event in 2010, earning 534 out of a possible 700 points across the whole course. Three years later, he won the whole dang thing, pulling ahead of 49 other drivers along the way.

Here in the capital, DART has a deep bench of skilled drivers. The strongest competitor may be Cesar Chavez, an affable, easygoing driver who won the state contest’s 40-foot category in 2019 and then placed 25th out of 78 at the international event. He returned last year with similar results and hoped for a strong showing at this year’s international event in late April in Portland, Oregon.

“There’s a little bit of stress, because you’re competing against professional drivers from all over the country,” Chavez said. “You always want to do well, but it’s a great experience just to be there.”

Of course, it’s not just about the thrill of competition and bragging rights. The roadeos are a point of pride for the drivers, technicians and their families, and the events offer a rare chance to gather and celebrate their difficult, day-to-day work.

The events have practical applications, too. The DART roadeo’s emphasis on technical and customer-service skills has contributed to a 45% decrease in accidents among first-year drivers, according to DART officials. That not only promotes safety but it lowers costs, which helps DART offer an affordable way to get around town.

But we’re not here for a civics lesson, we’re here to watch some route rangers put the hammer down and give ’em hell. And to that end, Chavez has his eyes on the prize — and the road.

“This will be my third year going to nationals,” he said. “I want to finish in the top three.”

Rule of the roadeo

So what does a bus roadeo actually look like? Here’s the lowdown, courtesy of the American Public Transportation Association’s “International Bus Roadeo Handbook.”

Drivers begin the competition in their full work uniform and are judged on overall appearance.

Each bus is equipped with a tracking device that measures the vehicle’s forces during braking and cornering and tabulates a score for “smoothness of operation.” The device also times each ride.

Each ride starts with a pre-trip inspection, when the driver has eight minutes to spot eight “defects” that were planted by the judges — a loose door, broken bell cord, missing fire extinguisher or even an abandoned briefcase under a seat.

The ride passes through an obstacle course that involves 11 challenges, including precise stops, left and right turns, and reverses. In one challenge, the driver navigates a narrowing V-shaped lane of barrels without dropping below 20 miles per hour. For the final “judgment stop,” the driver has to park within 6 inches of a cone with as few starts and stops as possible.

Drivers get seven minutes to complete the entire course, with deductions for each second they go over.

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