Nate Berg

The olympics of bus driving draws stiff competition, and plenty of devoted fans.

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Excitement is in the air, like the heat rising up from the asphalt of this hotel parking lot where a couple hundred men and women have gathered, traveling from all over North America, to compete in what is likely the most vaunted event in all of public transportation: the 2012 International Bus Roadeo – or more colloquially, the bus olympics.

It's an event that celebrates what may seem the most basic of duties. And yet it's a duty that so viscerally determines the circulation and heartbeat of nearly every city. Bus drivers are surely taken for granted, but they literally make our cities move. And for at least these few days, before the eyes of hundreds of family members, colleagues and, yes, even fans, bus drivers are placed under the spotlight simply to do what they do: drive the bus.

The bus olympics are, in many ways, similar to the real Olympics. For a causal observer, the two events share competitors and competitions that are both relatively obscure, and passions that can be hard to understand. But to those involved – the bus drivers who rack up millions of miles of safe driving to qualify for the event, or the bus mechanic who can read a stalled Cummins/Voith power train like a bedtime story – the Bus Roadeo is the ultimate test of skills and chance for honor. For this year's winning drivers, Arthur Murillo of Austin, Texas, and Ramon Farfan of Jacksonville, Florida, the championship rings they were awarded earlier this week are icons of their irrevocable ascent into the upper echelon of public transit officials. For those not on the winner's podium, the dream of the ring will keep fueling the fires of desire as these drivers steer themselves toward greatness – maybe near, maybe distant – but straight ahead on the horizon.

Part of the American Public Transportation Association's annual Bus and Paratransit Conference, held recently at the Long Beach Convention Center, the event is divided into three separate competitions: one for bus maintenance crews who are tested on their abilities to identify and fix mechanical problems; one a situational test of drivers' abilities to deal with unpleasant or strange bus passengers; and the main event, the driving competition. Drivers climb their way up through a series of local and regional qualifying events to get here, where they operate their way through an obstacle course of tight turns and precision passenger pick-ups.

This is the global stage for bus drivers. High school football-style bleachers and a crowd overlook the course of cones and makeshift bus stops spread out over a few acres of parking lot. Loudspeakers call out the names of drivers and their transit agencies as they head into the course, their first obstacle a sharp right turn.

Down on the asphalt, drivers line the barricades to get a close look at their fellow competitors' maneuverings, critiquing and sometimes marveling at the speed and care with which drivers back their 35 and 40+ footers down a narrow alley of cones or take tight approaches to curbside passenger pickups.

The crowd and driving course at the 2012 International Bus Roadeo, May 6, in Long Beach, California.

"To make it here is like making it to the NBA finals," says Carl Haymore, a driver from the Chicago Transit Authority. It's his second trip to the Bus Roadeo, and he's keeping an eye on drivers as they careen around that first turn. He says he stayed up in his hotel room the night before studying the route. He thinks his run earlier in the day went all right, but knows that the competition here is tough. "You can’t miss a beat."

Farther down the course edge, a handful of uniformed drivers are quickly following a competitor as he approaches one of the event's more complicated elements, a series of offset curves that requires drivers to carefully zig-zag the massive length of the bus. The observing drivers bob back and forth to see each side of the bus narrowly miss the cones as it winds its way through.

"He has great time, my goodness," says Lonny Earnhardt, a driver from the Charlotte Area Transit System. "That boy can drive."

Earnhardt should know. He's got 35 years of bus driving experience and is a repeat state champion back in North Carolina. Even so, he says he still learns from his colleagues here, and has been impressed with the quality of competitors this year. The two drivers he identified as doing especially well ended up finishing in the top five.

Of the nearly 75 drivers here, only a few are women. One of them is Robin Wilson, a first-timer from Houston's First Transit. "We're learning a lot from the guys," Wilson says, "but they gotta watch out for us."

The women finished mostly in the middle of the pack in both the 40-foot and 35-foot competitions.

Away from the bus course, more than 30 teams of mechanics and maintenance workers file through a series of tents to test their maintenance abilities. They've got seven to ten minutes at each station to diagnose or even repair problems on various bus components, from engine systems to air conditioners. Charles Rodman is running one of these tests. He's a sales manager for Thermo King, one of the main bus air conditioner manufacturers. Six defects are planted on the system and teams have seven minutes to find them all. One is as innocuous as a single unplugged wire. Only one team got a perfect score.

It's all a bit of a whirlwind for the maintenance guys. Juan Mendoza is behind the wheel of a test bus where 14 defects have been planted. He and his Houston-based team have seven minutes to mend them, and they're frantically running around, looking under the hood, checking tail lights and blinkers. He wipes the sweat off his forehead after the time runs out. "I got a little worried we didn't find enough stuff," Mendoza says. "But I think we did all right."

Public transportation is just as much about the public as it is the transportation. This is the sixth year that the customer has been brought into the competition. Through the Customer Service Challenge, bus operators must confront the wildcard that is the bus rider. On a stage in a convention center ballroom, a series of drivers sits in a fake bus interior and undergoes three scenarios of patience-testing customer interactions with a bus full of role-players, all in front of an audience.

One scenario features a surfer dude who's distracting the driver with questions about whether there are any good waves. Another has a rider cut through a line of passengers waiting to pay. One particularly far-out example has a man dressed in full pirate regalia attempting to board the bus with a sword and musket.

Operator Carl Haymore of the Chicago Transit Authority is surprised during the Customer Service Challenge when an armed and unstable pirate boards his bus during one of the role-playing scenarios.

The drivers deal with these situations about as effectively as they can in the minute or so that have to tackle each one, but overall it's more of an entertainment than a test. The crowd – mostly other drivers and transit officials – eats it up.

Operator Frank Gonzales of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, participates in the Customer Service Challenge.

Tony Mason, a transit enthusiast from L.A., says he's attended at least four previous Bus Roadeos, as well as some of the regional and local competitions in Southern California. The dozens of bus- and transit-related pins on his vest evidence a deep enthusiasm for public transportation, especially for someone who's never driven a bus. It's the clean sort of addiction that gives Mason a keen eye to the competition here, which he says is among the best. I ask him what makes a great driver. "You can tell just by looking at them," Mason says.

He can't put his finger on exactly how he knows. But like many of the drivers and mechanics here, experience and passion surely factor into it.

Photo and video credits: Nate Berg

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