Bus Roadeos let drivers show their style

When most people hear "rodeo," they think of calf-roping, angry bulls and bucking broncos. When motor-coach people hear the word, they think of something else: drivers maneuvering 45-foot coaches through serpentine cones, "diminishing clearance" maneuvers and stopping challenges, all for the glory of a trophy or title.

Associations all over the country hold roadeos, as do transit organizations. They range from serious competitions to those that are more casual. Both tend to be organized along similar lines: manufacturers, like MCI, provide a coach that drivers then put through a series of competitive maneuvers under controlled parking lot situations with instructors on board. Competitions often conform to the American Bus Association "Roadeo Ops Manual," which outlines various maneuvers, how to set them up and how to score them. Scored moves include parallel parking, a serpentine, the offset alley, various turns, backing and making the stop line.

Bringing people together

Mike Howard, an MCI sales representative who's been involved with many a roadeo, says the competitions are a great way to encourage camaraderie at associations. "It's the one event that everyone can participate in," says Howard. "Instead of just having owners and managers at the meetings, the roadeos bring drivers too. It's fun."

Paul Downes, general manager of RAZ Transportation, a Coach America company in Portland, Oregon, and past president of the Northwest Motorcoach Association, has presided over several of that association's roadeos, which are considered prestige events. All conform to the ABA Ops Manual. "Drivers take genuine pride in the roadeos, and they take it very seriously," says Downes. "It's what they do every day, and they really get into it. It's the highlight of our annual fall meeting." In addition to taking home a perennial trophy that the operator can display for the year, drivers who come in first, second and third win cash prizes.

Trophy drives

Brent Miller, 45, a driver from A&A Motorcoach in Yakima, Washington, won the most recent Northwest competition — quite a feat, considering he's only been driving coaches since 2007 and was driving a coach unfamiliar to him. He walked into the competition not knowing what to expect. "I didn't know what it was all about — the owner of our company sent me and just told me to go have fun," says Miller, who has always wanted to be a coach driver because he loves to be around people. "I'm a perfectionist. I felt like I had to do my best, but I didn't go intending to win. They picked my name out of a hat to drive first, so I just went through and did the best I could. After lunch, they announced my name as first-place. I don't think I've been that shocked in a long time."

Miller thinks part of the value in having won the contest is putting passengers at ease on bad-weather days. "Even today, I was out with a smaller group, and the roads were questionable. In situations like that, I may mention the award because it helps passengers relax."

Seeing past the cones

Miller also appreciated the day of training and testing provided by the Northwest Motorcoach Association as part of the roadeo competition. "We bring in various safety trainers and put together a curriculum," says Downes, who notes that training has included seminars on the Smith System, pre-trip inspections, winter driving, dealing with roadside failures and more. Downes says it's all part of the association's mission.

"We have a lot of smaller operators," says Downes. "You have to deliver something of value to your membership, and we decided education was something we could deliver. It's all about service."

Driving on the light

Not all roadeos are entirely serious. Bob Graf, director of customer solutions for MCI's western region as well as board member and former vice president of the the California Bus Association, has participated in many of that association's  Dennis Easley Bus Roadeos. Unlike many competitions, the CBA's Roadeo includes room for a little entertainment. Because it's open to non-drivers, it's popular with managers, office workers and anyone else who wants to get in on the fun as well as with the professional drivers who want to prove their prowess.

"It's a group effort — everyone participates," says Graf. "What makes a good roadeo is the participation. You set it up so that it's good natured and there's fun involved. It tests your skills, but it's not a high-pressure situation."

The CBA roadeo culminates in a dinner with awards — including some silly awards which, says Graf, may be awarded to persons who "should never drive a bus." Still, says Graf, most of the competitors are indeed drivers, and they get proper recognition for their considerable roadeo skills.

MCI's Mike Howard thinks that more associations should consider hosting roadeos. "It's a great way to improve attendance, and they serve multiple purposes. Every association should consider hosting a quality roadeo."

Many agree that honing drivers' skills through the types of skills emphasized at roadeos can be beneficial. Just ask Paul Feasel of Bliss Charters, who was recently awarded the Golden Safety Award from Lancer Insurance. Though the Ohio operator does not participate in roadeos, it does put its drivers through the kinds of paces roadeos require, including serpentines, parallel parking and more, all done with an instructor onboard.

Bliss uses the Smith System of driver training, going so far as to sending one of its own drivers to become a Smith-certified instructor. But Bliss goes Smith one better — it makes all drivers take the Smith course every year. "The Smith System of defensive driving is a two-year certification, but we find that drivers start to slip after 13 months or so, so we've made some modifications," says Feasel.

Not just for associations

Downes is so positive about the roadeo experience, and the camaraderie it creates, that he's considering starting a RAZ Roadeo.

"We have a very active safety culture here," says Downes, who envisions a roadeo that includes a barbecue and other social activtiies. "Our drivers are out there every day, paying attention to what they're doing. It's great to get them off the street now and then. It could be a great team-building experience."

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