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In The News
NNPS bus drivers practice skills and have fun at 'Road-e-o'
(May 19, 2009) - For folks who almost always are behind the wheel, they’re a driven bunch. When it comes to piloting oversized vehicles around a course that tests their skills and nerve, Newport News Public Schools bus drivers get the job done.
Marshal Jackson, pupil trans- portation operations supervisor, warmed up the crowd as emcee and disc jockey.
Recently, 70 of the system’s approximately 375 drivers competed in a school bus Road-e-o behind Todd Stadium. The weather was sunny and hot April 25, when the final 20 drivers took to the course. Marshal Jackson, pupil transportation operations supervisor, warmed up the crowd as emcee and disc jockey.
Upbeat music blared from loudspeakers as judges took their positions and a few spectators jockeyed for vantage points in the shade of the grandstand. Jackson introduced the first competitor with the sound of revving engines and squealing tires over the loudspeakers. And, they were off – slowly – a yellow mammoth making its way along a balance beam, pirouetting into a snug slot, then tiptoeing between lines of tennis balls.
Leon Baker, a four-year veteran, was the first driver. Baker was rookie of the year in 2006-07 and has finished second in the Road-e-o twice. He knocked over a cone in the offset alley, but still thought he might have placed. Baker knew how many points were deducted for the various infractions and calculated his turns and maneuvers accordingly. He wasn’t alone.
When Debra Cooper took the wheel, the other drivers paid attention. Cooper was the defending champion, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. As each driver’s number was called, Jackson provided a mini-biography – years of experience as a bus driver, number of grandchildren, the school they called home – and sent them off with a joke.
The Road-e-o was preceded by two written tests, in which a driver could amass a maximum of 200 points. The driving contest, which some drivers had completed previously, was worth 410 points. Drivers competed in two divisions: the conventional division, in a bus whose engine stuck out in front; or transit, a flat-fronted bus. Both types hold 78 passengers.
Bus drivers were required to manuever a course marked by traffic cones and tennis balls.
There were nine behind-the-wheel stations, each testing a particular skill: parallel parking, a railroad crossing, diminishing clearance, right turn, backing up, straight line, stop line, student pickup, and offset alley: a short straight stretch followed by a diagonal turn and another immediate straight stretch. In each event, there were specific point deductions for grazing or crushing traffic cones, stops and starts, or failure to follow procedures. When a driver bumped a traffic cone, the spectators nudged one another. When a cone was crushed beneath a wheel, they winced and grimaced.
Clarence Jones Jr. drives a bus for Hampton schools but is about to become a trainer for that division after 11 years behind the wheel. Since it could give him an unfair advantage, he competed in the Newport News contest. Jones said he has driven in the Road-e-o about 10 times, and won second place in the regional contest. He has been to the state championships – which will be held in Roanoke this year, on June 23 – twice. He said the two events he found hardest were backing up into a narrow alley and parallel parking. "You’ve got to park that bus with 18 inches in front and 18 inches in back. But, I think I did pretty well. I’m hopeful."
At halftime, only one driver had made it through the backing-up station without any point deductions. Jackson announced a break, while the conventional buses were traded for transit buses. Some of the judges – one of them talking on her cell phone – got together for an impromptu line dance.
Contestant No. 40 was getting ready to go. Dorothy Marie Young started driving for Hampton schools in 1985 and moved to Newport News schools in 1997. It’s her second or third Road-e-o, she says. "I’m nervous. You know how you get the jitters." She wasn’t happy with her run and resolved to practice and study the point values before the next competition.
Road-e-o champion Debra Cooper
The contest was winding down when Diana Abrams asked if it was too late to take a turn around the course. Tournament director Linda Hamilton gave her a contestant number, and Jackson got a green index card with biographical information. Abrams had been driving a bus for only three weeks. Jackson sent her off with the opening line of "Shut Up and Drive," by Rihanna: "I’ve been looking for a driver who is qualified… ." Abrams made it through offset alley perfectly. The veteran drivers moved a little closer to the course, their eyes narrowing. When she creamed a cone during the backing-up station, they relaxed, and headed for the hamburgers and hot dogs beneath the grandstand. They didn’t need to worry about her – yet.
When the points were totaled, Cooper repeated as champion in the conventional division. Baker did place. He was second, and Jessica Miller third. In the transit division, Jeff Long won, followed by Barbara K. Smith in second and William Turner in third. All six drivers are eligible to compete in the regionals, with the winners advancing to the state competition. Each winning driver will receive a trophy and a saving bond.
— Marguerite Hargreaves
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