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No bull: A rodeo for school bus drivers to test their skills

No bull: A rodeo for school bus drivers to test their skills
Victor Garza, right, a Delegated Behind the Wheel Trainer, directs trainee Steve Larson throughlocal neighborhoods near South Coast Plaza on Aug.19. Garza represented California in the 45th annual School Bus Driver International Safety Competition and took first place in the transit category. (Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

Parallel parking, avoiding sharp turns and backing into a stall are hard enough in an average vehicle. But members of the Newport-Mesa Roadeo Team do this regularly in a 40-foot school bus — for some, it's a prize-worthy skill.

For more than 20 years, employees of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's Transportation Department have competed as a team in school bus safety "roadeos," tournaments held throughout the state that test the skills of California's certified bus drivers.

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Contestants must take their school bus through obstacle courses and complete written exams on the vehicle's rules and safety regulations.

The competitions are held by chapters of the California Assn. of School Transportation Officials.

The Newport-Mesa district's Safety and Training Supervisor Norm Turner and Delegated Behind the Wheel Trainer Victor Garza have spent the last several years recruiting employees for the team of volunteers.

The team this year, including coaches Turner and Garza, consisted of bus drivers Jose Hernandez, Hope Nguyen, Noe Ocha-Rodriguez, Alfredo Salgado, Ricardo Sandoval, Juliann Scheafer, Cheryl Selph, Marilyn Thompson and Jackie Williams.

Since March, the bus drivers have journeyed on their own time to eight tournaments in Bakersfield, Cabazon, Galt, Gardena, Phelan, Placentia, San Diego County and San Mateo County.

Their mode of transportation? None other than their own trusty district school buses.

"There was a lot of driving," Garza told Times Community News. "But hey, that's what we do."

The team holds fundraisers to cover certain expenses during its travels.

The district's Transportation Director Pete Meslin approves the drivers to take the buses on these trips.

Each roadeo has seven events for the obstacle course portion. These include making right and left turns while landing the front and back wheels directly on top of rectangles marked on the ground. If the wheels land more than two inches from the rectangle's lines, the driver will loses points.

Other events involve maneuvering the bus through an "offset alley," which are sets of gates that create a jagged path, without touching the flags on the gates, and parallel parking into a 46-foot space.

The events present an even bigger challenge by giving the drivers time limits and strict rules on stopping.

"For some events, you can't stop once you've started moving," Turner said. "The judges will look at the lug nuts [on the wheels] to make sure you're not stopping. You'll lose points if you do."

Garza, who has competed in roadeos for four years now, and Turner, who has also competed for more than a decade, trained their drivers in the bus yard outside the district's Transportation Department. They ran practices after school and on Saturdays.

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"I took one driver out into the yard and we practiced until it was dark out," Turner said with a laugh. "He told me, 'If they ever have a roadeo in the dark, we're going to win because we've been out here so long.'"

Although competing with the team is voluntary for the district's drivers, the coaches encouraged participation as an opportunity to improve their driving skills.

"The places you're most likely to get in an accident is on a field trip because it'll be a place you've never taken the bus before," Turner said. "But I felt like I knew exactly what to do in those situations because of the roadeo."

The season has been a successful one and included a first-place title at the state and international tournaments.

Drivers also took home honors, such as first place in both the professional category and the teams category at the Phelan Roadeo in April, and trophies from the Orange County Roadeo in Placentia in March.

In May, Garza took first place at the State Championship Roadeo in Galt, earning him a spot at the 45th annual School Bus Driver International Safety Competition held in Minneapolis last July. He opted to travel there by plane.

The tournament, organized by the National School Transportation Assn., invited about 80 drivers from across the United States and Canada. After completing a 50-question exam on bus regulations and maneuvering a school bus through a 10-event road course, Garza took home first place in the transit category.

"You're not going to make millions of dollars being a bus driver," Garza said," but you can definitely take pride in what you do."

Alexandra Chan writes for Times Community News.

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