Jose Hernandez spent time last weekend driving, making left turns and right turns and parallel parking. And he earned a medal for it.
Hernandez and five other bus drivers from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District rolled out Saturday morning to the Orange County School Bus Roadeo, where they tested their maneuvering skills and knowledge against more than 40 other competitors.
The event, held at the Garden Grove Unified School District headquarters, hosted drivers from eight school districts between Los Angeles and San Diego.
For more than two decades, employees of Newport-Mesa's Transportation Department have participated in school bus safety "roadeos," where certified drivers take a school bus through obstacle courses and complete written exams on vehicle safety.
The Newport-Mesa group took the first-place team award Saturday. Five members snatched distinctions of their own — Hernandez, a second-place individual award; Ricardo Sandoval, third-place individual; Juliann Scheafer, fourth-place individual; Manny Santos, highest written test score, and Jason Greenberg, a Best Student Load award in an event where drivers simulate picking up children from a bus stop.
The Newport-Mesa team spent weeks preparing for the competition, using lunch breaks to practice bus maneuvers in the district's lot and to study vehicle codes and safety handbooks.
"I know from experience that this helps you be a better driver," said Scheafer, who did her first roadeo two years ago. "You're tested on knowledge and skills that aren't easy to learn, and you have judges watching."
All contenders Saturday went through seven driving events, which included making a left turn and right turn, moving through a jagged path without touching any flags planted along the way, backing up into a stall and parallel parking — all in a 40-foot-long bus.
If the vehicle's size weren't enough of a challenge, drivers also are given time limits and aren't allowed to stop once they've started some events.
Hernandez said the roadeo presents more than just tasks in a tournament — it reflects what some drivers face every day.
"Part of our district goes up to Newport Coast, a gated community where there's traffic, a security gate and people who do groundskeeping," Hernandez said. "You have to figure out how to maneuver between the cars and people. Drivers go out there and face some tight situations. But the roadeo can really help you with that."