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Not their first Road-eo: County transit drivers put skills to the test in annual competition

Bus drivers test their skills in driving course competition

Transit drivers from Manatee and Sarasota counties went head-to-head in a driving skills competition, the Manatee-Sarasota Transit Bus Road-eo, on Sunday. Transit Operations Chief Jim Egbert shows off part of the course.
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Transit drivers from Manatee and Sarasota counties went head-to-head in a driving skills competition, the Manatee-Sarasota Transit Bus Road-eo, on Sunday. Transit Operations Chief Jim Egbert shows off part of the course.

No back-up cameras, no lane monitoring system and no automatic braking — these bus drivers had to maneuver transit buses through tight quarters using just their mirrors and years of honed driving skills.

Thirteen bus drivers from Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit put their skills to the test Sunday morning in the third-annual Manatee-Sarasota Transit Bus Road-eo driving 35-foot buses through cones while navigating turns and stopping within inches of fixed objects. The first-place transit and para-transit winners from MCAT and SCAT will advance to the Mega Bus Road-eo in Daytona Beach on April 28. That competition will determine the most skilled bus operators in the state.

Bob Della Russo has almost 30 years of experience in the field, between being a driver and a supervisor for Manatee and Sarasota counties. He’s driven the course before — even won the fixed route, which uses the longer buses, twice — but this year he’s on the other side of the competition as a judge.

“It’s a lot of pressure when you’re driving,” Della Russo said. “It’s easier being a judge.”

The back lot of the Manatee County Transit Fleet Facility on Tallevast Road was empty Sunday except for cones, contestants and judges like Della Russo, watching as drivers tried to master the course that included backing through a set of cones. The fixed-route buses went through the course first, followed by the smaller para-transit buses.

The course is made to be challenging, but similar to the scenarios the drivers face daily on the roads, Transit Operations Chief Jim Egbert said.

“If they don’t use their mirrors, if their mirrors aren’t adjusted properly, they’re not going to be able to do it,” Egbert said. “This is what they do every single day. The only difference is, instead of doing it with cones in a parking lot, they’re doing it with other vehicles and people on the streets.”

With sunny weather on their side Sunday morning, drivers worked carefully and quickly through the course of cones, most taking just a few minutes to complete the requirements.

SCAT’s Bob Stutzman, who is now in his third year in the competition, takes a technical and methodical approach to the course. One that seems to work, as last year he took home first place in the fixed route, an improvement on his second-place finish the year before.

“I like to look at videos of past Road-eos,” Stutzman said of his preparation strategy.

He said it also helps him to walk the course before getting behind the wheel.

“It’s all about angles,” Stutzman said.

Stutzman went on to take second place for SCAT drivers in the fixed route competition Sunday.

But not everyone took such a studious approach; like SCAT para-transit driver Gabe Cole, who said even though it’s a competition, it’s really all about having fun.

“If you over-think it, something happens,” Cole said. “We’re just out here to have fun.”

A first-place finish Sunday secured three straight years of wins in the para-transit vehicle competition for SCAT.

Sara Nealeigh: 941-745-7081, @saranealeigh

Top finishers in 2018 Manatee-Sarasota Transit Bus Road-eo

MCAT Fixed route

First place: Alex Levett

Second place: Albert Barber

SCAT Fixed route

First place: Jeff Lander

Second place: Bob Stutzman

MCAT Para-transit

First place: Maxwell Kelly

Second place: Heather Boyko

SCAT Para-transit

First place: Gabe Cole

Second place: John Bryant

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