MANATEE -- Imagine trying to navigate a 35-foot-long bus -- 10 feet wide from outside mirror to outside mirror -- through cones that are spaced only inches wider than the bus.
Top bus drivers from Manatee County Area Transit, known as MCAT, and Sarasota County Area Transit, known as SCAT, put their skills on display Sunday morning as they maneuvered through an obstacle course at the first-ever Manatee-Sarasota Bus Roadeo at Manatee County Public Works Compound, 1108 26th Ave. E., Bradenton.
When it was over, SCAT edged MCAT 1,009-954, said Jim Egbert, Manatee County's transportation operations superintendent.
Although this was the first inter-agency competition, MCAT and SCAT have held roadeos by themselves on a test road course set up with cones, barrels and bus stops. The competition tested drivers' ability to negotiate tight turns, to operate transit buses backwards and to stop within 6 inches of an object.
The first-place winners from both counties qualified for the state competition -- the Triple Crown Mega Bus Roadeo in Fort Myers -- which will be held April 2.
"It was very close, and I thought for the first inter-agency competition it went well," Egbert said. "Everyone was pleased. We are already planning for next year."
Not all the drivers competed on the 35-foot bus,
which is also known as the "fixed route" or "big bus." A nearly equal number of drivers competed on the para transit, or handy bus, which is smaller and designed to carry wheelchairs.
In that category, Manatee County had a not so secret weapon -- Mary Kamasinski.
Tops in 'handy' division
Kamasinski scored 624 points to win "overall handy champion" Sunday and a trip to state. This will be Kamasinski's fifth trip to state representing MCAT in the "handy" division. Her best finish is a second place.
Kamasinski hunted down defects in her "handy" bus during the pre-trip inspection like a wolf tracking down sheep. Nothing seemed to escape her.
"I really like the idea of being my own boss on the bus and being in charge but always having the backup at the office," Kamasinski said of her decade-plus career as a driver. "I am really terrible sitting at a desk all day so this gives you an opportunity to be out, running around, thinking about where you are going and seeing a lot of people."
"Mary is good, Mary is very good," said William Steele, transit manager for MCAT for nearly 30 years.
Jeff Stapleton of SCAT was the "overall big bus champion" Sunday with 499 points and won a state berth.
Bob Della Russo was MCAT's top "big bus" finisher with 330 points and was also invited to state.
Gabe Cole got first for SCAT in "handy" with 510 points and also earned a trip to state.
Drivers started with 700 points and lost points for hitting cones. But going slow wasn't an option. They only had seven minutes to complete the course and were disqualified if they took too much time. But they also gained points for how well they did in a pre-drive inspection of their vehicle, a personal appearance inspection and a written test, Egbert said.
About 20 fans sat on chairs near the cement course to watch the bus drivers try to get their machines through tight spots. Fans seemed to enjoy a skill test that required drivers to drive between tennis balls without destroying them.
But the overwhelming favorite drill seemed to be when the drivers had to roar down a straight-away at 25 mph and go through cones that gave them less than two inches on either side. They had to keep the speed constant and stop suddenly. Only a few went through that drill without touching a cone.
"I think it's great fun," said Susan Montgomery, a planner in the Manatee County Area Transit department. "I like when they barrelled through the barrels at 25 miles per hour. That was very exciting. And I think it's really neat because I used to work at SCAT so I kind of like the competition between MCAT and SCAT. I think that was a really good idea."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.