SFMTA hosts San Francisco's 31st bus roadeo where bus operators compete in a series of driving and safety test including an obstacle course showcasing the drivers best skills at Cow Palace Saturday, April 2, 2016. Winners of the competition advance to the American Public Transportation Association International Roadeo. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Muni hopes to defend title at international bus ‘Road-eo’

San Franciscans celebrate city pride in many ways, from lauding the three-time World Series Champions the Giants to throwing one of the longest running “Pride” parades in the U.S.

And at the Cow Palace Saturday, just outside San Francisco in Daly City, a smaller crowd gathered to defend a title of a different sort – the American Public Transit Association’s bus “Road-eo,” where Muni drivers maneuvered buses in ways impossible on city streets.

Muni operators cried, “Yeehaw!” and competed in Saturday’s event to determine which driver out of 60 would be selected to defend San Francisco’s title at the international competition in May.

Defending his title was Kevin Grady, a tall man of few words and who is reportedly held in high regard by other Muni drivers. Grady, a cable car operator, won Muni’s top spot from 2001 to 2008, when the recession prompted the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to cease hosting their local Roadeo.

Grady went to APTA in 2015 and beat out transit agencies from Canada to New York.

“He’s legendary,” one driver of the 43-Masonic said of Grady.

Though a rodeo may conjure images of drivers tossing lassos on buses, it’s really just an elaborate obstacle course. Instead of speed, timing and precision matters.

“Goin’ down to the rodeo! Rodeo! Rodeo!” shouted Teri Lowe, a training instructor, through a microphone.

Dave Longa blew his whistle for the bus-driving contestants at the start of the course. Clad in a straw hat and sporting a bushy mustache, the retired operator has played a role in the roadeo since its inception at Muni in 1976. “It’s a family thing,” Longa said, before absent-mindedly tipping his hat.

The contestants were split into two groups – those certified to go on to the International APTA Roadeo, and newer drivers who were competing for the fun of it. Training supervisors also formed their own contest group.

Saturday’s event cost about $75,000.

Paul Peterson, from the operator training department, said the course is similar to what new Muni operators practice on to qualify to drive, except it’s far narrower and tougher to maneuver.

Jasmin Stathan at SFMTA 31st Roadeo from The San Francisco Examiner on Vimeo.

That didn’t daunt Andrae Johnson, a decades-long Muni operator who was also the first ever woman to qualify in Muni’s Roadeo, earning her third place in 2006.

Johnson was 25 seconds over time, she said, costing her the contest. This was her first chance since 2008 to try to topple the legendary Grady.

“I’m so nervous!” she said.

She didn’t show it on the course. She smoothly sailed her New Flyer-made bus between tennis balls fixed to the ground, nearly as narrow as the width of her wheels.

That’s when she came to the serpentine. Many described it as the gnarliest obstacle at the Roadeo – requiring one to successfully snake the 40 foot, 18-ton hulk of metal in and out of a section of cones.

She rounded the serpentine rough, which she said was a sacrifice to add some time to her score. It was a risk.

Then Johnson reached the last stretch. The final challenge is a doozy: A driver must “thread the needle,” flying their bus at 20 m.p.h. through two columns of barrells – with five to each side.

The gray bus flew through the first three successfully. But suddenly, two barrels flew out to the right of Johnson’s bus.

“Awwwww,” the crowd of supporters cried.

“Why’d you hit a barrel?” Someone asked her later, to which she answered, smiling, “It was in the way!”

The only silence at the otherwise noisy event came during Grady’s run. As he expertly swung around cones, the crowd hardly spoke, save for “Oohs” and “Ahhs.”

Ultimately, Grady took home first place again. He broke into a small smile, his legend secure.

Now he’ll defend San Francisco’s winning title in the international APTA Roadeo, in May.

But Johnson netted second, beating her placement from 2008 – and encroaching on Grady’s title. And beside the glass-bus trophy, there was another silver lining for Johnson.

Her daughter, Jasmin Statham, won first place in the non-qualifying race. Statham has only driven for Muni for five years, and said she once wrote in her middle school homework that she’d one day be an operator just like her mother.

Mother and daughter smiled wide, trophies held in their arms.

SFMTA hosts San Francisco's 31st bus roadeo where bus operators compete in a series of driving and safety test including an obstacle course showcasing the drivers best skills at Cow Palace Saturday, April 2, 2016. Winners of the competition advance to the American Public Transportation Association International Roadeo. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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SFMTA hosts San Francisco's 31st bus roadeo where bus operators compete in a series of driving and safety test including an obstacle course showcasing the drivers best skills at Cow Palace Saturday, April 2, 2016. Winners of the competition advance to the American Public Transportation Association International Roadeo. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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San Francisco Muni drivers competed in a local "Road-eo" event Saturday at the Cow Palace in Daly City. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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