A bus goes down. The driver’s outta there–it’s the garage crew who has to go get it. And by the time they’ve gotten it back to the garage, another hundred or so have started coming in, each one to be inspected, cleaned, fueled, and probably fixed. Other people get all the attention (most of it bad, admittedly), but it’s the mechanics who keep the equipment rolling. If they do their job, you’re not waiting in the morning for a bus that’s not coming; or sitting on one that’s not going; or riding one that’s not stopping when you pull the cord. Now at last these people can reap their just rewards.

The 1987 National Bus Maintenance Roadeo was held September 12 in Parking Lot D at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. It was hosted by PACE, formerly known to some of us as RTA’s suburban bus division, and Saturday morning in the bright sunshine PACE’s newly adopted blue and yellow colors were everywhere. The teams were required to wear their regulation shop uniforms and work shoes, but most had blue PACE “87 Roadeo” caps, which had been handed out indiscriminately by the PACE guys to teams, families, industry sponsors, and fans.

Drivers, of course, have had these things for years–they’ve been called “roadeos” for so long now, it’s totally uncool to draw attention to the pun–annually getting a chance to coax buses through a test course that demonstrates their safety habits and skill behind the wheel. Transit systems tend to find such pursuits a harmless, even salutary, way of rewarding the competent. Winners go to the national competition sponsored by the American Public Transit Association.

Some systems hold their own competitions for their mechanics, but intermittent attempts to get APTA to sponsor national events have, reportedly, gotten a big “nah . . .” from the booster organization. Even they didn’t think maintenance was sexy. Now, though, it’s a trend that’s catching fire. After arch transit rivals Baltimore and D.C. (aka WMATA) squared off in 1985, Baltimore invited all comers last year. One of the participants was PACE, which didn’t win anything but caught the roadeo fever.

PACE is a sort of expansion team among transit systems, assembled from existing local authorities, new routes, and contractual service during the RTA years. Since the RTA “breakup,” the suburban operation has been diligently making the necessary, if corny, gestures to establish a new system identity–and this contest, while it may not have improved name-brand recognition among suburban riders, definitely put PACE on the map for the more than 250 transit officials, mechanics, and their families who attended.

Twenty-four three-man teams took part, each the winner of a similar affair held by its home transit system. Three Illinois teams, from Joliet, PACE’s south division, and the CTA, competed against mechanics from Baltimore, San Francisco, Dallas, Saint Louis, and other faraway towns.

There were two events, a vehicle inspection and a driving obstacle course adapted pretty closely from the now-standard APTA drivers’ event. The driving event is included because half a day of watching repairmen at work would be more than even transit fans could take, and also because there’s a big belief among maintenance people that mechanics are better drivers than drivers, since they have to whip those buses around inside the garage. Backing up is an especially sore point. Bus drivers aren’t really supposed to back up–at PACE, they’re told never to go into reverse on the street without a spotter. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to decide that maybe that’s because they don’t know how.

The driving competition took up most of Lot D, where the buses crept and shifted through the ten obstacles marked out with day-glo cones and oil drums, with a play-by-play on the PA. Drivers lost points each time they touched a marker or had to shift. In one tight spot, a bus had to get down a path outlined in sponge balls that came within three inches of the outside of the rear dual wheels. There was a street where you had to change lanes in 55 feet (about one and a third bus lengths). In the 90 degree turns, the rear wheel had to pass within six inches of the pivot cone. And while six inches may be a big margin of error for your racy high-performance import, on a bus it’s scarcely more than the thickness of the tire tread.

The major difference from the drivers’ course was the absence of the Simulated Passenger Stop, which tests whether a driver can stop close enough to passengers without either running them over or taking so long he starts to run late. Some officials wanted to leave it in, replacing the “passenger” markers with bob-up Bozo dummies, but in the end they substituted an obstacle closer to home: a Simulated Bus Washer. Maintenance supervisors like to complain that their guys are a bunch of hot dogs whose goal in life is to get the bus through the washer without getting it wet. The trick in the simulated washer, a 50-foot-long passage marked by four 55-gallon drums, is to not stop once you enter and to spend no less than 55 and no more than 65 seconds going through. The “washer,” incidentally, was 106 inches wide–four inches wider than than the bus.

Next, Diminishing Clearance: the bus has to enter a channel of oil drums at a wide end going at least 20 MPH and come out a narrow end without hitting any. Finally, the bus screeches down to the last marker of the course, where it must stop “on a dime”–within six inches of the cone without touching it.

How similar is this to what bus mechanics do in real life? Well, the PACE people said that in their West Division garage, which was built in 1890, mechanics had to zip the bus through a pair of pillars next to the service bays that came within an inch of each side of a contemporary 102-inch bus. The pillars held up the garage roof. PACE moved out of the structure last October with the roof intact.

A number of transit-industry suppliers joined in sponsoring the roadeo, and a few of the more enterprising turned out with small exhibits. The Belk Brakes people, suppliers of PACE’s replacement brakes, had a table full of worn brake shoes and a lot of charts and graphs showing that their disposable bonded brake was superior to the conventional, factory-installed (bolted) brakes. Belk was giving away an underappreciated freebie, notepads with their slogan, “Bonded brakes for the big boys.”

But it was the Detroit Diesel exhibit that got all the attention. Not that it was anything extraordinary–it was an engine. A standard diesel bus engine identical to the ones on the PACE buses used on the driving course, and at least very damn similar to what most of the participants saw every day when they opened the rear hatch. So why were the mechanics lining up to take photos of it? The Detroit Diesel rep thought he understood. “Well, it’s better exposed and it’s cleaner,” he said.

The Detroit Diesel people were also the ones who rigged up the buses for the vehicle inspection, planting a bus with 25 defects that the teams had seven minutes to locate. Although lacking the visual excitement of squashed sponge balls and scattered day-glo cones, the inspection was the real core of the roadeo, counting for 625 of the 900 maximum points a team could score.

Teams were given clipboards, flashlights, and screwdrivers. At the signal, one would pop the rear hatch to pore assiduously over the internal topography, another quickly board to start rattling stanchions, seats, doors, mirrors, and instruments. Typically, a third prowled outside, frowning intently at the silent vehicle. After warnings at two minutes, one minute, and 30 seconds, time was called and the crew headed for the gallon jar of hand goop anchoring the garbage bag on the judge’s table.

After the last team had gone through, I got a quick tour of selected defects. To avoid causing genuinely costly repairs, the diesel guys combined certifiably authentic bus defects, such as the rear door not working and stanchions and seats not being bolted down, with more creative stuff–license plate upside down, plastic missing on a roof marker light, wrong length of dipstick in the crankcase. Stuff so obvious that most teams only found about 10 of the 25 defects.

Was this a test of the skills that keep buses rolling and keep passengers from freezing their butts off on lonely street corners? The judges and officials tended to say that the competition honed and reinforced a mechanic’s awareness of the things he had to look out for. What did the teams say? The Houston team must have thought it was a trick question when I asked them, Is this different from what you do on the job? “Yeah,” one replied unhesitatingly, “there, if we find something wrong, we fix it.”

Well, you can’t really fault that attitude, and the Houston guys, looking like maintenance heroes with their “electrical,” “brakes,” and so forth proficiency patches all over their chests, certainly seemed fired up enough. Which just shows how difficult it is to judge a repair roadeo from the sidelines. Because when the dust had cleared, Baltimore was the 1987 champion, with a total score of 558, and much-decorated Metro Houston, their system’s awesome maintenance rep notwithstanding, was in second place nearly 100 points behind. Joliet scored one point less than third-place Dallas, who had 460. And the CTA, like so many other Chicago teams before it, is already talking about 1988.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Cubbage.