Bus operators who compete in Metro Transit's Bus Roadeo are continuing a tradition that began with a simple idea nearly a half-century earlier.
Mike Hughes became a bus operator for what was then known as the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) in 1972. After a few years, he moved into the executive department and offered a suggestion.
"I always thought it'd be great to find out who the best driver in the system was so I came up with this idea that we should have a skilled driving competition," Hughes said. "I proposed the idea, and six months later I was called up to the office. They pulled out my memo and said, 'We decided we want to do this and, since you came up with the idea, you can put it together.'"
Hughes left the the MTC in 1984 and recounted his role in the Roadeo's history from his home in Grand Rapids, Minn.
After getting the go-ahead, Hughes spent the summer of 1975 figuring out what the competition would look like. Like today, it included a written test, pre-trip inspection and a course where operators weaved through cones, drove in reverse and completed other maneuvers that demonstrated how precisely they could handle the bus.
Around 80 operators participated in the first competition, held in the parking lot of the old Metropolitan Stadium in September 1975. Police officers from around the region served as judges.
"When you're doing something for the first time there's always that little shadow of doubt and you wonder, 'Is this going to work?'" Hughes said. "But when we all got together for breakfast before the event, I just knew this was going to be a great thing and it was."
Thirty top finishers competed again in a second round held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Hughes can't recall who won, but photos from the award competition ended up on the front page of American Public Transportation Association's monthly newsletter.
After that publicity, transit agencies across the country began calling MTC asking for advice on hosting competitions of their own. To help spread the idea, Hughes put together a guidebook and spent several years on a national organizing committee.
APTA hosted its first international Bus Roadeo in 1976 in San Francisco, Calif. Top bus operators from across the country have been competing annually ever since. The competition also now includes technicians.
Looking back, Hughes, who has never competed himself, said he never imagined his idea would become so widespread or enduring. "I didn't know how far this would go, if it would be a local event or what would be the deal," he said.
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View the list of Metro Transit Bus Roadeo champions