by Janice Kuhn, Marketing Specialist
This not his first Roadeo. It’s only his second. However, Coach Operator Benito Zavalza has proved he can handle the heat of the competition.
During the American Public Transportation Association’s International Bus Roadeo, an event which tests a bus operator’s driving skills, Zavalza placed a historic second at the event – Omnitrans’ highest ranking in the history of the competition, which typically pits an average of 40 drivers from transit agencies all over the United States and Canada.
Benito at the International Roadeo
Zavalza’s path to international success started on home turf, so to speak, at the Omnitrans Bus Roadeo in October 2015. To even qualify to participate, drivers must have a good attendance and safety record. Drivers are given 7 minutes to complete an obstacle course that puts them through the paces of completing right and left turns, backing up and cornering, all within the narrow lanes of strategically placed orange cones. Judges are placed throughout the course to score each portion of the competition. And if that’s not stressful enough, there are judges onboard each competitor’s bus, recording the driver’s actions.
A category for non-Class B driver’s license holders, and for Maintenance staff, is also held, and a friendly competition amongst office staff is an annual thing, with everyone coming out of it with a stronger appreciation for the skill that driving a bus demands. However, the driver’s portion is the one to watch, since the winner proceeds on to the Regional competition. Zavalza placed first in the agency competition, and went on to compete in the Regional competition in April, where he placed second.
“Some people might say that the Regional doesn’t matter, since drivers are guaranteed a spot in the International if you win first place” said Zavalza, “I saw it as a chance to so see what I could do under more pressure.”
Although he was pleasantly surprised by his second place victory in the Regional, he vowed to do better. He spent hours studying the results of the Regional competition, analyzing his score, cone by cone. Traveling over 50 miles each way from his home in Yucaipa to the Montclair bus yard, Zavalza regularly put in 3-4 hour practice sessions, calling upon whomever was willing to help set up the course, and give advice.
Advice from experienced Operators, as well as new ones, was also something he vigorously sought.
“I was very open to feedback, good and bad,” said Zavalza. “Rick Alvarez (a former long-reigning agency Roadeo champ), and our training and safety staff really helped me to hone my skills.”
His mission to improve his skills oftentimes came at odds with his desire to spend time with his family, which Zavalza says is just something he has learned to juggle.
“My father had a saying, if you do something, do it right,” recalled Zavalza, with tears in his eyes. He recalls that his late father often worked 2-3 minimum wage jobs at a time to help make ends meet for his family of nine. “Now that I have my own family, I try to do the best I can in whatever I do for my family.”
Benito Zavalza and family
On the day of the final International competition in North Carolina, he learned that his daughter, who had stayed at home with family, had a fever. He and his wife Heidy monitored the situation and determined it was not serious, but he admits his first reaction was to leave.
“I almost said, ‘I can’t do this, I need to go home,’” said Zavalza. “But I remembered a driver who competed last year who had just lost his mother during the competition. He kept going, and I admired his dedication.”
After his win, Zavalza could not wait to get back home to his family. “I just wanted to get home and hug my babies,” said Zavalza.
Five days after his win in North Carolina, he was out on the road in San Bernardino, patiently instructing a group of coach operator students.
“I’m taking the things I have learned and paying it forward,” said Zavalza. “I think you can learn from anyone.”