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Hastings driver claims state bus rodeo title

The Hastings inter-company team is pictured. They are, from left, Denise Becker, Jerry Knoll, Jessica Koukol, Carlos Blanche, Kim Danneker and Valeska Olsen. Not pictured is Steve Wollmering.

When it comes to driving a school bus, it seems pretty straightforward: drive the bus, pick up the students, take them to school or home and you’re done. But bus drivers need a certain set of skills to make sure they can navigate such a large vehicle through a variety of situations safely.

In May, a handful of Hastings bus drivers proved their skill at two bus rodeo events. The bus rodeo has four parts: the obstacle course, a backing driving test, a written test and a pre-trip test.

On May 17, seven Hastings drivers competed in the Hastings Bus Company’s inter-company rodeo, which had a competitor pool of about 50 drivers. Then, on May 31, six Hastings drivers competed in the state bus rodeo in a field of about 85.

One Hastings driver, Denise Becker, claimed the state title. Becker has been competing at the event for the past 10 years, and has been improving each year. Last year, she took second and set herself the goal of winning this year. It’s a relief, she said, to finally get to win.

Becker is Hastings’ first state bus rodeo champion. Since she won the state rodeo, she is now eligible to compete in the national rodeo, which is scheduled for July 18-19 in Charleston, S.C.

Also competing individually at state were Kim Danneker, Valeska Olsen, Jerry Knoll, Jessica Koukol and Carlos Blanche. Knoll earned an individual fourth-place finish.

This year, there was only a six-point difference between first and fourth place at state. Becker actually tied for first place; it was her written test score (on which she missed only two questions) that bumped her into the top spot.

Becker, Knoll, Koukol and Blanche also competed as a team, and their team placed second at state. The four scores were added together for the team score. Danneker and Olsen were loaned to the Faribault team.

Six Hastings drivers served as judges at state. They are Lou Hoesly, Joanne Knoll, Joanie Bauer, Ray Bauer and Stacey Robinson.

At the intercompany competition, Jerry Knoll took first place, Danneker took second and Becker took third. Also competing were Blanche, Koukol, Olsen and Steve Wollmering. Judges from Hastings were Joanie Bauer, Ray Bauer, Hoesly, Wendy Holland, Joanne Knoll, Robinson and Cindy Lyon.

The tests

Bus drivers competing in the rodeos had to be proficient in a number of driving skills. They had to navigate a cone course that featured narrow lanes and extremely tight corners; demonstrate proper parking, railroad crossing and student pick-up practices; back up into certain difficult spaces; and even drive a straight line between two rows of tennis balls placed with barely enough clearance for the bus wheels to fit between.

“It’s set up to be difficult,” said Pat Regan, owner of the Hastings Bus Company.

Each event can earn a driver up to 50 points, and points are deducted every time a driver hits something they’re not supposed to. A judge rides in the bus with the driver as well, to make sure the driver is looking at the right things at the right times.

Then there’s the written test and the pre-trip tests as well, making sure each driver can not only operate the bus, but knows all the intellectual and safety details that guide their work as well.

The people who get high scores at the rodeo typically have been working at it for a number of years, Regan said.

For the drivers, the rodeo is a chance to test and stay fresh in their skills in a fun, competitive environment while getting to interact with drivers – both from their own company’s other locations as well as drivers from other companies. For the Hastings Bus Company, the event reinforces its focus on safe driving.“That’s why we’re in business – to keep kids safe,” Regan said.