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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

RTS bus drivers race for title of Gainesville’s best

He takes corners like he’s in a go-kart, stops like he’s in a Miata and edges curbs like he’s in a street-sweeper.

He’s the Mario Andretti of public transit. And if you take routes 2 or 10 on your way to class, you’ve been his passenger.

But on Saturday, Gary Sauls, 46, was one of nine vying for the title as Gainesville’s best bus driver at the 13th Annual RTS Bus Roadeo.

As heat waves rippled off the tarmac on the north side of Gainesville Regional Airport, drivers weaved through a gauntlet of 11 tight turns, quick  stops and serpentine swerves.

“It lets them showcase their skills and own their skills in a controlled environment,” said Regional Transit System spokesman Chip Skinner.

A crowd of about 30 friends and family members munched on hamburgers and hot dogs seated on steel bleachers as they rooted for their drivers. “Final Countdown” by Europe blared over the loudspeakers as defending champion Eddie Bishop’s bus grunted toward the starting line.

He made one last seat adjustment, glanced at his mirrors and chirped his horn twice.

Showtime.

“Take it nice and easy, and breathe,” said Eugene Neilson, transit supervisor and on-board judge, from the first seat of the aisle between bites of his mustard-slathered hamburger.

The air brakes sighed as Bishop heaved the bus to the first obstacle, two rows of tennis balls through which he had to guide the back two wheels of the bus.

Holding his breath, he cleared them all.

In the aisle, all that could be heard was the whir of the bus’s  air conditioner and the tap of Bishop’s size 10.5 brown leather dress shoes over the pedals as he touched the gas and dabbed the brake.

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His upper lip curled over his soul patch as his hands crisscrossed over the wheel.

At the last obstacle, a  straightaway into a quick-stop, he pushed the bus up to 22 mph, then stomped on the brake in time to bring the bus’s front bumper within 2 inches of the final cone, which symbolized a pedestrian.

That wasn’t good enough to edge out Sauls, who crossed the finish line at 5:33 — exactly 40 seconds under Bishop’s time.

After the race, Bishop took a third place trophy, and Sauls handed his first-place prize to his daughter.

Sauls now will compete in the Florida State Bus Roadeo in Daytona next month for a chance to compete nationwide.

Asked if he was pleased with his standings, Sauls glanced at his 9- and 14-year-old daughters and smiled. The youngest clung to the trophy with both arms.

“Yup, I am,” he said. “I did it for my young’uns. As long as she gets a trophy, she’s happy.”

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