Yield to the best

Brent Carman practices driving in a straight line using tennis balls as a guide as he prepares for the International School Bus Rodeo in Calgary, Canada last July.

Local driver going for fourth international title
Morgan Hill

On any given school day, Morgan Hill students get chauffeured by Brent Carman, one of the best bus drivers in the world.

Carman, 47, has taken the wheel for Morgan Hill Unified School District for more than 20 years, clocking in at 6 a.m. and punching out at 6 p.m. This past year he drove rout 11, a winding stretch that includes stops at Live Oak and Sobrato high, Britton Middle and Jackson Elementary schools.

“It’s never a dull moment,” Carman said Tuesday. “It’s an important job. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with being a bus driver, obviously.”

It’s more than just a job to Carman – it’s training. He spends each trip measuring angles, distances and turning radii in his head. Carman is the Tiger Woods of bus driving, and he has the major titles to prove it. Carman is a three-time grand champion of the School Bus Driver International Safety Competition, an annual event that decides the world’s top wheelmen by way of a closely scrutinized two-day skills decathlon. The competition tests areas such as proper stopping, in-line steering, turning and parallel parking.

Organizers describe the competition as the Olympics of bus driving. Drivers call it the international roadeo.

“It’s a blast going there,” Carman said Wednesday at his training facility, the MHUSD bus yard. “It’s intense competing with the best. But when you’ve been driving a bus as long as I have it becomes natural.”

Roadeo contestants can compete in three categories: conventional bus, transit bus and small bus.

Carman, who won transit titles in 2000, 2002 and 2003, will compete in small bus next month when the international roadeo makes its 38th running July 19-20 in Calgary, Alberta.

“He’s the best of the best,” said retired MHUSD driver Adolph Valles, who enjoyed an accident-free 22-year career. “Roadeo is very special. It helps you become a safer driver. There’s no one better than (Carman).”

Born Christmas Day, 1960, into a family that’s called San Juan Bautista home for almost 140 years, Carman has spent almost half his life in the driver’s seat. Aside from school buses, his unflinching brown eyes and push-broom mustache have been behind the wheel of limousines, tour buses and big rigs – not to mention his Honda Civic.

“That’s a lot harder to drive than a bus,” he said. “A Civic is good for narrow roads, but you can see everything in a bus. I’d rather drive one of those.”

Carman’s roadeo season starts the day after the Super Bowl. From there, he spends his free time practicing in the MHUSD and Gilroy Unified School District bus lots, idling at 3 mph through obstacle courses he made with donated supply from the Tennant Street Safeway. Wearing his contagious smile and bright yellow shooting glasses, Carman carefully maneuvers around tennis balls, cement blocks, traffic cones and PVC pipes like a slalom skier. Each slip up would cost precious points in competition.

“A lot of his success is just from practice,” said Frank Rael, a 30-plus-year driving veteran with MHUSD. “It takes a lot to be the best.”

It certainly isn’t easy. Carman’s three titles came during his only trips to the international roadeo. To get to there, you have to score in the top 10 overall at state finals and place first or second in one of the three categories. To get to state, you must finish in the top 15 in the large bus division or top six in the small bus division at Northern or Southern California finals.

Few roadeos are the same. Some have drivers perform “surprise events” or compete with their mirrors covered. Regardless of rubric, every competition is a matter of inches.

“To get the highest scores, you have to be perfect,” Carman said. “If your tire rests a half-inch off its mark, or you stop the bus with the bumper a couple centimeters over the line, or your bus is an inch too far from the curb, it costs you points.”

Only six drivers advance to the international roadeo from each state or Canadian province. Carman qualified by placing third overall and first in the small bus category in last month’s state finals at Galt.

“It’s pretty intense competition at that level,” Carman said. “That just makes it more special to keep going. It’s a honor getting to represent California. I’m proud of myself.”

Adding to the experience is that this year’s international roadeo will be the first Carman has competed in outside the U.S. His previous appearances were at San Francisco in 2000, Chicago in 2002 and New York City in 2003.

“This experience will stand out the most to me, definitely,” added Carman, who plans to parlay the trip into a weeklong vacation. “It will feel like a true international competition. The others were big, but they felt like just a U.S. thing. The one in San Francisco was like a local roadeo for me!”

Carman won’t go five minutes without praising his sponsor, Make It Mine Embroidery and Engraving, and fellow MHUSD drivers like Valles, Rael and Raul Suarez. As a team, they’ve accounted for seven Northern California section championships and one state title. The four have matching jackets with embroideries of each of their team accolades and bus numbers.

“We bring out the competition,” Rael said. “People look out for us at roadeos.”

Rael got Carman into bus driving in the early 1980s. From there, Carman became a close friend of late tour bus driver Jerry Miller, who continued to inspire Carman even after his death in 1994. Carman enshrined a photo of Miller in his first international roadeo trophy. It rests above Colleen Corah Hitchcock’s poem “Ascension.”

“Just whisper my name in your heart

… I will be there.”

Miller never doubted Carman’s determination.

“He told me, if I go to internationals, I’ll win it all,” Carman recalled. “I wanted to win it the year he died but came up short.”

Carman considered giving up on roadeo after Miller’s death, but Valles convinced him otherwise. To this day, Carman is the only one in his close-knit foursome to have reached the state or international roadeos. That statistic doesn’t ring true with him, though.

“I tell people, each of these guys has been there, too,” Carman said. “They were there with me.”

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