Machine Operators Test Their Mettle From Grading to Gravedigging

Tue September 02, 2003 - National Edition

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) With a buddy’s hearty ”hi yo Silver’ send-off, Kord Raley lurches out of the chute and bounces into the arena on Bobcat S250.

The Mesa County Road Department worker’s jaw is set, his shoulders hunched and his focus intent. As the clock ticks down, he maneuvers between and around orange barrels in dust-raising fits and starts, turns and crowd-pleasing wheelies.

Yes, wheelies.

This is a roadeo, not a rodeo.

Each summer and fall, dozens of these roadeo competitions are staged across Colorado as heavy-equipment operators, construction workers, school bus drivers, truckers, runway painters, garbage collectors, snow plowers and even gravediggers climb into their machines and test their on-the-job skills against those of their peers.

The machines range from road graders, which weigh up to 35,000 lbs. (15,875 m) each, to the little Bobcat, which is like a multipurpose tool on wheels.

The best go on to state and national competitions, including the 21st annual National Snow Roadeo at the American Public Works Association Western Snow & Ice Conference in Greeley September 23-25.

A road-grader contest was held recently at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.

”Leave it to people to take something that is a normal task and turn it into a competition,’ said Drew Davis, vice president of the Colorado Association of Road Supervisors and Engineers.

Davis and others who work in professions that employ heavy equipment say there is a serious side to roadeos. The contests help operators hone their skills in smoke-belching, engine-growling events that simulate on-the-job conditions. The contestants also have to pass written exams about safety rules and do proper inspections of their equipment.

If they turn the key and start pulling levers before they buckle up, they lose valuable points.

”This really keeps them on top of their game,’ said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. ”We believe this is a good way to make sure they are doing the best they can in their jobs.’

Roadeo participants tweak, flip and shift a dizzying array of levers, toggles and switches to maneuver their mechanical beasts through tight, serpentine courses.

Road crew operators gently pick up eggs with buckets designed to scrape up slabs of concrete and chew up chunks of earth. They bowl with unwieldy grader blades, knocking aside pins as they would rocks on a road. Snowplow drivers angle their plows with 10-ft.-long (3 m) blades through a 10-ft.wide (3 m) course of barrels that play the part of parked cars.

Gravediggers carve ruler-straight lines into grave site ground with backhoe buckets and set up internment equipment in lickety-split time.

On the crowd-favorite Bobcat, all types of operators roll a tire by nudging it with a bucket. With a fork attachment, they pick up and carry sections of pipe through openings as though performing heavy-equipment limbo. They weave in and out of cones in a jouncing ride that makes barrel racing on a horse look like a piece of cake.

”Your mind gets going 100 mph. The adrenaline really goes. The clock is pushing you,’ said Raley, who compares the feeling to traditional ranch rodeos he has participated in.

For all the white-knuckled jitter, roadeo participants might win a jacket, a trophy, a belt buckle, a remote-control model of their favorite piece of heavy equipment or even cash prizes at the larger competitions.

They might also get the attention of their superiors.

As Mesa County Public Works director Pete Baier said recently at his department’s equipment roadeo, ”Department heads come out to see what these people can do. We use it to see who could move up.’