Ben Franklin Transit driver wins International Bus Roadeo title

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldMay 15, 2014 

Ben Franklin Transit bus driver Dan Schmidt didn't win his sixth International Bus Roadeo title this year. But he got to see something better -- watching his proteges claim victory.

Fellow transit driver Gabe Beliz, 37, of Kennewick, took first place in the 35-foot bus driving competition May 4 in Kansas City, Mo., winning a title for the second consecutive year.

Schmidt, 56, of Kennewick, didn't do too shabby himself, placing second among 53 drivers in the 40-foot bus category.

Beliz has looked up to Schmidt since he joined Ben Franklin Transit in 2007.

"I only won because he helped me," Beliz said. "He's come in second because he helped others a couple times."

That hasn't stopped Schmidt from winning five Roadeo titles in his 24 years of competing at the finals of the event, which move to a different city each year. He finished second seven other times.

"See that ring?" Beliz said, pointing to the gold and red jewelry on Schmidt's right hand. "He's the most decorated driver in history."

Schmidt, who has been with the transit for 31 years, said he enjoys teaching younger drivers.

Gabe Fernds of the Spokane Transit Authority traveled to the Tri-Cities a couple weeks before the Roadeo to pick up tips from Schmidt, and ended up beating out his mentor in the 40-foot bus competition.

"That's the coolest thing," Schmidt said. "I think it's called the 'Schmidt effect.' "

Schmidt's favorite awards are his years of safe driving awards. Drivers cannot have a preventable accident in the past year if they wish to qualify for the Roadeo.

"I have 30 of them," he said. "I'm working on 31."

The Roadeo, sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association, took place in the parking lot of the little-used Kemper Arena. Drivers start competing at the local level and move up, with the events requiring drivers to face tests navigating obstacles like cones and tennis balls. They must also pass a routine inspection.

Beliz's favorite event is called "serpentine," where drivers make their way through a zig-zagging row of cones. Schmidt prefers an event where drivers have to get through a tight left turn.

"It's a good test," Schmidt said of the Roadeo. "If you're not improving in everything you're doing, I think you're setting yourself up for failure."

Beliz bested 17 other drivers in buses that usually hold about 23 people. The larger bus Schmidt competed in carries about 38 people.

Some of the drivers Beliz and Schmidt vanquished came from much larger transportation departments like San Francisco, Fort Worth and Kansas City.

Schmidt admitted to being wooed by larger transit agencies in the past, but said he wants to retire in the Tri-Cities. He's not so sure about Beliz.

"I think they could buy you," he said with a laugh.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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