“C’mon, go for it.” Suddenly, the 380-horsepower engine kicks in, and we’re rocketing forward. Six cylinders pounding away, the Rapid bus hurtles along, with me behind the wheel, knuckles white and palms clammy. This is faster than I’ve ever driven, harder than I’ve ever pushed a machine. Figuring that we must be going at least 100 mph, I glance at the speedometer. If I’m going to crash a $633,000 bus, I want to be able to tell the investigators that it was the MTA that made me drive 120 mph into a barricade. The speedo reads 15. Fifteen lousy miles per hour. Pretty soon it’s 20, and Les decides we’ve had enough. “All right, let’s ease off the gas and take this turn nice and slow.” SANTA ANITA RACETRACK PARKING LOT – The nose of the 60-foot behemoth is pointed right at the fence and Les Vance calls for more gas. “Step on it,” he grins. “Really open ‘er up.” Les is a professional bus operator, highly trained and employed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. I figure he knows what he’s talking about and press my boot lightly on the Metro Liner’s heavy accelerator. The fence looks impossibly close as the articulated bus picks up speed. Les shakes his head. So went my inauspicious debut as a bus driver. Friday morning, gearing up for its Metro Annual Bus Roadeo, the MTA turned over the keys to its massive coaches to members of the media and invited us to take them for a spin. In that I didn’t actually crash the bus, I’d rate myself as a success. Compared with a real driver, however, my grade plunges considerably. The Roadeo, now in its 31st year, is sort of like the Wimbledon of the transit world. To qualify, a driver must have a spotless record for a year. If drivers ding so much as a tree limb, they’re out of contention. Out of 4,600 MTA operators, only 1,200 made the cut. Eleven three-member crews of mechanics also compete, trying to start up busted engines in under seven minutes, repairing flighty air conditioners and broken brakes. The holy grail for a driver is a perfect score of 650 points, though most good operators manage in the 550-560 range. For the past several weeks, the 1,200 aspirants have tried their luck snaking through the course that aims to mimic the hardest conditions they’d find on the street. They have seven minutes to complete the 11-obstacle course, piloting 40-foot-long buses through left turns, right turns and a devilish serpentine slalom. They carefully guide the craft through a set of tennis balls only inches wider than the bus’s wheels and tackle something they’re told to almost never do on the streets: the wicked reverse turn, aided only by side-view mirrors. Hit a pylon, nick a cone, smack a barrel, the 35-judge panel docks points. At the end, it inspects your uniform to ensure that you’re neat, as well as swift. The top 40 qualifiers start their engines today. The winner gets a $300 gift card, a coveted belt buckle and a trip to the internationals, held next May in Nashville. Transit operations supervisor Frank Cecere serves as the overseer, varying the course from year to year to ensure that no returning competitor has an edge. He’s a tough-looking man with a Hawaiian-print shirt emblazoned with buses. He started driving the old General Motors Flex bus back in ’74, back when there was no power steering, no air conditioning and no electronics. He’s so hard-core, he survived a brick to the face on a Glendora route. It broke his jaw, but he was soon back to work. Long ago, he took part in the first-ever Roadeo, back when they didn’t let the drivers practice in advance. “They just blew the whistle and said: Go!” he said. “I was running over cones, bumping everywhere. Back then, when you finished, they just gave you a can of Coke and said thanks. I told my wife that I’d never do it again, but little did I know, I’d end up running it for 15 years.” This year’s favorite is Sam Morales, a downtown driver with near-mythic skills on the course. In the past 10 years, he’s notched two first- and eight second-place finishes. After the preliminary heats, this Babe Ruth of bus driving stands in first place and is expected to be a top contender. To warm us up to the course, Cecere fires up a 40-foot bus like the one in which Morales will compete. He talks Andy, our extraordinarily brave photographer, and me through the controls and nuances, and we each take a lap around the course. Things are going well enough until the end, when I plow through a series of barrels that stand in for pedestrians. Confidence unshaken, I ask for the Slow Beast. This is the big daddy, the articulated bus driven on the Orange and Metro Rapid lines. Five times the length of my car, fueled by compressed natural gas, it’s immense. Even the rock stars of the bus world such as Morales don’t use this in competition, but I think I can handle it. So we step onto Vance’s bus and learn the ropes. Andy wisely stands aside, and I settle into the comfortably cushioned seat. Mercedes has nothing on this baby: A/C, back-up cameras, electronic mirrors, the thing rides like a dream. Which is a nice distraction, of course, from the fact that you’re strapped to 60 feet of rolling automotive fear. Les is very calm throughout as we take some practice runs, telling me when to turn, when to speed up and when to lay off. He takes me on that demon speed run, and I learn that though the bus feels like it’s going very fast, it’s really just crawling along. And so we wind our way through, skipping the harder obstacles but trying a few. On the serpentine, I avoid the cones with the front of the bus, which makes me feel like a pro. I kill them, however, with the middle and Les has to jump off and set them right. Oh, how glad I am, that that wasn’t Mrs. Fernandez beneath my middle wheels, or some kid on a bicycle. But after a while, I get into the groove and make some turns one-handed. I check the mirrors like a pro and learn where the wheels would go. I even made it through a fake bus stop without squashing any more cones. “Not too bad for a first-time operator,” Les tells me. “Not too bad at all.” I feel great, hop into my Honda Civic and drive away. I’m in my element now. I know everything about this car, where to go and how to drive it. No more trailers lugging behind me, no more weird engines, no more crazy mirrors. Pulling into the parking lot to write my story, I hit the edge of the garage. Twice. email@example.com (818) 713-3738160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!