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Duluth Transit Authority driver Paul Mattson gives a look in his rear-view mirror before beginning the obstacle course during the 27th annual Minnesota State Bus “Roadeo” on Saturday morning at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center parking lot. (Bob King /

Bus driving gets competitive at 'Roadeo' in Duluth


Before he boarded the 40-foot bus he’d be competing in, Paul Mattson turned to a judge.

“Can I adjust the mirrors?” he asked, and he received an affirmative response. Mattson’s boots were freshly shined and he was dressed in formal Duluth Transit Authority navy blues, complete with cropped jacket, sharp leather belt and powder blue tie.


Mattson looked like a champion.

The 27th Annual Minnesota State Bus Roadeo, held Saturday in the Heritage Sports Center parking lot, brought out the competitor in all the drivers. It also brought the drivers out of the rearview mirror, where their scanning eyes are often their most notable features, and into the spotlight.

There was the driver from Minneapolis known for singing his way through his routes, and there was Mattson, a married father of five who often is called “Smiley” or “the Smiling Man” by his passengers.

His mouth again creased upward, Mattson said, “I tell people I can’t help it, that it’s a surgical implant.”

Mattson’s smile diminished significantly while on the course — a maze of traffic cones made into 12 obstacles that tested the drivers’ acumen behind the wheel. Mattson is a two-time city champion, having won again in June.

“It’s a competition,” Mattson said. “You can’t help but feel the tension.”

Heath Hickok is director of marketing for the DTA. He walked through the course while Mattson drove it, pointing out the challenges faced by the drivers.

Strategically placed neon green cones were “pivot cones,” Hickok said, representing potential passengers or pedestrians.

“It’s all about accuracy and being safe,” Hickok said. “It’s important not to hit the pivot cones.”

The course featured a standard pick-up stop, which rewarded drivers who got within 4 inches of the curb with their front tire and 12 inches with the rear. There also were demands drivers rarely see, such as being asked to back their buses into tight spaces.

“If you ever see a bus driver backing up,” Hickok said, “they’re doing something wrong.”

“We only ever do it in the garage,” Mattson said, “so it’s hard to practice.”

There also was a serpentine section, hard right and left turns, and even a narrowing stretch with tennis balls on wires extended like insect feelers on either side through which the driver had to pick up speed without one of the feelers touching the bus. Drivers were penalized for striking cones. One unfortunate driver struck so many, it would have made national news had the cones been actual people.

But Mattson was in the clear. He struck a single orange cone, and had to make a three-point turn during what was supposed to be a smooth back-up.

Drivers also were judged on bus inspection as well as loading and securing a person in a wheelchair. During that act, even the driver’s greeting and personality were up for critique.

“It’s the most subjective category,” Hickok said.

It was also one Mattson has mastered.

“Just keep smiling,” he said.

Mattson was no doubt smiling again at the awards banquet on Saturday evening: He was named Roadeo champion in the large bus category.