Derek Johnson has never won a NASCAR race. But then again, Tony Stewart never won a state Transit Roadeo championship.  

That’s what Johnson, a ColumBUS Transit driver, achieved April 18 during the Indiana Para Transit Roadeo.

The victory gives Johnson, 39, an all-expense paid trip to compete in Sunday’s National Community Transit Roadeo in Tampa, Florida.   

It’s a competition where rural and community transit operators from around the country display an entirely different set of skills than those displayed on a racetrack.

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On the state and national levels, the Roadeos are designed to promote the importance of day-to-day public service and professionalism, city transit coordinator Cindy Setser said.

“There’s a lot of mental preparation, going over everything I have to remember over and over in my head,” Johnson said. “You have to give 100 percent in all four events, because each little thing adds up.” 

On Sunday, Johnson will first be required to maneuver a bus through an obstacle course, trying to avoid those pesky orange cones.

“While it’s timed, you have to be smooth and use your signals,” Johnson said. “One judge measures the distance you drive between cones. Another is just determining the smoothness of the ride.”

In a separate event, Johnson will strive to beat his competitors’ time as he hunts down four defects on a municipal bus during a pre-trip inspection.

The Brown County native also will compete in the classroom. He has been preparing for the written exam by studying sample questions and reviewing professional driver manuals. 

The fourth part of the National Community Transit Roadeo might be considered an unusual competition — wheelchair securement.

“We have to greet the passenger in a wheelchair, secure them, ask questions and make sure they are comfortable,” Johnson said. “They measure courtesy.”

For that reason, wheelchair securement is the second-most-important event in terms of possible points to be earned.

Although Roadeos may not provide the adrenalin-pumping exhilaration of last weekend’s Indianapolis 500, Johnson emphasizes that’s not what he’s seeking.   

“It doesn’t really make you want to be a competitor, but it does make you want to achieve professionalism,” Johnson said. “We don’t just want to be bus drivers. We want to provide a good experience.”

There are others who feel the same way after working for the local transit system since the 1980s, Setser said, including herself.

“When I started here, I just thought it would be a nice little part-time job,” Setser said. “That was 35 years ago.”

So what is it about driving city buses in Columbus that leads to such longevity?    

“I think the number-one thing is the passengers,” Setser said. “We come to think of them as a big family.”

“We have a lot of regular riders I’ve gotten to know over the years,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty personal job.”

But that’s not the only reason why ColumBUS has produced four national championship drivers during the past 13 years, as well as 10 drivers who were listed among the best in Indiana during the past six years.

Besides promoting public service and professionalism, the Roadeos allow local city bus drivers to get to know their peers from other cities, Setser said. 

“Most of them don’t have the same job satisfaction,” Setser said. “Their pay is not as good, their hours include split-shifts, and several are kept indefinitely on a part-time status.” 

By comparing notes with drivers from other communities, Johnson said he feels grateful for what he has in his life. Other than financial security, he says he loves the fact he’s never stuck in one place and that he drives alternate routes regularly to reduce the possibility of burnout.    

“I definitely feel I was led to do this for a career, and I can’t say that about previous jobs,” Johnson said. “I believe when you are happy where you are, you want to do a great job.”

While Johnson admits he will be be putting pressure on himself to win the national competition, he’s also using the event to provide his family with some rest and relaxation in the Sunshine State.        

Since his wife, Leslie, and their three children also are flying to Tampa at their own expense, the family intends to drive a half-hour west after the competition to the Gulf Coast community of Clearwater.

“Right now, the beach is on all of our minds,” Johnson said.

Recent winners

Current or former employees of ColumBUS Transit have done well during past competitions at the Indiana Para Transit Roadeo.

In 2009, four Columbus bus drivers (Kathy Lee, Derek Johnson, Bob Fear and Ralph Haywood) were ranked among the top 10 drivers in the state, with Lee taking first place.  

In 2010, six drivers (Lee, Johnson, Fear, Haywood, Sheila Lyle and Will Bohall) were ranked in the top 10, with Lee taking first place.  

Competing against drivers from across the country, the following current or past ColumBUS Transit employees have been champion van drivers in the National Community Transit Roadeo:

2011 — Sheila Lyle

2006 — Pamela Wilcoxon

2004 — Robert Fear

2002 — Larry Christman

Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson

Age: 39

Current position: Full-time driver, ColumBUS Transit since 2007.  Also works as a part-time driver for the Columbus Area Visitors Center.  

Previous work experience: Amcor Rigid Plastics in Franklin and substitute school bus driver.

Education: Brown County High School, class of 1993. Certified in the national Commercial Driver’s License Program years before becoming a city bus driver.   

Family: Wife, Leslie; children, Isaiah, Bethany and Wai-Ling

Roadeo judging

The following outlines how many points can be earned in the four events in the National Community Transit Roadeo, as well as each event’s impact on the overall competition.

  • Driving: 525 points (52.5 percent)
  • Wheelchair securement: 200 points (20 percent)
  • Pre-trip inspection: 15 points (15 percent)
  • Written test: 125 points (12.5 percent)
Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.