Gabe Fernos’ urge to compete has driven him – quite literally – to attain one of the most respected honors in his profession. The 48-year-old driver for Spokane Transit Authority was named the best driver in North America after finishing first in his class last week at the 2014 International Bus Roadeo in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I’m in it for the long haul and looking to compete many more times,” Fernos said. “Once you go, you want to win. And once you win, you want to win again.”
A driver with 22 years of experience with STA, Fernos outdrove his opponents in the 38th annual event that tests bus operators’ ability to maneuver vehicles through pylons and barrels while racing against the clock. On May 4, Fernos scored 664 out of a possible 700 points in claiming the title in the 40-foot bus division. He competed against 53 other operators from the U.S. and Canada.
The “roadeo” was sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association with the organization’s Bus and Paratransit Conference and held in the parking lot outside Kansas City’s Kemper Arena. Winners were announced May 6. Fernos, a native of Puerto Rico, began driving for STA in 1992 after serving in the U.S. Army from 1984 to 1991. A mechanic in the service, Fernos said he wanted to do something else when he applied for a job as an operator.
“As a little kid, my next-door neighbor was a driver and I would see him go to work and come home in his uniform,” Fernos said. “When the opportunity presented itself, I thought it would be a nice way to earn a living.”
He added, “I feel good doing it and we provide a great service. We get people moving and get them from point A to point B.”
Fernos is a married father of three whose wife, Becky, also is a veteran. He normally drives a 60-foot articulated bus with an accordion middle section from Spokane to Cheney and the campus of Eastern Washington University.
Downsizing to a 40-foot bus for the competition was a snap. He won the local and state 40-foot finals this past year.
At the international roadeo – his seventh trip there – Fernos won by a slim, five-point margin over Daniel Schmidt of Richland. Schmidt had won five international titles; Fernos’ best previous finish in the international was fourth, in 2009.
Gabe Beliz, another operator with Richland’s Ben Franklin Transit and a student of Schmidt’s, won the 35-foot roadeo title for the second straight year against 16 rival drivers. STA chief Susan Meyer called Fernos’ title “a tremendous accomplishment for him and evidence of his tremendous skill as a coach operator.”
Fernos said his STA uniform gives him confidence to handle obstacles.
“Everybody has a bad day here and there, but when you put on that uniform, you are responsible not only for yourself but your company and profession – a very old profession,” Fernos said. “You respect others in uniform and it kind of makes people feel safe. They understand you are in charge of the bus and in charge of, not them, but their well-being.”