The sun sat high in the sky beating down on the hot, black pavement. Midday was in the rear view mirror, the competitors in front of me had come and gone, and there I stood face-to-face with more than 50,000 pounds of metal that I was expected to control through a timed obstacle course.
“Do you have your driver’s license?” asked the judge to my left as I stared at the vehicle.
A grapefruit sized lump made its way into my throat as the little voice inside my head said what everyone was thinking, “you entered a snowplow driving competition and you left your license in the car?” It was a rookie mistake, and I answered back in a way only a novice can, with false confidence and a dash of ignorance, “No, I left it in the car.”
As a celebrity driver at the American Public Works Association (APWA) Snowplow Roadeo, hosted this year by the Wyoming Department of Public Works, I had the opportunity to personally get behind the drivers wheel of a snowplow to catch a glimpse of the challenges the snowplow drivers face come winter. While the competition is all fun and games for myself and the other celebrities, the Roadeo acts as a training seminar for drivers to prepare themselves for the winter ahead.
“This is a training session, but it looks very much like a competition because that’s the way we run it,” explained William Dooley, Wyoming Director of Public Works, “The Roadeo is all about preparing the drivers that have to remove snow and ice from our roads in the winter. It’s really about getting all of the drivers in West Michigan thinking about it again, getting in the trucks, and getting used to where those blades start and stop.”
The idea for the Roadeo was started by the City of Wyoming where they hosted the event for 21 straight years before cutbacks in the department forced the event to come to a close.
“At that time we said we could no longer host it every year but that we would take our turn,” said Dooley. “Well, here we are in 2016, and we’re happy to host the Roadeo once again!”
The drivers take turns driving through a timed obstacle course that tests their fundamentals inside the snowplow. Those fundamentals include basics like having your driver’s license and medical cards on hand, entering the snowplow properly and adjusting the mirrors. After the intial prep is completed, drivers make their way through a course lined with cones and barrels designed to test driving ability with maneuvers like going around a turn to the left and right, backing up, and moving snow in-between parked cars.
Oh, and it’s all timed.
“This event is an opportunity to get drivers back in the trucks to see some real life situations. In addition to the course, we have classroom training on how to interact with the public and stay alert behind the wheel,” said John Gorney, Kentwood Director of Public Works.
“Every element they’ll face on the job, we test them on,” added Dooley.
And the tests are anything but easy. For starters, from the driver’s seat, both blades – the big one in front and the one underneath – aren’t visible. Yes, you read that correctly, you cannot see the blades. The front blade has one orange pole on each end that acts as a guide for the driver. They give a frame of reference on how wide the blade is and an idea on where it’s located. It’s very much a ‘feel’ thing where a driver must become one with the snowplow.
Unfortunately for me, I did not feel one with the machine, and my Master Yoda was nowhere in sight to teach me the ways of the force. During the serpentine I ran over a barrel like it was nothing more than a fly on the windshield. The obstacle that mimics pushing snow between two parked cars was also an epic fail as I distinctly clipped a barrel acting as the rear bumper of a car. Hopefully they had insurance. As I rounded corners, I assume I trucked numerous cones because, truthfully, I couldn’t really see whether I did or not. The sight lines in a snowplow aren’t the most advantageous to a roadway vehicle.
Thankfully the obstacles that involved backing up were taken out of the course for the celebrity drivers. After making my way through the course, I know why, it would’ve been a disaster.
Upon completion of the course, scores were gathered and tallied. Shockingly, yours truly didn’t bring home the celebrity hardware.
I never thought driving a snowplow would be easy, but it didn’t think it would be as difficult as it was. Even with a beautiful day and no true stress of hitting other cars or pedestrians, it was still a lot to process and handle. The ability to drive one of those on a busy street in the middle of winter is daunting, but the Public Works Departments take their biggest job very seriously.
“The event is very important,” Gorney emphasized. “Snow removal for all of the Public Works Departments is the biggest efforts we have. It costs the most money and the trucks are the most expensive piece of equipment. To get back in the truck and get some training is critical.”