No one would confuse Walt Williamson with the intimidating visage of Dale Earnhardt or the boyish looks of Jeff Gordon.
But in the world of competitive bus driving, Williamson can be just as dominating as any professional race-car driver.
Williamson bested 17 other drivers and, for the sixth time in seven years, won a regional competition of the American Bus Association International Driving Championship sponsored by Eyre Bus Service in Glenelg yesterday.
The nine-year driver representing the Free Enterprise System from Jeffersonville, Ind., outdid his closest rival, David Hersh of Capitol Trailways from Harrisburg, Pa., by 185 points. Both men will move on to the ABA Coach Classic in Nashville, Tenn., June 25-26.
Yesterday's victor said he was nervous before the results were announced.
"You never know," Williamson, 45, said. "I'll come off the course and think I'm down. This is still a surprise for me."
Hersh, 39, said he has no problem with losing to Williamson, against whom he has competed in two regionals and two finals.
"We go at each other," said Hersh, who has been driving buses for six years. "It's friendly."
Kevin Franklin, night supervisor at Eyre and a Westminster resident, won his fourth consecutive regional Golden Wrench Award, given to the mechanic who finds the most flaws in a bus engine.
"You never know what's going to happen," said Franklin, who beat three other mechanics and won the national contest in 1995. "Thank goodness for a lot of practice."
Most of the focus of the competition was on the driving.
Since 1984, the ABA has sponsored the contest, which tests drivers' knowledge of driving laws, their attitude toward passengers and their driving prowess.
The competition -- which has grown from a four-region tournament with 50 drivers to an 11-region event drawing 200 drivers -- seeks to promote safety, said Carmen Daecher, competition coordinator at yesterday's regional event.
"If you understand what the drivers' responsibilities are, it's not just driving a bus," he said. "They have to know the driving rules, how to chart their bus time, how to deal with passengers. We don't want to just gauge their driving, but also their knowledge."
A 45-minute exam and 10-minute interview were worth 900 points. So was an eight-event obstacle course that made a teen's driving test seem like a picnic.
There were left-turn and right-turn tests, a serpentine course and a parallel parking test, among others -- none of them easy when driving a 40-foot bus.
It was one thing to avoid the cones and barrels. But drivers were also penalized for not getting as close to the cones and barrels as possible and had to finish the course in less than six minutes and 30 seconds or be penalized.
That's what happened to Ray Hills of Eyre, who hit a cone during the right-turn event. He did not tap his horn every time he reversed, braked hard once and finished in 8: 49 -- all requiring deductions.
"It's a tough course," said Hills, 51, who was competing for the first time and finished with 391 points. "It wasn't too bad. It could've been worse."
No driver was perfect, but Williamson and Hersh came the closest. Both finished under the time limit and scored more than 100 points of a possible 120 points in the left-turn test.
The obstacle course was not meant to represent bus driving on city streets, Williamson said.
"In reality, the job is to be as far away from everything" as possible, he said. "Why park or turn 3 inches away when I have 3 feet? If I cut it too close, I may scratch a car of hit a person."
But nearly everyone agreed that the driving test increased the confidence of those behind the wheel.
Pub Date: 3/23/98