Two seasons before the first snowflake is expected to fall in Carroll County, snowplows whirred to life yesterday.
On a football field-sized parking lot dotted with orange cones, the big yellow machines rumbled through the annual regional competition that pitted drivers from Carroll, Frederick and Howard counties against each other in an obstacle course designed to simulate hazardous road conditions.
Instead of weaving around parked cars and scooping up snow while bundled in winter gear, drivers dressed in T-shirts and shorts maneuvered between orange cones and tennis balls while onlookers in nearby bleachers ate barbecue under a baking sun.
"It's not about winning. We're just out there having fun," said Tim Petry, a mechanic for Carroll's maintenance fleet and first-place finisher of the eighth annual Paul A. Croasmun Memorial Truck Road-eo.
"But it does give you bragging rights for a year!" he said.
Petry wowed the judges with his deft handling of an eight-part course in a parking lot at Carroll Community College.
Drivers were judged on speed and accuracy, with most drivers finishing the course in five minutes. .
"It's a reflection on the skills drivers have out there," said Chuck Paulsen, safety and training coordinator for the county Office of Risk Management. "It's amazing to see how these guys can handle the trucks. It's a very difficult vehicle to drive, and then add a snow plow and a lack of visibility. It takes a lot to be out there, and they're sometimes out there for 30-40 hours."
Petry won the morning competition with a score of 490 out of a possible 595 points and was awarded $125.
He beat 25 other drivers and mechanics who work for Carroll County on road crews, utilities, facilities, landfill and the maintenance fleet.
Carroll's top three scorers then competed against their counterparts from Frederick and Howard counties in the afternoon.
For the second consecutive year, Petry won the regional competition.
Ron Fritz, also of Carroll's fleet division, finished second, while Rick Fogle of the Frederick County roads department finished third.
One at a time, drivers got behind the wheel of the new dump trucks that were fitted with "winged plows" - or snowplows with flared sides. Some drivers, like Greg Stencil, blared country music on the truck's stereo while running the course.
A mechanic in the Carroll maintenance fleet, Stencil finished with a respectable score of 355 but said the first part of the course was the most difficult.
Most drivers dreaded the appropriately named Serpentine section of the course where they had to weave between the cones and stay off the islands in the middle of the parking lot. Most didn't.
They trampled the cones and rolled onto the islands. County employees volunteering as judges shaved off points for every bump and roll.
"It's tough to see the cones with the plows in the way and you lose islands in the mirror," Stencil said.
"But you feel it once you're running over it. You feel the truck buckle," he said.
Other sections of the course gave drivers less trouble, such as the area that simulated snow removal around parked vehicles. Drivers had to avoid hitting the two end cones while swooping in to knock down four others.
"It's easier when you have to hit the cones on purpose," said Dave Reese, who judged this part of the course with Bobbi Savaliski.
A former snowplow driver, Reese said the simulation is an accurate exercise.
"It'd be a lot easier to plow the snow if people parked in their driveways instead of on the street," Reese said.
Although the fleet division employees made a clean sweep of the three trophies in the Carroll competition, road crews kept their pride.
"Our trucks are always in the shop, so the mechanics are the only ones that drive," joked Adam Moul, a county snowplow driver.
Albert Hoffman of Carroll's utilities department was pleased that he scored better than he expected: 425, up from 385 two years ago.
He was even happier he didn't get disqualified this year, as he did the first time he competed.
"I messed up and went through a part of the course fast, plowed over all the cones and the two judges hit the ground running," Hoffman said. "They disqualified me for reckless driving. They never let me live it down. They call me Speedy to this day."