Twenty-five years after SEPTA bus operator Zenon John Rinylo won his first Roadeo, he could have win number 21 under his belt.
Rinylo, a 35-year veteran driver, will compete with about 50 other drivers in the annual SEPTA Bus Roadeo on Saturday, a competition that puts bus operators' skills to the test in an 11-course obstacle challenge. The winner competes at the state and national levels. The stakes are high this year; SEPTA is the defending champion. And if anyone can do it, it's Rinylo.
"It's very difficult," Rinylo said of the competition.
But it's not too difficult for this Turnersville, N.J. resident; he's managed to bank 20 local competition wins, a dozen state wins and two national titles. He also placed third in three national competitions.
He calls his first win—in 1988—his "Cinderella" moment. "The first time is your most memorable one. I liked the adrenaline rush."
It wasn't an easy competition for him that year. Just two days before the Roadeo, his father-in-law died. After the competition, he planned to go home and be with his family but the judges told him he needed to stick around since he was winning. He didn't win the national competition that year but he did take the title in 1997 and again in 2001 when Philadelphia hosted the competition.
SEPTA's local competition will be held at 9:30 a.m. this Saturday at Cornwells Heights Station in Bensalem. The course features 11 obstacles drivers must overcome to earn a certain amount of points to move on. Any mistakes? Points are deducted. Judges watch for smoothness of operation, use of turn signals and vehicle checks—something all drivers do each day before their routes.
An obstacle Rinylo calls fun is driving the 40-foot bus through a set of tennis balls strategically placed 12 feet apart with widths just wider than the two back tires of the bus. Rinylo, whose normal SEPTA route is #37, from Broad & Snyder to Chester, said you have to go through the tennis balls without touching any of them.
Left turns, right turns, maneuvering through cones and more round out the obstacles.
"I was just talking to somebody," Rinylo said laughing, "who said when he first competed, he said 'OK, this doesn't look too bad.' When you get behind the wheel, it's a humbling experience because it's very difficult."
As difficult as it may be, Rinylo is prepared for the challenge to be able to win and compete at next year's national competition in Kansas City. Just don't get nervous is his advice.
"You're your own worst enemy when you're nervous."