Buses shift gears
Robbie Aaron rehabs buses too old to haul kids and gives them new life on the racetrack.
By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published March 30, 2007
BRONSON - One by one, the school buses rumble onto the racetrack. Long buses and short buses. Fire engine red, camouflage brown and tan and National School Bus Yellow. Buses that say "Jesus is Lord" and buses that say "Get 'R Done." The air smells of beer, barbecue and gasoline. Gone are the days of shuttling students to baseball games. Taking church groups on field trips. Stopping at crosswalks. On this Saturday night these buses have a different purpose. Racing. Crashing. And maybe coming in first. Hundreds of fans cheer as the pack of buses thunders around the figure-eight racetrack at the Bronson Motor Speedway. Driver Robbie Aaron takes the lead. The wheels on his bus go round and round - at 60 miles per hour - as Who Let the Dogs Out booms through the racetrack's speakers.
On most days, Aaron is just as ordinary as a school bus tootling down a tree-lined street.
A 48-year-old husband and father of three. A mechanic who wears blue work shirts and likes fishing. Sometimes he drives a pickup. He never goes more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.
But not today.
Today he is the Chief.
He stands in a sandy pit behind the racetrack, surrounded by school buses.
"I own them all," he says. "I don't know who's got the titles."
They have rusted out insides. Seats with stuffing spilling out. Missing mirrors.
And they need his help. The race is eight hours away. Turning a 40-foot, 14-ton hunk of steel into a speed machine isn't easy.
Sure, the Indy cars in the St. Petersburg Grand Prix gleam with power and technology, but fans with gas fumes in their blood love to see anything with wheels in competition. Boat trailers, monster trucks, lawn mowers and, especially, beat-up old buses.
Aaron commands his crew, tinkering and trash-talking all the way. New spark plugs here. More radiator fluid there. Get the jumper cables, the blow torches, the flashlights.
Engines roar and sputter. Kenny Chesney and Lee Greenwood play in the background.
As they work together on a rusty carburetor, someone asks whether the racetrack still hands out trophies. "Just to the winner," Aaron says. "You ain't got to worry about that."
On most days, these men are ordinary, too. Mechanics, builders and businessmen. But today they have nicknames, like Desperado and the Flippin' Chicken. Tonight they will sit in the driver's seats and hand over any winnings to Aaron in exchange for the thrill.
He is their Chief because he bangs up buses and also knows how to fix them. Without Aaron, there would be no school bus racing here. On Saturday nights they would stay home or watch other races from the stands.
He is their Chief because they're hooked.
"It's the sound and the fury and the commotion. I've never seen anything like it," bus racer Tom Carroll says. "This is down and dirty, old-style racing."
Together the group has bought more than 20 buses and brought them back to life. Bargains from church parking lots and roller-skating rinks. Buses with broken engines and weeds growing through their floorboards.
An hour later they may be dead again. But Aaron finds parts and revives them, over and over. And his fleet keeps growing. When he sees a good deal on a bus, he buys it. He hasn't junked one yet.
Tonight Aaron will race their first purchase - a 1967 school bus they got for $500 in 2004.
After a nasty crash in one race, they welded a new front end onto it. They've painted it with their team name and a bold, black "#1."
But at least one hint of its past remains: a sign above the driver, "Your children's SAFETY is our business."
* * *
Lake County Sheriff Chris Daniels died in a charity school bus race in New Smyrna Beach last October when he was thrown from a bus and run over.
Aaron and his team were getting ready to race 150 miles away in Bronson, outside Gainesville, when they heard the news. But it didn't stop them.
"I'm to the age where it doesn't surprise me," he says. "If I die, I hope it's doing this."
Bus racing is as safe as any other racing, he says. Buses must have safety harnesses and special racing seats. Drivers wear flame suits and helmets.
Aaron, who is a well-known on the North Suncoast racing circuit, started bus racing in Bronson three years ago. He brought 10 school buses to the Citrus County Speedway in 2005. Fans there wanted a chance to see them speeding, smashing and crashing around the track. And Aaron wanted to be behind the wheel of one of them.
"I thought, my God, this guy's a raving lunatic. He had this persona. He's a hard-nosed racer that loves racing. He's got to be crazy to do it," said Mike Cope, who owns the Bronson track.
"They are fun to watch lumber around out there. But it's a controlled atmosphere with professional bus racers. They know what they're doing. It's a big draw and people just go crazy."
Racetracks often save school bus races for a late-night finale to keep the crowds coming.
"I guarantee that I'll twist it up. I'll hit my own bus," Aaron says, since he usually owns most of the buses in the race. "People want the show."
* * *
After more than eight hours working behind the scenes, Aaron is ready to give it to them.
He suits up, fastens his seat belt, shifts gears and starts the engine.
And for 20 laps, Aaron pushes Bus #1 around the course. Swerving through the figure-eight intersection. Dodging countless crashes. Racing to the finish line.
Fourteen other buses cram the 1/3-mile, high-banked track. Aaron owns nine of them.
"Go Robbie!" fans shout. Hoping buses will flip over. Clapping when they crash or zoom through the intersection. Booing when they don't.
Aaron pulls ahead early and keeps his lead. The checkered flag falls as his bus crosses the finish line.
Hundreds cheer from the bleachers, and a breathless announcer asks Aaron what it's like to race school buses. Behind them, a forklift starts pushing broken-down buses off the track. One of them belongs to Aaron.
"It's a lot of work," he says.
* * *
Sometimes it seems like too much work. But not tonight.
Back in the pit, Aaron's sly smile turns into a toothy grin. After 15 school bus races, it's only his second victory.
He sheds his black-and-white flame suit and walks to the office to collect his winnings.
A woman pushing a baby stroller walks by with a group of children. She points at Aaron. They giggle as if they've caught a glimpse of a celebrity.
Aaron looks at the standings like a proud parent reading a straight-A report card.
"That's a whole list of every one of my buses," he says, pointing at the night's top racers.
And then, the payoff comes: more than $2,000 in $20 bills.
Clutching a fistful of cash and a giant trophy - with a golden school bus on top - he heads back to his team.
As engines roar in the racing pit, the drivers gather in a circle. Aaron stands in the center.
Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Racing in Citrus
Robbie Aaron will race at least eight of his buses Saturday night at the Citrus County Speedway, 3600 S Florida Ave., Inverness. Stock cars and boat trailers will also be racing in other events that night. The races start at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $13 for adults and $9 for students and seniors.