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A real trip

There's NASCAR, and then there's this surreal sight - school buses racing around a track at 50 mph. Yet "it's the biggest thrill you can have,'' one competitor says.

By NATALIE BAUGHMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- Frank Hill secured his white helmet and buckled himself into the driver's seat of Bus 45 on Saturday evening. His heart beat faster and faster as he visualized his impending race.

Hill was one of about 20 drivers to race a school bus around the Sunshine Speedway Figure 8 track on Saturday. Fans cheered wildly as the drivers maneuvered their 40-foot buses on to the racetrack. Waving checkered flags in the stands, they awaited one of the oddest spectacles in Pinellas County racing: the school bus Figure 8 derby.

The Sunshine Speedway first sponsored a school bus demolition derby in 1993, said Hill, who promotes the racetrack with his wife, Bonnie. But the derby destroyed too many buses that were difficult to replace, so the Hills decided to hold a Figure 8 race instead. The track, shaped like an 8, forces the buses to drive through an intersection in the middle of each lap. The school bus races have been run every year since 1995.

"People don't expect to see such big and bulky vehicles racing around a track," Hill said. "They like it because it's so out of the ordinary."

At the race Saturday, Hill's orange and white bus was in the front of the lineup. His son, Cameron Hill, parked Bus 5 just a few feet back.

Cameron Hill's bus had a silver background spattered with painted orange and yellow flames. A toothy grin was painted across the front to give it an intimidating look, Cameron said.

Bus 77 was decorated like a toy bus, with a fuzzy white monkey glued on top and stuffed animals poking their heads out the open windows. Bus 96 had a white background with gray alligators painted on each side.

The buses looked like swirling palate of rainbow colors careening around the track. They traveled about 50 mph, slowing down just slightly to pass though the congested intersection or keep from overturning around the four menacing curves.

At the start of the race, Cameron Hill quickly pulled in front of his father. They spent the first five laps playing cat and mouse. One would inch up on the other, pass him, then start the chase over again.

"It's the biggest thrill you can have, competing against another person as you race around the track," said Cameron Hill, who has won the school bus race twice. "I don't get scared. I just get excited."

Early in the race another bus slammed into the front of Cameron's bus, ripping off his front wheels and pushing them underneath the bus, which skidded to a stop in the middle of the intersection. The buses took a five-minute break as a forklift moved the disabled bus off the track.

After beginning again, Bus 77, driven by Matthew Musselman, took the lead. Bus 00, driven by Brain Hayn, was close behind, with Frank Hill in third position.

After passing the others on the outside of the intersection, Frank Hill pulled back into first position and eventually won the race. Hayn took second, and Bus 3, driven by Kevin King, came in third. About half the buses finished the race.

The school bus Figure 8 race is one of the Speedway's most popular events, Frank Hill said. About 6,000 people turned out for Saturday night's event.

Rebecca Cable said she has visited the Speedway for at least 10 years to watch her father race a stock car. She said the school bus Figure 8 races are one of the best attractions.

"I like to watch the buses get close together, hit each other, then flip over," Cable said. "It's more funny with buses than cars because the buses are so big."

Cable went to Saturday's races with her 16-year-old cousin, Robie Mailhes, who had never seen cars or buses race. Mailhes said he still associates school buses with screaming elementary school children and cautious drivers.

"It hasn't been that long since I rode a bus to school," Mailhes said. "It seems strange to me that people race them."

Rebecca Kurzenberger and Brad Blake have attended races for the past two years. Blake said he drives go-carts every Sunday but wouldn't consider racing a bus.

"They would have to put a red light in the intersection to get me to try it," Blake joked. "These people must be crazy. It looks so dangerous."

Although Frank Hill has participated in 15 races, Saturday was his first victory. He is notorious for rolling buses during the race, he said, which has cost him precious time and prevented him from winning before.

He was set to receive $1,000 for his win, but he divided the money among his 18 competitors. The second-place prize was $500, third place was $300 and fourth place was $200. All other bus drivers received $100 for participating.

Most of the 19 drivers have driven race cars in the past. But a few were first-timers Saturday night, and two were women.

Any driver over the age of 18 is eligible to enter the race, but 16- and 17-year-old drivers must have a signed waiver from their parents. Drivers are responsible for providing their own buses, which can be purchased from a church or school for about $500, Hill said.

No one has ever been injured during the school bus races, Frank Hill said. The buses can't travel at a high rate of speed because of their size. And even though they are prone to flipping over, seat belts keep all passengers intact, he added.

"There's not much danger involved in this kind of racing," Frank Hill said. "This is pure fun."

The Sunshine Speedway will hold its next school bus Figure 8 race Feb. 4.

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