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Part Top Gun, part Super Bowl: The ultimate busman's holiday in KC

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Nicholas Miller was 3 when he found his calling.

The year was 1971, and Pinkie Miller had driven with her kids — Nicholas and sisters Kim, 9, and Rhonda, 7 — to see a family friend. Afterward, she stopped at a neighborhood convenience store, near 43rd Street and Cleveland. It was about 10 p.m. when she left her kids in the car and ran inside to grab some milk.

Nicholas Miller sensed his chance.

The boy escaped from his child safety seat, got his hands on the steering column's gear shift and put the green Chevrolet in neutral. "That was when you didn't have to put your foot on the brake to put the car in gear," Miller, now 46, says.

The Chevy lurched forward. Kim, startled from sleep, felt the car start to move down an incline and clambered over the front seat to take charge. Her brother, she says, was moving the steering wheel back and forth.

"I didn't know how to make the car stop," says Kim L. Hunt, now a Chicago resident. "I thought there was magic in the gears, but I could kind of hear my mother in the background asking for someone to help."

The car rolled several yards and smashed into a tree. "We weren't going real fast," Hunt says, "but because I got in the front seat, I hit my head on the steering wheel."

Rhonda busted her lip in the mishap, but Nicholas emerged unscathed — at least physically.

"When we got home, he ran into his hiding place," Hunt recalls. "He went into the kitchen cabinet so he could be invisible and deal with our wrath. We never let him forget that, either."

"The tree is still there," Miller says. "My mother used to tell me, 'There's your mark.' "

Hunt can still see the scar caused by her brother's zeal for speed, but she says she now considers Nicholas an impeccable driver. If she hadn't moved away from Kansas City two decades ago, she wouldn't mind riding along with him now.

Plenty of other people do just that every day. Miller has spent the past 14 years as a bus operator for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. The 1985 Paseo High School graduate has emerged over that time as one of the KCATA's finest drivers — a fact he was ready to prove publicly this month.

"I love competition, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to see how good of a driver I actually was," says Miller, a single father of three.

He's talking about the 2014 International Bus Roadeo. Sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association as part of its Bus & Paratransit Conference, the roadeo (think "road") pits bus operators against one another (as well as face-offs between maintenance teams) in a series of skill-testing competitions. It's Top Gun for bus jocks.

Miller, along with other local participants, had been tapped to represent the KCATA at the event, which dates back to the late 1970s and was this year coming to Kemper Arena May 2-6. Though not the sort of party that gets mainstream attention, the roadeo draws a dedicated convention crowd. The Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association predicted that the 2014 International Bus Roadeo, with some events in the American Royal Arena and the Kansas City Convention Center, would be good for $2.1 million of local economic impact (based on spending by the organization and its attendees).

Roadeo drivers steer metro buses through a maze of orange traffic pylons, barrels and tennis balls and perform a series of common turns and maneuvers in a timed sequence lasting 7 minutes or less. Completing the scoring is a compulsory pretrip vehicle inspection, during which drivers are timed and graded by identifying eight equipment-related defects and one security hazard (does that package look suspicious?) planted on or in a bus.

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