ROCKINGHAM — It isn’t everybody who can sink a “putt” using a backhoe, much less five putts in a row.
But that’s what Chatham County backhoe operator Ashley Wilkie did Tuesday morning at the annual NCDOT Division 8 “Roadeo,” a three-day event at Rockingham Dragway that lets equipment drivers test their skills while engaging in a bit of friendly competition.
Besides, as Wilkie said after sinking five yellow golf balls into two 3-inch and three 6-inch PVC pipes stood on end:
“Who doesn’t like a paid day outta work?”
A few minutes later, Wilkie stood chatting over a bottled water with Brad Cook of Lee County maintenance, who had bettered Wilkie’s time by 74 seconds, although neither knew it at the moment. Both also had perfect scores, meaning they not only had dropped the balls into the pipes but hadn’t touched the pipes themselves with the backhoe.
Cook has won the Division 8 title in the event twice, come in second three times and gone to state competition in Raleigh, where he came in second among representatives of the state’s 14 Department of Transportation divisions, he said.
“Last year, I didn’t do too good,” Cook said. After practicing with five balls and five pipes, he dropped the first ball in the competitive round.
At least 100 feet away from the backhoes, drivers maneuvered 33,000-pound, single-axle dump trucks through a serpentine course, after first performing safety/engine inspections, backing into an alley made of traffic drums and parallel parking between road barriers.
The next two days will see events featuring double-axle dump trucks, lowboy tractor-trailers used to move highway equipment, lawn mowers and road graders. To hear some of the judges tell it, things will get pretty wiggy(cq) by Thursday, after they have spent more than 13 hours out in the sun on The Rock’s tarmac.
“The (contests are) basically for our operators to hone their skills,” said Jay Lewis, safety officer for NCDOT Division 8, which has headquarters in Aberdeen, from which it manages workers in eight counties running west to east from Randolph to Scotland.
They also help the division determine whether drivers need more training, and in what skills, Lewis said. Participants come from bridge, maintenance, traffic services, equipment and roadside-environment crews, all of whom must have commercial driver’s licenses to perform their jobs, he said.
It’s true that no backhoe operator will have to drop a golf ball into a succession of PVC pipes, Lewis said, but he will have to work with fiberoptic cables, and with telephone, sewer, power and gas lines.
“The rough ones are the gas lines” because of the potential for harm, Lewis said. “These operators have to run a lot of obstacles, and this helps them hone their skills in tight spaces.”
The same holds true, at times, for operating dump trucks, which have to maneuver into unusually shaped spaces and should not be driven at all until the operator has made required mechanical and safety checks.
Hence the serpentine and parking challenges, and pre-driving checkup, in which a driver must find 10 problems in five minutes before he can even clamber into the driver’s seat, said Scott Hancock, fleet manager for Division 8.
The Roadeo contests will continue at 10 Wednesday and Thursday mornings. State competition will be in August. From there, winners will attend a Southeastern regional competition.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]