‘ROADEO’ DRIVE — State highway department’s road crews lasso fun while competing, honing equipment skills

Contestants in the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department’s annual District 2 Roadeo here Thursday morning weren’t riding bulls or broncs but rather navigating tractor/truck lowboys, single- and tandem-axle dump trucks, tractor/mowers and backhoes through a series of timed and point-rated skill tests.

Men and women of various ages — novices and seasoned veterans alike — competed against one another for the right to advance to a statewide and possibly a regional Roadeo.

There were winners and losers among the nearly 40 competitors, but as they capped the gathering at the district headquarters near Pine Bluff with an outdoor barbecue lunch, the good-natured kidding and congratulatory exchanges were so loud and hearty that an observer might have had a difficult time trying to separate champions from the conquered.

Everyone was in a celebratory mood.

“There’s always a lot of picking and razzing,” laughed John Harvey, a Lincoln County team member who garnered top honors in the tractor/lowboy category. A past state champion, the 39-year-old works as a single-axle dump truck driver and has been with AHTD for 10 years.

“The Roadeo is a great educational opportunity because we get a chance to learn about and use equipment that we normally don’t operate in our jobs,” he said. “It’s a fun and friendly competition and everyone winds up doing a little bit of everything.”

District 2 includes Jefferson, Arkansas, Ashley, Chicot, Desha, Drew, Grant and Lincoln counties. Arkansas has claimed five titles since the Regional Equipment Operators Roadeo began in 2003, and has always placed in the top three in team standings.

AHTD’s Training and Safety Division and the Arkansas Highway Police oversee the district and state competitions.

“The events are designed to instill safe driving practices and foster pride in a job well done,” said Danny Keene of Benton, chief of AHTD’s Equipment and Procurement Division.

Perry Bledsoe of Arkansas County’s DeWitt team on Thursday became a first-time Roadeo winner at the age of 61. The 33-year AHTD maintenance worker, who has competed in each District Roadeo since its 1991 inception, dominated in the tractor/mower category. Before his victory, he vowed to continue to “try and try again until I finally win.” When his first-place performance was announced, he received a warm round of cheers and applause.

Melissa Starnes, 44, of Pine Bluff repeated as the winner of tandem-axle dump truck category.

“I like the competition and it’s always nice to win, but I also enjoy the fellowship with all the other people from the other counties,” said Starnes, a member of the district’s seal unit. “I don’t see them often.”

Starnes, an 11-year AHTD employee, said her male co-workers sometimes “tease” her because she’s a woman, but always in a playful manner. Grinning, she dismissed their shenanigans as “nothing new” and said the banter actually added some zest to her competitive spirit for the Roadeo.

Five-year Chicot County maintenance worker Sharetha Butler, 34, said the male members of her crew often joke with her about being “a young female without as much work experience as most of them have.” She said she’s not angered by the kidding.

“Really, it inspires me,” she said. “I like my job and I like hanging with the big boys who have been here for more years than me. I learn from them and we can all test our skills in the Roadeo.

“I don’t expect to win any events right now, but I want to compete and one of these days I will win something,” she continued. “Eventually, I’m going to be right up there with the big boys.”

Rounding out the field of winners were Grant County’s Wallace Simmons in motor patrol, Jefferson County’s Derrick Dutton in backhoe and Arkansas County-DeWitt’s Calvin Ashcraft in single-axle dump truck.

Jefferson County earned the crew crown. Grant County was the runner-up and Arkansas County-DeWitt was third.