'Hollywood' finds fame as bus driver

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 4, 2011

GRANITE QUARRY — Tall, straight and silver-haired, Lonny Earnhardt has the look of “Hollywood” — what many of his fellow Charlotte bus drivers call him.
You see, his initials are “L.A.”
But Earnhardt has earned the glamorous nickname with his stellar performances in Charlotte, state and national bus operator “roadeos.”
Earnhardt has won five of the Charlotte Area Transit System roadeos and four state titles in Wilmington. Over the past decade, he has participated in six national competitions, where his best finish has been 10th in Anaheim, Calif.
“I’ve gotten to go to a lot of places I’ve never thought I’d get to,” says his wife, Jimmie.
Earnhardt also has represented Charlotte and/or the state in Dallas, Texas (15th), Nashville, Tenn. (17th), Atlanta (12th), Cleveland (14th) and just a couple of weeks ago, Memphis, Tenn. (15th).
Budget restraints one year kept him from going to Seattle. In 2012, Earnhardt aims for Long Beach, Calif., but his long-range goal is to keep driving at least until 2015. That year, Charlotte will be host for the national bus operator’s roadeo.
By then, Hollywood Earnhardt will be 68 and even more of a legend.
For bus drivers in these competitions, it’s all about 7 minutes — and 700 points.
Drivers have 7 minutes to maneuver their 40-foot (in some divisions, 35-foot) buses through a serpentine course of balls, cones, left and right turns into small spaces, passenger stops, judgment stops and public address announcements.
Hit or run over any part of a cone, and you lose points. You also lose a point for every second you come in over the 7-minute time limit. Competitors start with 700 points, but scores drop for wrong answers on a written test and mistakes during pre-trip inspections or in exercises such as loading a wheelchair.
It gets harder when Earnhardt goes to state and national events because he’s driving buses he’s never seen before.
Earnhardt’s best score has been the 651 he registered in winning the CATS competition this spring, which automatically qualified him for Memphis. He couldn’t compete in the state roadeo in Wilmington because it was held at the same time as the national.
His top score in national roadeos (they are actually considered international events because countries such as Canada and Mexico are invited) has been a 529.
“At international, just being good is not good enough,” Jimmie says.
In Memphis this year, Earnhardt won a third-place award in the customer-service challenge. The Memphis roadeo this year drew 54 competitors.
A hallway in the Earnhardts’ home is filled with Lonny’s trophies, which also include second-and- third-place finishes over the years. He first started competing in the roadeos in 1999.
“My wife says they’re dust collectors, which is true,” Lonny says.
His prizes for winning usually include cash, savings bonds, gift cards and those durn trophies.
Jimmie sits among the spectators at most of the roadeos, and she hears some of the murmurs through the crowd when it’s Lonny’s turn to compete.
“They all say, ‘Well, there’s the winner,’” Jimmie says.
They’ve also probably heard that Lonny is a distant cousin to late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr.
CATS has used a menacing photograph of Earnhardt on posters encouraging drivers to test their skills against the best. The transit system has 567 operators, 320 buses and 73 routes that covered more than 12.8 million miles in 2010.
For 33 years, Earnhardt has driven to his Charlotte bus-driving shifts from Rowan County — a 48-mile trip one way from Granite Quarry. He takes the most pride in his having driven approximately 1.5 million accident-free miles for CATS.
It’s simply about staying aware of what you’re doing at all times, Earnhardt says. He puts safety and public service first, and lets everything flow from that foundation.
“I’ve adhered to that for 33 years, and it has kept me out of trouble,” Earnhardt says.
Being a bus driver is pretty basic, he explains. Get people where they need to go, and get them there on time.
“It’s the easiest job in the world to keep and the easiest job in the world to lose,” Earnhardt says.
His bus routes have taken him to every corner of the Queen City. He recently has been traveling to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, SouthPark, Rosa Parks Center and Stouth Tryon Street areas, having just come off the Airport Sprinter Run.
“I wouldn’t take anything for the last 33 years,” he says, “because it has prepared me for a lot of things in this world.”
Earnhardt grew up on Stokes Ferry Road below Dunn’s Mountain, and he attended Granite Quarry Elementary School before graduating from East Rowan High in 1966.
His father was a top barber in Spencer during the Roaring ‘20s but lost all of his money in the 1929 stock market crash. Earnhardt says his parents then went to work for China Grove Cotton Mill.
For awhile, Earnhardt worked in a Food Lion warehouse. But on a visit to Charlotte one day, he became fascinated with its transit system and decided to apply for a driver’s job. He was hired in 1978 but is still only ninth in seniority among the bus operators for CATS.
The oldest CATS driver today is 73.
Over his past 15 years, Earnhardt also has taken on some training duties for CATS, having prepared some 1,200 drivers for the road. “The rate of turnover is very high,” he says.
Earnhardt drives four-day shifts that are from 5 a.m.-4p.m. or 10 a.m.-8:21 p.m. That allows him to keep three days off — more time to spend with Jimmie and their seven grandchildren.
Both Jimmie and Lonny have three children from previous marriages.
The next big challenge on the horizon for CATS drivers will be the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next year. For security reasons, the CATS base of operations will have to move, plus it temporarily will be adding many more buses and drivers for the convention.
Earnhardt likes the CATS management team and says he makes a good living and a decent salary. Life is good, he says, especially when the air-conditioning on the bus is working properly.
On the job, Earnhardt has seen his share of fights, disturbances and drunks. But he says he also gives people in distress the benefit of doubt, because often they might be suffering from a medical condition — not drugs or alcohol — and require his help.
“I enjoy the people,” he says. “I just enjoy getting up every day and going to a job.”
There should be a trophy for that, too.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.