The eyes of the world may have been on the Summer Olympics in Barcelona yesterday, but the 26 competitors at Gunpowder Falls State Park were thinking snow.
They were the finest State Highway Administration snow-removal specialists who assembled to compete for top honors in the 4th annual Snow Roadeo competition.
Even the more experienced drivers going through the course, which was laid out with orange traffic cones on a parking lot, admitted it was challenging.
"The course was tight, tighter than usual," said George Weidner of the Hagerstown shop, an 18-year snow-removal veteran. But he said he managed to shave a few seconds off his time by skillful use of his mirrors when driving backward.
Drivers, who had each won a Roadeo in their individual shops to qualify for yesterday's competition, earned points for speed and for maneuvering the course without upsetting the cones.
Skills include going through a serpentine slalom course, both forward and backward; backing into an alley dock, coming as close to the back barrier as possible without touching; plowing ,, between two parked cars (barrels were used as substitutes); driving in a straight line, plowing around a curve and negotiating a narrowing alley. The competitors were given two earlier tests: One was a written exam, and the other involved the routine inspection they must give their trucks each time before driving them.
Oddly enough, the part of the course that gave most drivers trouble was simply driving in a straight line. To successfully complete this skill, the operator had to drive his passenger-side wheels between a double line of tennis balls, with only 2 inches of clearance on each side, without disturbing the balls.
"The hardest part had to be the tennis balls," said Brian Baublitz of the Glen Burnie shop. "I think I did pretty good, except for the tennis balls. Don't go running any pictures of me hitting the tennis balls!"
Mr. Baublitz, one of the youngest competitors at age 27, said he did not think his youth gave him an advantage.
"There were some older drivers with some pretty good reflexes," he said. "I'll put it this way: There are more older drivers here than younger drivers, so maybe they had the edge. I think experience maybe beats out reflexes."
Several competitors agreed that the secret to their success was to shun practice. "We have a shop Roadeo and that's about the extent of it," said Ken Karlheim of the Frederick shop, when asked about his practice regimen.
His buddy, Roy Wetzel, who was on hand just in case Mr. Karlheim's pregnant wife went into labor and prevented him from coming to the competition, agreed. "Sometimes you're better off not practicing," Mr. Wetzel said. "Like my golf game, I leave my clubs in the bag until I get there. I really do a lot better."
Besides, he said, "we get enough practice in the winter."
Yesterday's winner, Joseph Siegman of the Westminster shop, was another driver who had to wing it. "It took me by surprise. I was a fill-in. Another guy couldn't make it. I only found out Thursday that I had to come," Mr. Siegman said.
But now that he is the Maryland state snow-plowing champion, Mr. Siegman is not so sure about the next step: a free trip to Colorado for the national championships.
"I just don't like planes," he said. "I hope they let me take a train."