UGBY Paratransit driver Den Kuehnemund of Rugby is good at what he does. In fact, he is a four-time national champion.
An employee of Souris Basin Transportation for the past 26 years, Kuehnemund will represent his agency again this year at the National Community Transportation Roadeo in Albuquerque, N.M., on June 2.
The National Community Transit Roadeo draws rural and community transit drivers from around the country to compete for top scores in written and hands-on examinations that test every level of the drivers' abilities. Kuehnemund earned the right to compete at the 24th annual roadeo by winning the North Dakota contest last fall at the Dakota Transit Association event in Brookings, S.D.
Den Kuehnemund, holding a plaque and backed by trophies and the Souris Basin Transportation’s Rugby bus, is set to travel to Albuquerque, N.M., next month to compete for more awards in the National Community Transportation Roadeo.
At one time, Minot hosted state roadeos, and Kuehnemund, who joined Souris Basin Transportation part time in 1987, had his interest piqued. He first participated in 1994, when he finished first in the state in the van division. He advanced to nationals in Portland, Ore., in 1995, coming in second.
He won the national event for the first time in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1997. He went on to win again in the body-on-chassis, or bus, division in 2000, 2004 and 2009. Taking fourth place last year, he typically has finished among the top 10 over the years, competing against fields of 60 to 80 drivers in his division.
Kuehnemund passed up competitions a couple of times, which enabled other drivers to advance from the state and experience nationals. Kuehnemund said part of the fun of attending the contests is the camaraderie with the other drivers, although the competitive spirit tends to take over once on the obstacle course.
"Then it's all business because everybody wants to win," Kuehnemund said.
The competition consists of a written test, a pre-trip bus inspection, wheelchair securement and driving. The bus inspection involves finding pre-determined vehicle defects. The wheelchair securement entails a series of actions, including what to say to the passenger and when, that must be performed in the proper order. The driving portion, which accounts for half the score, takes place on a tight obstacle course, where drivers lose points for striking cones or needing to back up.
Avoiding trouble isn't the biggest challenge of the course, Kuehnemund said. It's knowing how to best get out of trouble once it inevitably comes.
"There's a strategy there," he said. "And it's timed. If you stop to figure 'what am I going to do now?' the clock is ticking."
Drivers get a walk-through of the course before the competition, which Kuehnemund said is when he plots his strategy.
"You have to plan ahead, coming out of an obstacle, how you will line up for the next one," he said.
Darrell Francis, director of Souris Basin Transportation, said Kuehnemund has represented the agency well at the competitions.
"It's experience. That's his strong point. He doesn't get nervous. He doesn't get intense. He's a down-to-earth kind of guy who will do well in situations like this," Francis said.
Kuehnemund said he is considering retiring from competition but would like to win nationals one more time first. Francis said he knows Kuehnemund will want stay involved in the roadeos through judging and by helping familiarize new competitors with the process.
Kuehnemund's roadeo success has given his family a chance to visit places such as Seattle, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Reno., Nev., and Providence, R.I.
Kuehnemund met his wife, Bonnie, then a student at Minot State University, while stationed at Minot Air Force Base in the 1970s. After his discharge from the Air Force, they moved to his hometown area of Bay City, Mich., where he worked in bus mechanics and body repair and received his commercial driver's license. He also earned a degree in residential construction.
Four years later, in 1980, they moved back to his wife's hometown of Rugby, and Kuehnemund went to work for Hartley's School Buses. He eventually became a charter bus driver for the company and also drove school bus.
Now full time with Souris Basin Transportation, Kuehnemund puts in long days transporting residents three days a week within Rugby, usually driving a van. He drives bus passengers to Minot once a week. He is assisted by two part-time drivers. The service operates in Rugby five days a week.
Souris Basin Transportation, Minot, is a nonprofit corporation that operates a rural public transportation system in seven counties. The transportation system is open to the general public but caters to the elderly and people with special needs.
As much as he used to enjoy the scenery on the long-haul charters, driving up and down the streets of Rugby or wearing out the rubber on U.S. Highway 2 to Minot has greater rewards.
"It's more fulfilling," Kuehnemund said, adding that it is a way for him to give something back to the community that has meant so much to his family.
Kuehnemund said he enjoys the personal contact with his passengers, who often consider it a treat to ride the bus or van and visit.
"A lot of them like that because they don't get out a lot," Kuehnemund said. "Ninety percent of my passengers don't have a vehicle."
Francis said Kuehnemund's success in the roadeos is a reflection of his performance on the job. He has a good safety record and understands customer service, he said.
"The competition sharpens the driver," Kuehnemund said. He views the focus of the competition as professionalism. In his mind, that's what his job at Souris Basin Transportation is all about.
(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to email@example.com.)