It’s a balmy Friday night in Bithlo, Florida, and a fleet of nineteen school buses are lumbering down a narrow, mud-caked speedway. Though technically in a race to the finish line, their real mission seems to be finding out just how much damage a typical school bus can endure. As it turns out, quite a bit. Reaching speeds of well over 60 miles per hour, the drivers traverse a hazardous figure-8 course that offers numerous opportunities for collisions. Their buses are sideswiped, rear-ended, and inevitably rolled over. As each bus meets its fiery end, a crowd of over four thousand rabid fans roars its approval from the stands.
School bus racing has become the latest hip de jour demolition sport, with sold-out events popping up everywhere from Colorado to New York. But purists still insist on making the trek to where it all began, at the Orlando Speedway in central Florida. Since 1994, fans have flocked to the biannual celebration of automotive carnage known as “Crash-O-Rama.” While the contest now attracts professional Super Stock racers from across the country, the real stars of Crash-O-Rama have always been the amateurs, particularly those who work by day as actual school bus drivers.
Benjamin Craft, a Crash-O-Rama regular since the beginning, makes his living driving kids to school in nearby Seminole County. He believes that his day job gives him an edge over the competition. “I got a little more experience behind the wheel,” Craft says. “I know how to go into a blind corner and how to gauge the mirror. It takes awhile to learn how these things handle.”
Craft became infamous on the school bus circuit for his custom-made racing machine, a black GMC with a 500-cubic-inch Cadillac engine under the hood. Though it was destroyed in action not long ago, he’s managed to make do with his new ride, a 1974 Blue Bird with a Chevy small-block that he’s dubbed “The Educator.”
The connection between what these drivers do on the racetrack and what they get paid to do during the week is not lost on Crash-O-Rama’s fans. In fact, the violent display of a school bus driver’s Id is exactly what they’ve paid to see. And the drivers don’t disappoint, covering their buses with anti-school graffiti and painting their windows with cartoons of screaming children.
Though school bus racing was once considered a sport of rednecks, it’s developed a wider audience in recent years. Today it has a loyal following among local Florida families, many of whom have children that are taken to school by – wait for it – the very same drivers who destroy buses in Crash-O-Rama.
Craft, who drives mostly elementary and middle school kids, frequently invites parents to visit him at the speedway. “A lot of ‘em have come up to me after a race,” he says, “and they tell me, ‘I totally trust you with my son or daughter now.’ They’ve seen that I can handle myself.”
During the last race of the evening, a bus is hit from all sides. It belches hot oil and broken glass, and sends a rearview mirror ricocheting across the field like shrapnel. A father and son, who’ve been watching the race from the stands, perch in their seats to get a closer look at the decimated bus.
“Is that it?” The father asks. “That your school bus?”
The boy narrows his eyes for another look. “Dunno,” he says with a shrug. “I never seen it on fire before.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 2005 issue of Esquire magazine.)