David Lane made it to the top by maneuvering a 40-foot-long, 13-ton bus through a row of tennis balls with just an inch to spare on either side.

It was more of an obstacle course than he encounters driving a Metrobus on the Glover Park-Trinidad line in Northwest Washington, and getting through it made him the 1982 winner of the annual Metrobus Operators "Roadeo," sponsored by the transit system. On Oct. 16, he will go to Boston to represent Washington in the American Public Transit Association Roadeo.

Lane, a Metro driver for nine years who grew up in Washington as the son of a bus driver, won the contest in late August, when maneuvers were held on the parking lot at the New Carrollton Metro station. The winner was announced Sept. 25 at the annual roadeo banquet here. Lane confessed that the month-long suspense played havoc with his blood pressure.

Lane had finished the precision-driving course in five minutes and 45 seconds, earning 587 of a possible 650 points. "That's a terrible score," groaned the 35-year-old driver. He said he plans to do better in Boston.

The driving stunts included making a 90-degree turn while backing the bus up and succcessfully weaving through a string of bright orange cones--not to mention the tennis ball course.

Lane tried his hand at the roadeo last year, but said that lack of sleep the night before cost him dearly. He was determined to to better this year, he said. "It seems like everybody who participates in the roadeo, and wins, gets to be a supervisor or trainer."

Trainers don't have to put up with argumentative passengers, monitor fares or drive during rush hours, he noted. But then again, trainers spend a good deal of time sitting ashen-faced in buses driven by rookies, he added.

"I like driving, I always have," said Lane, a soft-spoken, stocky veteran of the Vietnam War who now lives in Fort Washington. To a passenger riding with him on the Glover Park-Trinidad line, he seems to know someone to wave at every few blocks.

Lane's day begins shortly after noon at Union Station. He winds through Northeast Washington to the VA Hospital and back to Union Station and then weaves through upper Northwest to Sibley Hospital

Lane, who has been driving this route off and on for six years, said he loves it, and likes serving his customers, among them deaf students at Gallaudet College and elderly women riding downtown to shop. He said the route is a departure from his rookie days, when he was driving Benning Road in Northeast. There, he said, anything was likely to happen.

One evening during his first year on that route, Lane recalled, while he was driving along Sheriff Road, "A guy pulled a knife on me. He was half drunk and didn't like the way I was driving. I just took it the knife from him." In retrospect, he wasn't sure his response was the safest one, but he said he still had some Vietnam War bravado left in him.

Lane, a native of Northeast Washington, is fairly certain that the bus system is his life's work. "I'll probably retire as something from Metro," he said. His father worked as a mechanic for Metro's predecessor, D.C. Transit System Inc., for 13 years before he became a driver. "You have to realize there was a time when they would not let us blacks drive," Lane said.

When he's not behind the steering wheel, Lane is likely to be playing cards, entertaining his three children or tinkering with one of his 1950s-vintage Chevrolets--much more valuable than the expensive cars sold today, he said. He chuckled and held out his hands for inspection: "I always have grease under my nails."