Louis A. Penny fine-tuned his rearview mirror and pulled the Velcro glove strap tight around his wrist. He tinkered with the seat, and popped a piece of Doublemint gum into his mouth. This was no time to talk.

"Hold your questions, please," he told a reporter riding with the four-time winner of the annual Metrobus Roadeo. "We're gone."

This year's contest, the 13th, pitted 100 of the area's top transit captains against each other as they navigated a course of tight curves, tried to pull within inches of designated passenger stops and squeezed the bus's dual rear wheels through a channel of tennis balls.

At the climax, they ran the 40-foot vehicles through a gantlet of barrels that narrowed to a space Ralph Kramden would find tricky on foot. Points were deducted for nudging the orange cones that outline the course, shifting into reverse too many times, or neglecting safety rules.

Neatness also counts. Fifty of the possible 700 points were awarded for drivers who keep their shirts pressed, shoes shined and fingernails clean. As he finished his run, Penny looked sharp, but was not happy about his chances for a fifth victory over the 19 other drivers who qualified for yesterday's third and final round of competition, held at the Metrobus garage near White Flint Mall.

"My worst one," said Penny, who has logged 25 years as a Metrobus driver.

He had managed the serpentine curve without trouble, and hurtled through the barrels with ease. But he was disgruntled about having to rock the bus back and forth to squeeze it into one of the two alleys drivers must enter in reverse -- normally Penny's favorite maneuver. He also hit two cones during a right turn.

In real life the mistakes might mean a dented fender or worse. But this time only pride was on the line.

The contest, in fact, is open only to drivers whose records are clear of safety violations. The winner, to be announced at a banquet in September, will go to Houston for a national bus driver showdown in October. Francis "Grandfather" Spadaro won the nationals for Washington once, in 1978, but city drivers have not placed higher than seventh since then.

At the other end of the Montgomery County gargage, three-member teams of Metrobus mechanics squared off in a separate competition, scouring a "defect bus" for 25 safety problems that included a faulty fuel cap and a leak in the brake lines.

Both contests are timed, although speed itself is not rewarded. The drivers are penalized only if they break the seven-minute time limit set for finishing the course; mechanics have the same amount of time to look for defects.

The idea, Metrobus officials said, is to simulate conditions workers might actually encounter on the job, such as maneuvering around cars or through tight passages.

"It covers essentially a normal operation," said LeRoy Bailey, assistant general manager of the bus division for Metro.

The winners of the mechanics competition were Kenneth Harrison, of Capitol Heights; John Meredith, of Landover; and Eugene Medeley, of Northwest Washington.