Alex Dos Diaz

Parking for Gold

Competitive parking may not inspire the popular imagination like NASCAR or the NBA, but a handful of enthusiasts are hoping to change that. Welcome to the National Valet Olympics.

The valets arrived from all over the United States: St. Louis, New York, Austin, San Diego. They fanned out across the parking lot, breaking into short sprints or kicking rocks, lost in thought. The desert mountains of Palm Springs loomed in the background. One valet stretched, touching his toes; another stood in the morning sun, doing calf raises on a concrete barrier. Next to me, a valet rubbed his palms along a line painted between two parking spots, for luck. A call went out, and everyone’s head turned. It was time to begin.

Every two years, the American valet-parking industry sends its best parkers—optimistically described as athletes—to compete in a head-to-head battle known as the National Valet Olympics. True to their Athenian namesake, the games push participants to the limit. Competitors sort keys. They pack trunks. They slalom through orange cones. They sprint across parking lots. Organized into corporate teams, they also dress in the snazzy uniforms of their trade.

At first glance, an Olympics organized entirely around valet parking seems absurd: a luxury service treated as a Decathlon. Yet the Valet Olympics draw attention to a line of work—or, as some would say, an emerging motorsport—that few ever pause to consider. Successful valets boast automotive skills unappreciated outside the parking lot. And valet parking is a hidden vein of economic opportunity that provides full-time work, first jobs, and summer employment to thousands. For immigrants from Nigeria, India, or Ecuador, or displaced by war in Iraq, the industry can supply a much-needed foothold in the United States, even launching a lifelong career. What’s more, as cities grow in size and complexity, America’s urban centers are becoming harder to navigate—with byzantine parking laws, dense downtowns that require real-life Tetris skills to park, and massive lots located blocks from the venues they serve. All of this makes valets, as they invisibly rearrange streets, the set designers of every busy cityscape. Giving them an arena to demonstrate their talents is, in this sense, a no-brainer.

For these licensed and overlooked workers, the National Valet Olympics are an opportunity to gather in a different city every other year to ask: Who is the Tom Brady of the American parking lot, the LeBron James of a well-packed sedan? Perhaps it was the valet who last parked your car. Competitive parking doesn’t (yet) inspire the popular imagination like NASCAR or the NBA. But a handful of enthusiasts are trying to change that.

Ellis M. Dumont founded Advanced Parking Concepts in Verona, New Jersey, when he was 28 years old. Now 60, Dumont is outgoing, generous, and insistent that his valets live up to a code he calls the APC Way: a combination of professionalism, moral grace, and raw parking skill. At the 2017 Olympics, for example, after the final event had been scored and rival teams had wandered off, it was APC who stayed behind to break down tables and restack chairs. A more extraordinary example of the APC Way came in 1991, during the “Perfect Storm,” a nor’easter that rocked the Atlantic coast, flooding APC’s parking lots so quickly that valets couldn’t move clients’ vehicles without risk of drowning. That’s when one of APC’s regional managers, a recreational SCUBA diver, made his way to a submerged parking lot, donned his gear, and did reconnaissance dives through the murky water to confirm that no vehicles could be saved. Under Dumont’s direction, APC has won Best Attitude at every Valet Olympics since the games’ inception in 2009.

Dumont was an ideal guide to the games. Not only did he co-write the original protocols for the core Olympic events; he is also a former president of the now-defunct National Valet Parking Association. Dumont explained which companies would field teams this year, the events or skills they were known for, and the details I should watch for in each performance. Seen through his eyes, the Valet Olympics were akin to dressage: athletes drawing on reserves of skill and discipline to coax finesse and precision from unruly steeds.

Dumont’s dedication was evident. Under the close supervision of the longtime APC employee and team coach Olu Ajala, APC’s athletes had already been training for weeks, preparing for a grueling desert competition. In addition to honing their parking skills, the APC crew had been running wind sprints up the same New Jersey hill where Herschel Walker, the NFL running back, once trained. Despite APC’s best efforts, seriousness of purpose, and multiple Best Attitude awards, however, they had never been crowned Olympic champions. Dumont and his team were the patient but relentless underdogs, hoping 2017 would be their year.

This ambition was shared by APC’s managing director, Adebisi Bamigboye, a 49-year-old Nigerian immigrant known simply as “Bisi.” In person, Bisi can be both intense and surprising. With a sister married to a former Nigerian diplomat at one point stationed in Budapest, Bisi is nearly fluent in Hungarian; he also once trained in the performing arts, with the goal of becoming a cinematographer. As for his feelings about the Valet Olympics, he explained: “Geoff, I’ll make it clear for you. This time around, it will be a battle.”

In October, I met Dumont, Bisi, and the APC crew in Palm Springs, at the National Parking Association’s annual expo, which hosts the Valet Olympics. Inside the sprawling Palm Springs Convention Center, exhibitors hawked mobile payment platforms, radio-frequency tagging products, and emergency security bollards that could stop a speeding truck. A cavernous breakout room held a course for aspiring “valet ambassadors.” One speaker’s inspirational advice included urging valets to park cars as if it were a life calling, to see themselves as “employees of an organization working in unison toward a higher purpose”—that is, parking. For the valets in the room, of course, there was only one higher purpose that week: to win the Herb Citrin Trophy, the games’ equivalent of a gold medal, awarded to the best valet-parking team in the country.

In 1946, Herb Citrin inherited a small parking business at Lawry’s the Prime Rib, a steakhouse in Los Angeles. A World War II veteran who died in 2013 at the age of 91, Citrin introduced formal, militaristic uniforms and a disciplined approach to parking-lot management. He is now considered “the godfather,” in Dumont’s words, of valet parking. In a Los Angeles magazine profile from 1996, Citrin joked that, when he and his wife traveled abroad to tour cities such as Rome, they always found time for the historic architecture—but Citrin really wanted to check out the parking lots, “to see what they’ve done with the idea.” The Colosseum was old news; parking lots were the new urban monuments of the age. Citrin’s peculiar genius was to realize that parking lots and increasingly complex on-street regulations needed an interpreter, someone to make sense of them for the motoring public. To Citrin, the valet parker was a master of the modern, automotive city.

At the 2015 Valet Olympics in Miami Beach, Florida, Katie Richards of AmeriPark was crowned Best Valet, the first—and, for now, only—woman to take home the title. In 2017, all the competitors were men. In addition to the APC team, the entrants included Aristocrat Valet from St. Louis, a LAZ Parking crew from San Diego, and a mixed team from Towne Park, one of APC’s most seasoned rivals. Towne Park had gone all-in this year, assembling a national super-team through its own internal mini-Olympic trials.

The competition meant different things to each participant. Josh Matiyow, a 26-year-old valet from LAZ Parking, had only recently moved west from Michigan and is a volunteer with the California Army National Guard. Handsome, he resembles a young Chris Hemsworth. He had no idea what the Valet Olympics were when he agreed to participate and only learned what the events entailed 48 hours before checking into his hotel. When I asked him what he had done to prepare, he laughed.

For the 33-year-old Regin Amin, from Aristocrat Valet in St. Louis, the Olympics were the culmination of a very different story. Amin, an Iraqi Kurd, arrived in the United States after nearly eight years in a Syrian refugee camp following the first Gulf War. Whenever international ambassadors visited the camp, Amin said, he fixated on their cars, those exotic, seemingly unattainable machines. When Amin’s family immigrated to the United States in 1998, he was thrown directly into the ninth grade despite having no English skills. Still, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Now, with the title of Best Valet in the United States up for grabs, Amin seemed cautious and reflective. He told me the arid mountains around the venue looked so much like the landscape outside his childhood home in Sulaymaniyah that he FaceTimed his parents to show them.

As the events kicked off, the athletes jostled and clowned around in front of the logos of fellow parking firms. They smiled for their close-ups. A local event photographer took official portraits and action shots. Like cowboys before a rodeo, the contestants checked each other out. Some valets did high kicks and lunges; others nervously straightened their uniforms. Dumont moved from place to place, talking to his athletes one on one. Unable to contain himself, he pulled me aside and urged me to watch as a crowd began to gather. “This is special,” he said as much to himself as to me. “Just watch. Just watch.”

The competition consists of four timed events, with the overall winner crowned Best Valet. These are capped-off by awards for Best Team, Best Attitude, and Best Dressed.

The first event, the Key Box Challenge, is a form of competitive OCD: Valets must sprint to a locked key box, match a dozen or so keys with their corresponding vehicle tags, hang them correctly on a metal door, then sprint back to the finish line. It seemed simple, but it was chaos. For some valets, the locker wouldn’t open; for others, it wouldn’t close; one athlete forgot the final key altogether and had to run back to retrieve it.

Then came the Luggage Load. Beneath a soaring outdoor veranda with spectacular views, a brown Hyundai Elantra stood waiting. Its roof seemed to ripple in the heat. A few of the athletes looked apprehensive: The car had “an unusual trunk configuration,” I heard one say. The luggage cart, another noticed, had a broken wheel. And was that a slope leading down to the car? That could send the cart speeding downhill, its bags spilling out onto the concrete. For his part, Dumont was elated. This was perfect, he told me. It was exactly the right amount of difficulty. One athlete, Twain Frazier, a 23-year-old Ohio State grad from Towne Park, seemed to be in a state of deep concentration, silently communing with the luggage. Another packed the trunk so badly, it wouldn’t close, triggering a 10-second penalty. Others excelled, including valets from APC.

Next up was Precision Parking, the photogenic centerpiece of the games. Valets must sprint to a car—in this case, a black Toyota Camry—leap inside, and roar out of the parking spot. There is no speed limit. Athletes then weave through 10 orange cones, park the car, put it in reverse, and do the whole thing all over again, backwards. Before the event began, there was a small controversy: Most valets had practiced on six cones, they said, not 10. Some walked the course in open disbelief, as if faced with driving the Nürburgring. Indeed, Precision Parking was the games’ real litmus test. APC’s Philip Ozuzu, 19, took his turns too aggressively and had to do many of them over again, costing precious seconds. When LAZ’s Matiyow was up, he careened backwards through the cones, his windshield wipers mysteriously waving in the heat.

Finally came the Valet Relay, an exercise in contradiction and restraint: slow speed in the fastest time possible. Each valet must race a car across the parking lot without exceeding 10 miles per hour. A judge holding a speed gun clocks the pace. After reaching a parking spot, the athletes run back to the start on foot and rerack their keys. APC had something of an advantage here thanks to their wind-sprint training. Ozuzu was a blur, looking more like a track star than a valet.

I asked the teams if they were satisfied with these events, or if they might prefer another way to measure their skills. Some joked about combining the Valet Olympics with an American Ninja Warrior–style obstacle course, parking in a simulated rainstorm or weaving through a maze of flaming pendulums. Several agreed that the games needed some sort of social element, such as an impatient client. Do all this with someone yelling at you the whole time, one joked, and you would be a true valet. Another suggested taking a parking lot with space for only 10 or 20 vehicles, then seeing how many cars each team could fit inside without a single scratch or ding.

Of course, Dumont said, the games are less than a decade old—this is just the beginning. As the events came to a close and valets waited for final scores, Dumont talked about the potential for expansion. There could be sponsored footwear—perhaps a line of valet-approved shoes—or an official luxury automobile of the games. Dumont imagined a world where valets are taken seriously as athletes, recognized for their social skills, technical grace, and professional commitment. He was not alone. Robert Pohrer, of Aristocrat Valet, noticed the effect the games had on the valets and suggested that his company might launch a version of the Olympics in St. Louis. Tom Carter of Toledo Ticket—the head judge for every Olympics to date—said, only half-jokingly, that he might push for a winter games, held in a city like Toledo. Bad-weather valets accustomed to ice and snow might have a better chance at beating out their sun-spoiled competitors.

For now, with the year’s events officially over, Carter and his judges retreated to crunch the numbers. While APC put away the tables and chairs, the rest of us waited.

In preparation for the Olympics, I reached out to valets to understand the everyday challenges of the job. Those with the best stories asked to remain anonymous—and it was easy to see why. One former valet regaled me with tales straight out of a Martin Scorsese film, working mafia parties on Staten Island, raking in $100 tips per car. Another told me about a regular customer at a high-end restaurant in California who drove an elaborately modified BMW with interior neon lights and a live parrot caged in the backseat. Another admitted driving customers’ cars around Brooklyn searching for parking spots for so long, that the vehicles were running on fumes by the time their owners came to collect them. I heard about a drunk teenage valet who flipped a $100,000 luxury car on a tight curve; about a law student cramming for exams in clients’ cars in the depths of winter; about a loaded handgun that slid out from beneath the driver’s seat at a sudden stop.

When I spoke with APC’s Bisi Bamigboye about his own experiences in the New York City region, from Connecticut mega-mansions to secretive estates on Long Island, he described a scene replete with movie stars, politicians, and financiers. He worked Ivanka Trump’s wedding and even once valeted a private party for George Soros, where the two briefly conversed in Hungarian. Bisi is the Forrest Gump of valet parking, someone who happens to be present at key moments in cultural history. If a famous New Yorker threw a party, Bisi was there.

Could the secret story of any metropolis be written from the perspective of its valets? Like so many in the service industry, valets are ubiquitous but unnoticed and thus in a position to notice all. They see how much people drink, what they argue about, and which celebrities or elected officials are having affairs. Like detectives, valets see behind a city’s curtains, one supper club, one bar, one wedding at a time.

The shadow cast by this unusually intimate access to a city’s social life, however, is that these parties, exclusive restaurants, and mansions are places none of the valets would otherwise be invited to. The dichotomy between private galas and luxury cars, where a single high-end Mercedes can cost more than a valet’s apartment, is cruelly jarring. This injected the Valet Olympics with a sense of overdue recognition, an appreciation of the hard work that keeps the profession going. Beneath the dry humor of competitive car parking—lucky socks and botched three-point turns—there was a feeling that people overlooked elsewhere were getting their moment.

While the athletes were outside competing in the sun, tech firms, architects, and industry consultants inside the Convention Center were busy transforming what it means to park a car in the first place. If the corporate attendees are to be believed, parking is at the cutting edge of innovation and consumer change, a weathervane for gauging the future of the American city.

Exhibitors told me about several revolutionary changes underway in parking-lot management and design. New technologies for self-parking, remote lot management, mobile payment apps, and wireless surveillance and security are all raising the possibility that any empty space can become a high-tech parking lot, whether a rural meadow or an unused roadway. The effects of this on the valet industry are unclear. Some say technology threatens to make valets obsolete; others think it will give valets exponentially more ground to cover. Armed with smartphones, valets could saturate neighborhoods with precisely tracked cars, expanding their domain street by street—or they could be put out of business overnight, as customers no longer rely on intermediaries between cars and the city around them. Plus, the rise of self-driving vehicles might well eliminate the need to park cars at all. Rather than sit unused in a lot somewhere, driverless vehicles could simply move on to their next customer.

The National Valet Olympics are thus the industry’s premiere event, but perhaps also its swan song. Valet skills—whether distilled into comically specific Olympic events or on display at a Chicago restaurant on a Friday night—might soon be lost to urban history.

The results of the 2017 National Valet Olympics were announced in a ceremony fueled by Diet Coke and chicken sandwiches. Towne Park’s super-team had done it: They were declared the overall winner, and Towne Park’s own Twain Frazier was named the country’s Best Valet. At the time, Frazier was working at a shopping mall in Columbus, Ohio, his spatial wizardry limited only by a lack of local challenges. I tried to imagine him taking his talents to South Beach or Los Angeles, but Frazier politely demurred. “I’ve only been doing this for about a year and a half,” he said. His real goal is to be a sports broadcaster.

Dumont clapped enthusiastically for his rivals—still, I could see he was disappointed. APC had gone through yet another Valet Olympics without achieving victory. They did, however, win Best Attitude again, continuing the firm’s remarkable streak. As the room broke out into celebratory handshakes, most of the valets faded with exhaustion as the adrenaline wore off. But Dumont was on his feet, already talking about the 2019 games. It was the APC Way.