Demolition derby participants crash the party at county fairs
Blade, The (Toledo, OH)
Aug. 24--What does Deshler'sRobin Courtney look for in a good demolition derby?
"A good crash," she said. "We don't like fire, but when we see fire, we yell fire."
Ms. Courtney is something of an expert. She's been watching the demolition derby at the Henry County Fair since she was "knee-high to a grasshopper," she said. She and her family get to the fairgrounds before the gates open on derby day, so they can stake out the same prime bleacher seating where her parents -- also derby enthusiasts -- used to bring her to watch as a child.
"It's just a good time. We have a good time," she said. "We get sunburns, and by the end of the night, we'll have sore throats and can't hardly talk -- knowing that they can't hear us out there," she added with a laugh, "but we don't care."
Ms. Courtney is hardly alone in her passion for demolition derbies, those last-car-running duke-outs that are a staple of grandstand entertainment at regional county fairs. Several local fair board representatives said they're reliable sellouts year after year: Henry County'sDirk Meyer estimated Ms. Courtney joined a crowd of nearly 4,000 in Henry County on Aug. 15.
If You Go
Hancock County Fair, 1017 E. Sandusky St., Findlay, 3 p.m.Sept. 2. Admission: $5.
Fulton County Fair, 8514 State Rt. 108, Wauseon, 6:30 p.m.Sept. 5. Admission: $10
Hillsdale County Fair, 115 S. Broad St., Hillsdale, Mich., 7 p.m.Sept. 24. Admission: $10
Seneca County Fall Show, 100 Hopewell Ave., Tiffin. 7 p.m.Sept. 28. Admission: TBD
Seneca County Fall Show, 901 Rawson Ave., Fremont, 2 p.m.Oct. 20. Admission: TBD
Seneca County packed in something like 4,500 spectators on July 27, Seneca County Agricultural Society President Brian Staib said. That's an at-capacity grandstand of 2,500, plus additional bleachers. And Lenawee County sees 7,000 and 8,000 spectators on each night of its comparable figure-eight demos and "tuff truck and car" competition, according to motorsports committee chair Mark Ruttkofsky. The Lenawee County Fair ran July 21-27.
Fulton County Fair Board President Dennis Wyse said they're counting on selling out an approximately 3,500-capacity grandstand for a demolition derby on Sept. 5, as they have for the past few years. They'll accommodate at least 1,000 more with pit passes.
Mr. Wyse recommends getting tickets early.
"There will be a 100-foot line to get tickets as the show is starting," he predicted.
While drivers likely take a more competitive view of a derby than the average spectator -- they're crashing to win, after all -- several describe the appeal in much the same terms as the ooh-ing and ahh-ing crowds. A good crash is a lot of fun.
"You spend all your life trying to take care of everything you have, try to make it last as long as possible," said Erik Schwiebert, of Hamler, who started running demolition derbies when he still needed parental permission. That's 20-plus years at this point. "This is one thing you can do where the whole purpose is to destroy it. Or to see how hard you can hit somebody, where their car bends and yours doesn't. It's just a real big thrill."
"It's like therapy. It is," Dora Conklin, of McClure, said. She ran two cars in two heats in Henry County. "It relieves your stress. You get behind that wheel and it's just like, you get to destroy something. It just relieves all your anger and stress. We don't have a lot of money in it, so I think that's the joy of it. We just go out and destroy it."
Ms. Conklin and her husband, Chad, who's been running in demolition derbies nearly as long as her five years, estimate that they don't spend more than a couple hundred dollars on the vehicles they run in the demolition derby of their hometown fair. While some drivers sink thousands of dollars into modifying a vehicle -- often in hopes of taking home a heftier purse than can be found on the typical county fair circuit, or at least running a vehicle for several years -- the cheaper and simpler "windshield" classes are often appealing to county fair drivers.
Drivers pick up a beater for cheap, maybe on Craigslist of Facebook Marketplace, punch out the windows and wire the doors shut and the hood down. For safety's sake, it's also a good idea to move the gas tank and battery inside the car; often they'll also strip out the interior, too.
Cade Delong, of Deshler, estimated that he only invested "about a hundred bucks" into the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme he ran in Henry County. He painted a Captain America shield onto the roof, gunning at least for "best in show."
In Lenawee County, where the figure-eight races are less about crashing than they are about skill -- the idea is to get ahead by maybe spinning out another driver or forcing them into a barrier, not T-boning them in an intersection -- Eric Ehinger, who's been driving since 1985, said he keeps an eye out for vehicles all year. Mr. Ehinger won one of this year's figure-eight races.
"We start looking as soon as the races are over," he said.
Smash It's Tim Clark and Twisted Metal Demo Crew's Ryan Tittle Sr. each said they're seeing more and more drivers come around to the windshield class as a more accessible class of crashing. Smash It, based in London, Ohio, and Twisted Metal, based in Tiffin, are promoters that set the rules and run the registration for demolition derbies at many of the region's county fairs. (Lenawee County organizes its own motorsports events.)
"I've seen where there were $10,000 cars, and now it's back to the windshield cars," said Mr. Clark, who's been in the business as a promoter since the '90s. Smash It handles derbies in more than 50 of Ohio's 88 county fairs, including Henry County. "It's like a big circle."
Mr. Tittle said the windshield class draws a significant percentage of total entries in the derbies he runs. Twisted Metal is gearing up for Fulton County, one of 11 county fairs and two fall shows it's handling locally this year.
"The compact class and your windshield class is starting to kind of save the derby from being a 10-car heat," Mr. Tittle said. "Some of our compact heats are 25 to 30 cars in a heat."
In Henry County, entries in the "windshield" compact street stock class topped 15. After a few early heats of battery-operated children's cars, riding lawn mowers and pickup trucks, the street cars lined up at angles in a muddied centerfield, essentially filling the blocked-off space that organizers had designated for the derby. Among them: Antwerp'sChristine Pease, driving a Ford Taurus she'd painted with stars and stripes to match the bedazzled baseball cap that she wore to the fair.
Ms. Pease grew up watching demolition derbies with her dad in the grandstands of Henry County, she said before the derby began. Her run there last week was her fourth in her hometown derby and her seventh overall since her husband, who's handy with cars, came home and told her he had a car she could demo: Did she want to?
Of course she did.
"I don't know -- your adrenaline, it's scary but it's so fun," she said. "The first time I was out there, I was laughing and I kind of lost focus. It reminded me of bumper cars. I was like, 'Oh, wait, you have to pay attention to what's going on.'"
At the countdown of the crowd later that night, hers was among those that revved into action, bumping and pushing and chasing after each other. Occasionally a car would break away from the pack, picking up a little speed for a particularly satisfying crunch that left the crowd cheering in unison. As the minutes ticked by, they were also dodging stalled and sometimes smoking vehicles; once they stopped to let firefighters take care of flames shooting out from a hood.
A smiling Ms. Pease stayed in it until the final definitive crash -- a first-place win for her, plus the satisfaction of driving off the smoking field without the assistance of a fork-lift.
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