'You're in it for the rush': Demo derby drivers love putting on show

A car gets knocked of its wheels as the Demolition Derby gets under way Tuesday at the Adams County Fair. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Jul. 30, 2014 9:00 am Updated: Aug. 13, 2014 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

MENDON, Ill. -- Michelle Gallaher did not even attempt to veil her enthusiasm.

Her anticipation of the rock-'em, sock-'em nature of a demolition derby was apparent leading up to Tuesday's main attraction on the closing night of the 73rd Adams County Fair.

"I'm here for the crashes," said Gallaher, who with her husband, Terry, and other family members made the haul from New London, Mo.

Terry tried to downplay his wife's excitement.

"I'm here for the corn dogs and ice cream," he said matter-of-factly.

When Michelle glared good-naturedly at him, he broke into a smile as the Gallaher family looked to find good seats in the grandstands -- along with about 5,000 others.

The demolition derby annually attracts one of the fair's biggest turnouts. The fans love to see the drivers destroy one another's cars, and the drivers love to put on a show.

A demolition derby is not rocket science: The last vehicle running wins.

"It's an adrenalin rush," fourth-year driver Brandon Britt, 23, of Ursa said. "I used to do a lot of muddin' (competitive driving through mud and bogs, normally with a truck), but a buddy talked me into this, and I've been hooked ever since."

Randy Voss, vice president of the Adams County Fair Board and a longtime coordinator of the derby, says the appeal of man destroying machine is quite simple.

"The crowd loves the excitement and the (crashes)," he said. "If you hear the crowd go ‘Ohhhhhhhhhh!,' you know something good just happened."

Injuries are part of the demolition derby life. Broken ribs and other bones, concussions, whiplash and assorted knocks and bruises are part of the culture, much like in bull riding.

"Getting hit on the driver's side is the worst," Britt said. "They're not supposed to hit you on the driver's side, but accidents happen."

Jason Padgett of Mount Sterling has been a derby driver for 21 years. He started when he was 15.

"Getting hit from the back can hurt, too," he said. "If you don't see it coming, it can be bad. It can really jar you."

Unlike most of his competitors, Padgett has victories on his resume.

"I've won a couple, but you don't do it for the money," he said.

Prize money is minimal. It's all about the thrill of the fight.

"It's a hobby, and you don't make money with a hobby," Padgett said.

A driver is lucky if he can get two derbies out of a car. That's how bad the damage normally is. No one -- repeat, no one -- escapes unscathed.

Demo derbies in general have evolved through the years, especially over the past decade or so. All but gone are the huge, old clunkers that once dominated the derbies. In their place are the smaller compacts, much quicker and faster.

"This is very expensive," Britt said. "It takes a lot of work to get a car ready."

Breaking even is not even a consideration when the cost of (another) car, making the necessary modifications and the time involved are all considered.

"But you're not in it for the money. You're in it for the rush," Britt said.

So are demo derby fans like Kyle and Amber Dixon of Quincy, who admittedly love the slam-bang action of demo derbies and all dirt-track types of motorsports.

"We met at the track, and our first date was going to a race," Amber said. "We just enjoy this kind of stuff."

About 20 cars were on hand Tuesday for the derby. Ramer Promotions of Mendota, which has been involved with demolition derbies for county fairs and festivals for 15 years, promoted the event.