Gas prices collide with county fair traditionby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
The demolition derby has been a quirky tradition at county fairs across the country for decades. Add to that the truck and tractor pull events, and you've got traditions running face to face into reality. With rising fuel and other costs, these pastimes are getting more and more expensive. But the events continue to be a summer staple in rural Minnesota.
Bagley, Minn. — The announcer's voice booms through a loud speaker at the Clearwater County fair and the crowd responds.
"Looking good everybody," he said. "In three, two, one, go!"
Cheering fans are drowned out by the revving vehicles as they all enjoy a summer weekend demolition derby.
People have been smashing up late model beaters at the Clearwater County Fair for nearly 40 years. The premise is pretty simple. Drivers in junk cars deliberately ram into each other until there's only one car left running.
It's an event that consistently packs the grandstand, but for some drivers it's a lifelong passion.
Ted Plante, Shevlin, Minn., caught the derby bug a few years ago. He's been working for months on fixing up his grandma's old 1974 Chevy Impala.
Plante says there's nothing like the shot of adrenaline he gets from revving it up in the dirt.
"Basically, just picture sitting in a lawn chair and then having a Sherman tank run after you," he explained. "It's a rush, I mean, it's fun. There's some hard hitting and stuff, but... I'm in it for the thrill of the game, you know."
Plante usually runs a derby car at several county fairs in the region. But this year he's cut back because of the rising cost of gas. It costs a lot just to haul the car from place to place.
"It gets expensive, you know," Plante said. "You only get 10, 12 miles to the gallon with a pickup, so it doesn't pay sometimes. But I think this stuff will be around for awhile. The crowd likes it. It's entertainment for them. We're out here to put on a good show for them, you know."
Demolition derbies haven't changed much over the years. Full-sized sedans seem to be the most popular. The glass is removed to make it safer, and the vehicles are stripped down to bare bones.
Seventy-year-old Everett Wilberg has been in dozens of demolition derbies over the years. He's happy just to watch the competition these days, but he still remembers the thrill of driving in his first demolition derby some 35 years ago.
"I had an auto body repair shop, and it was fun just to go out and smash them up instead of fix them up," he laughed as he recalled those times.
Wilburg says one thing that has changed is that it's getting tougher to find those old junk cars.
They're still out there in farmers' fields, in the junkyards or tucked away in grandpa's shed. But with the rising price of iron and steel, more people have been selling those cars for scrap metal.
Running a car in the demolition derby can be an expensive hobby. Wilberg says there's usually prize money involved, but most people are in it for the love of the sport.
"The guy that wins this year will get $1,000," he said. "He probably paid $500 dollars for his car, and he probably put a couple hundred dollars in getting it ready for the derby. So, then after you pay the entry fees and he hasn't got a whole lot left if he wins it."
It's typically men who get involved in derby driving, but that doesn't stop 26-year-old Amber Thoreson, Clearbrook, Minn.
This is Thoreson's third demolition derby. This year she's driving a 1968 Dodge Polara.
"It's a guy's sport, and for a lady to come in there, it's very challenging," she said. "I enjoy that... I know there's a lot of guys that don't want me to be here, but they're fair to me. Last year they didn't pick on me, they're fair. They treated me just like a guy out there."
Thoreson and her husband bought her clunker a month ago and they've been spending summer weekends fixing it up.
They sunk about $500 dollars into the car to get it derby ready. Thoreson figures the fun she's having is well worth the cost.
"No matter what you do, you're going to spend money, and this is a hobby," she said. "I don't really have too many hobbies, but this is a hobby that I really, really, really enjoy."
With the dwindling availability of those big old, late model gas guzzlers, demolition derbies are starting to undergo a change.
At the Clearwater County Fair there's a separate derby just for small, compact cars. Fair officials say it's an event that's already gaining in popularity.
- All Things Considered, 08/11/2008, 5:24 p.m.