By JEFF PICKELL
A screaming comes over the field as Jon Fredrick fires up his 1966 all black Imperial. The exhaust spits rips of black smoke and whistles loud as Frederick maneuvers the car down his trailer ramp and onto the turf of the Fulton County Fairgrounds pit area.
“Simmer down over there,” calls Mike Maginn from a few cars over. He pats his own 1965 Imperial. “Mine won’t start if you scare it too much.”
It’s about one o’clock Thursday afternoon, and as the Fulton County Fair winds down, gear-heads from all over the area are prepping their war machines for fair week’s hard-hitting, smash-faced finale—the demolition derby.
The derby is a spectator favorite, but nobody has more fun at the event than the drivers. Their goals are simple—crash into other cars until they stop running or until one of them becomes immobile. Since this is the exact opposite of what most people aim to do with their automobiles, a lot of people might wonder who thought of this crazy contest and why anyone would want to compete in it.
It wasn’t something Fredrick, one of several Fayette residents in the competition, thought a lot about before signing up for his first derby.
“I just felt like it,” he says.
Fredrick hasn’t missed a derby since 1989, Maginn since 1993. Both have recorded second-place overall finishes in the past, and both are confident of their prospects this year—their 1960s model Imperials are barge-sized iron juggernauts, vulnerable in few places and speedy with the right adjustments.
“You really want to get either an Imperial or a round back wagon,” Maginn explains, “Something with a big rear end. The front end and radiator are the most vulnerable.”
Which is perhaps why, nearby, Gary Beaverson is frowning as he regards his 1986 Crown Victoria.
“It’s just not big enough,” he says.
The derby is split into two weight classes. Cars under 4,300 lbs. compete first, the big boys follow. Speed and maneuverability play a larger role among the smaller cars, but nothing compares to a good-sized trunk to use as a battering ram, which is not a Crown Vic’s strong suit.
“You’re going to have to sting like a bee,” Maginn advises him.
Beaverson is a relative newcomer to the derby. His brother-in-law gave him a derby car as a gift a few years ago, and he was hooked after his first competition. Between the Fulton and Williams County derbies, he goes through about a car a year. This might seem costly, but a shrewd competitor can make the most out of minimal funds.
“This car was sitting outside for months with $1100 on the windshield. I offered the owner $150 and took it home that same day,” says Beaverson. “When you show up with cash in your hand and a trailer to haul it away, it means something.”
“Good sponsors play a big role too,” says Fredrick, who lists on his car a variety of area businesses that help him out.
As the sun reaches its peak and begins to dip into the west, the sputter and roar of engines igniting is heard more frequently as contestants zip around the infield on test drives. Over a hundred drivers have entered the competition, and not one of them wants to lose out on the war glory because of some miniscule last minute malfunction.
Such was the case of Dan Gillespie at last year’s derby, when he was knocked out seconds into the competition by a bad coil wire. Gillespie became a competitor a five years ago, using the car he inherited after his grandmother passed away. His career at the fair has been marked with milestones in his life. He proposed to his wife at the derby a few years ago, and was forced to sit one out the next year as his child was born.
Gillespie’s current ride, the battered, white Dragon Wagon, has definitely seen better days, but promises a better experience than last year’s debacle. He insists he’s not particularly nervous about the mayhem ahead of him.
“I’m pumped,” he says. “I get a little nervous, but once I’m out there, I’m pumped.”
Fredrick echoes the sentiment.
“I might get a little jittery during the build up,” he says. “But once you hit that first car, that all goes away.”
Around half past five, the contestants in the smaller weight class move from prepping their cars to prepping themselves, pulling on long sleeve shirts and rugged pants, making sure their helmets, the most crucial part of the attire, fit correctly.
The cars are modified for safety, but not extensively. The gas tank is removed entirely and replaced with a five gallon tank that sits where the back seat would be. The driver’s seat is reinforced with a bar or wire mounted behind it. Doors are welded shut and windows removed. Two or three chains to catch big debris replace the windshield.
The announcer comes over the PA and orders the men and women to their cars. Beaverson, who was worried about the size of his car, stands silently beside it, listening to the contenders in the first heat crash and careen into one another. Each weight class is split into four heats of 12 to 15 cars each. The three surviving cars from each heat go on to the feature round to compete for the championship. Beaverson is in the second heat.
A few minutes later, he’s out in the fray, dodging and swerving, avoiding direct hits, dealing his own damage. Ten minutes into the heat, his trunk is mangled seemingly beyond repair and he’s sporting a few superficial dents on his right front and rear. But his engine is still roaring, and as the field wears down, it appears that Beaverson might finish out better than he thought. And then he gets caught. With only four cars remaining, Beaverson finds himself at the receiving end of a two-car ram that pushes him up onto the hood of another car. With his drive wheels are off the ground, it’s game over.
“I was this close,” he tells Maginn a few minutes later, exasperated.
MaGinn consoles his friend, but he has his own heat to worry about.
As darkness, falls, more and more heavy car drivers make their way from the stands to their rides.
“Some odd things have been known to happen before derbies, “says Maginn. “Stuff that’s never happened to your car before. It’s best not to wander too far from it before you go out there.”
Maginn and Gillespie are in the same heat; Fredrick in the one after.
“This is it,” says Maginn, sitting on the roof of his Imperial, waiting for the heat before him to finish. “This is what we wait for all year. Fifteen minutes of fame.”
Before a half-hour is up, MaGinn is jumping up and down celebrating. He managed to survive his heat with minimal damage, his radiator intact, and a good chance to take home the feature trophy.
Gillespie didn’t fare so well. A few minutes into the competition, two cars teamed up to force his rear end over one of the concrete pylons around the enclosure. A heartbreaking end, but one of the most spectacular eliminations of the whole tournament.
Fredrick is up next, and after the initial confusion is resolved, he appears poised to qualify for the feature. His philosophy is to hit hard and keep his nose clean, and that’s what he’s doing. One blow leaves a competitor’s front axle shattered, another is accompanied by an ear-drum piercing pop as it blows a rear tire. He maneuvers deftly; it’s the perfect heat. And then he loses his reverse gear.
With his front end pinning another car to the concrete barrier, and no way to back up, Fredrick is in a dire situation. Unless he finds a way to make contact with another competitor within 60 seconds, he’s disqualified. His car shakes he’s jamming the gearshift so hard, but he can’t stick it. As a last ditch effort, he throws the car into drive and guns it, trying to rocket the rear end around to free himself, but his attempts are to no avail.
“That’s the breaks,” he says later, after loading his Imperial back on the trailer.
The car is in relatively clean shape, a few bruises on the right panel, but nothing that can’t be banged out with a few hours of sweat.
“Heck,” he says, “you can still read my sponsors.” And then, sighing, “But that’s just how it goes sometimes at the derby.”- Sept. 14, 2005