De­mo­li­tion derby is a smash­ing good time



The de­mo­li­tion derby at the Cecil County Fair is the epit­ome of con­trolled chaos.

Har­nessed and hel­meted con­tes­tants are be­hind the wheels of jalop­ies that have been mod­i­fied to meet strict safety reg­u­la­tions, such as the re­moval of all wind­shields and other glass. Gas tanks also have been eightysixed in fa­vor of much smaller fuel con­tain­ers to avoid impact ex­plo­sions.

Vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers and other emer­gency work­ers dot the pe­riph­ery of the muddy, rec­tan­gu­lar de­mo­li­tion derby field of bat­tle. On high alert, they are ready to pounce should a bat­tered ve­hi­cle catch fire or a driver is in­jured.

Rules gov­ern the start of the derby, too, with cars lin­ing up on both ends of the course in op­po­site di­rec­tions. The front of the cars face low con­crete bar­ri­ers, mean­ing all driv­ers must start in re­verse – the pre­ferred di­rec­tion when ram­ming op­pos­ing ve­hi­cles. Driv­ers avoid front-end end con­tact to pro­tect their en­gines.

Then the start sounds . . . and breaks loose.

“Oh, my, we got a big hit on the far side!” the an­nouncer’s voice crack­led over the pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem Thurs­day night dur­ing one derby heat.

The mic-man glee­fully gushed his ob­ser­va­tion af­ter one jalopy plowed into an­other clunker, which, much to that tar­geted driver’s cha­grin, hap­pened to be vul­ner­a­bly sand­wiched be­tween two other ve­hi­cles at the time.

With tires some­times spin­ning in the muck, the cars revved while ma­neu­ver­ing. Each driver was


sig­nal all hell try­ing to po­si­tion his car to gain a di­rect re­verse-gear shot at an opponent’s ve­hi­cle, prefer­ably af­ter putting sev­eral yards of clear space be­tween the two so the at­tacker could gain the speed needed for a pow­er­ful jolt.

While the hard rear-tofront col­li­sion is ideal — tan­ta­mount to a hay­maker in box­ing — driv­ers of­ten took any shot avail­able at op­pos­ing ve­hi­cles. Those typ­i­cally smaller hits, sim­i­lar to jabs and body punches, grad­u­ally wore down op­pos­ing ve­hi­cles.

For ex­am­ple, af­ter one car smashed into the front pas­sen­ger’s side an­other, spark­ing some ap­pre­cia­tive “oohs” from the crowd, that ve­hi­cle’s front pas­sen­ger’s side tire ap­peared to slant out­ward from the bot­tom and in­ward from the top.

Mo­ments and a few more pre­cise blows later, the tire peeled away and came to rest on the ground, ex­pos­ing the metal rim. But that didn’t stop the driver, gamer that he is, and he con­tin­ued to bat­tle on three tires and a rim.

“He’s got a three-wheel­mo­bile,” the an­nouncer blurted.

Be­fore long, most of the man­gled au­to­mo­biles were im­mo­bile.

“We might be down to three,” the an­nouncer up­dated.

A win­ner was de­clared mo­ments later and the driv­ers ma­neu­vered their beat-up cars out the derby ring, some un­der their own power, oth­ers as­sisted with guid­ing pushes from plows. Then a new patch of jalop­ies en­tered the derby course for the next heat.

For fans in the packed grand­stands, the rea­sons for the at­trac­tion vary.

“How of­ten do you get to see peo­ple smash up their cars?” Cindy McDaniels, 62, of Conowingo, asked rhetor­i­cally. “And they don’t even seem to care that they are smash­ing up their cars.”

Thurs­day night marked McDaniels first de­mo­li­tion derby. She made a trip there be­fore ac­com­pa­ny­ing her grandkids to the fair’s amuse­ment rides.

Liv Star­ling, 12, of Charlestown, had gone to the fair’s amuse­ment rides be­fore she went to the de­mo­li­tion derby with her brother, Greyson, 9, and their fa­ther, Chris Star­ling.

“She said, ‘This is just like real-life bumper cars’,” her fa­ther said.

The va­ri­ety of derby cars ap­pealed to Star­ling, who com­mented, “I can’t be­lieve I saw a Volvo out there. There was a Volk­swa­gen Rab­bit, too. They stopped mak­ing them.”

Elk­ton-area res­i­dent Dav­ina Ad­kins said she ap­pre­ci­ates the time that driv­ers in­vest to pre­pare their derby cars, which re­quire a great deal of me­chan­i­cal work and, judg­ing from the looks of most, some artis­tic at­ten­tion, too.

Some of the de­mo­li­tion derby com­peti­tors clearly have good senses of hu­mor. SpongeBob SquarePants jut­ted above one of the de­mo­li­tion derby cars. Painted on an­other derby ve­hi­cle was, “Derby Lives Mat­ter.”

Ad­kins’s hus­band, Todd, who used to be a de­mo­li­tion derby driver, fo­cuses on the strate­gies used dur­ing the con­tests, he said.

Then there is the beloved, com­i­cal com­men­tary from Penn­syl­va­nia res­i­dent Art Jen­nings, a re­tired spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher, who, dur­ing most of his 35-year teach­ing ca­reer, also en­ter­tained as a clown and jug­gler called Son­ney Dayze.

“He’s very funny,” McDaniels said.

Jen­nings has been the de­mo­li­tion derby an­nouncer for 27 years. He is clearly en­thralled be­hind that mic, us­ing ex­pres­sions like, “Round and round we go,” and, “Room to rock,” and “Ham­mer down.” On Thurs­day night, Jen­nings ac­tu­ally an­nounced that a car had done “a hoppy doo­dle” af­ter it had gone slightly air­borne.

“I’ve got the best job in the world,” Jen­nings said. “A de­mo­li­tion derby is great en­ter­tain­ment. I love it.”


Amid the crunch­ing chaos of a Thurs­day night de­mo­li­tion derby heat, SpongeBob SquarePants and his side­kick, Pa­trick, look on from atop one of the com­pet­ing cars.


Penn­syl­va­nia res­i­dent Art Jen­nings de­liv­ers a run­ning and oft­times com­i­cal com­men­tary of the de­mo­li­tion derby.

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