Thick oily smoke and exhaust fumes filled the air as junkers and clunkers spewed mud on a sold-out crowd Friday night at the annual Douglas County Demolition Derby.
A crowd of about 4,500 packed the stands at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds arena to watch five heats, each with 17 cars, smashing one another until all but two were incapacitated in each of the heats.
The two winners in each heat went on to the "feature smash-off," where the winner won a grand championship trophy and $600 check.
Dwight Byers, Lawrence, made to the final smash-off, although he didn't place.
"It's a high, it's a challenge," he said as he waited for his heat to start.
"The building part is what takes more than anything," Byers said as he stood by his car his 14th which took him three weeks to prepare.
MANY OF the drivers appeared to have taken as much time preparing their vehicles on the outside as they did on the inside. Phrases like "Can't stay in retirement" and "The Love Wagon" adorned many of the brightly painted vehicles.
One derby participant received extra attention because of the nature of his profession and his sponsor.
The Rev. Thomas Bassford, who is youth pastor at the Free Methodist Church, was sponsored by his youth group, which was a noteworthy contrast to the gas stations and mechanics' shops that sponsored most of the other cars.
While Bassford and his competitors were belted into their cars with their helmets on, five brave men refereed the derby, dodging smashed-up cars as they ran around the arena in white pants and striped shirts to wave flags or check for fires.
"I'M NERVOUS every time," said Jim Hahn, Lawrence. "We wear white so they can see us," he said as his friends laughed and told him his pants wouldn't stay white for long.
Hahn recruited the other four referees, including some former derby drivers.
"I got hit and did a cartwheel at Overbrook once (while refereeing)," said Mike Frost, Lawrence, who was a derby driver for seven or eight years.
Despite the safety precautions the car builders take, such as reinforcing the doors and relocating the gas tank, many of them still worry about their safety.
"A fire's the only thing that scares me," said Dan Miller, Lawrence, who placed third. "I get worried that the seatbelt's not going to come undone."
ALTHOUGH Miller admitted to getting several scrapes, he said he never had been seriously injured.
Firefighters and paramedics were on hand all night long and, although the paramedics were never used, the firefighters were frequently called into the arena to put out engine fires as drivers quickly crawled out of their cars.
The two winners in every heat got a trophy and a $100 check. The top four in the smash-off took home additional prizes.
Terry Harmon, Lawrence, came in fourth and took home another $100 and trophy. Third place went to Miller, who took home an additional $200 and a trophy. Loren Stone, Lawrence, took second and received a $300 check and a trophy. The grand prize winner was Terry Moyer, Wellsville, who took home an additional $600 and the championship trophy.