There was an eight-car pileup at the Douglas County Fairgrounds Friday night. And a two-car crash. And just about every combination of automotive mayhem in between.
Engines revving, exhausts blazing, bodies battered, tires twisted, and with various pieces falling off, competitors in the fair's demolition derby took aim at each other in multiple heats in the mud-filled outdoor arena. The competition pitted junker against junker — creating even more junk as the night went on — in what has come to be not only a favorite event at the county fair, but one that some participants have grown up in.
Gary Christian, of Lawrence, has competed in demolition derbies for 22 years. He started participating after watching the events with his dad when he was young. Since then, he’s won first place twice, second place three times, third place twice and placed in the top five countless times.
“I told my dad, ‘One day I’m gonna win this derby,’ and I did it,” Christian said.
In a competition where the way to win is to demobilize the other vehicles by crashing into the them, the drivers have tactics to cause as much damage to the each other while keeping their own cars running. Average pace of the event: ramming speed.
Christian said his strategy is to protect the wheels of the car and to use the front end as much as the rear end, but there’s no strategy that will guarantee a win.
“The winner at the end of the night is who’s got the best luck,” Christian said.
Luck is a factor in determining the winner, but the derby officials don't let it determine driver safety. To avoid serious injuries, the derby has a list of rules the drivers must follow and inspections their cars must go through. But the precautions don’t always mean the drivers will have a completely safe exit from the competition.
During his first derby, Clint Doherty, of Paola, hit his knee against the dashboard of his car, causing him to get 15 stitches. That injury has been his only one in his 14 years of competing, but the wait before the start of the derby is still nerve-wracking. Injuries are the only thing that worries Doherty when he’s about to enter the arena.
“It hasn’t happened yet but I still fear it,” he said.
For the drivers, despite the possible injuries, the demolition derby isn’t a night of destruction and danger; instead, they say it's a way to release stress. Some spectators might guess that it’s a less expensive version of anger management, but these cars don’t come cheap. After buying the car itself and the parts to make it run, and making alterations for the competition, many of the drivers are spending thousands of dollars to win prizes that are a fraction of that. Getting to crash their creations is worth it, they say.
“You’re runnin’ the motor wide open and hitting something; taking all the road rage out because this is an event you can do that,” Christians said.