Still a smash

BILL LANKHOF, TORONTO SUN; SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

The crunch of tons of metal and rubber colliding reverberates through wooden grandstands, acrid exhaust fumes mix with the sweet scent of cotton candy and small plumes of smoke, dust and flecks of engine oil paint the autumn air.

Just as much as Aunt Bea's preserves, the horseshoe throwing contest and tractor pulls, the demolition derby has been the staple of country fairs for generations.

"Basically you've got controlled road rage," says Greg Johnson, director of operations for Edge Motorsports, which runs about 40 derbies each year. "You're smashing everything in sight. It's the greatest feeling. A lot of guys do it once and get hooked."

Basically it involves herding six or more cars into a corral, then letting the drivers bash each other in the gas end. Fire extinguishers keep most actual fires, if not drivers' tempers, from flaring and the no-hitting zone on the driver's door keeps the doctor away. Usually.

Otherwise? Well, accidents happen. And, in this case, the more, the harder, the better. Anything this side of a 911 call --and, you're good to go.

The appeal? "Noise, destruction, mud, smoke. Carnage," Johnson said. "People watch hockey to see a fight. People watch auto racing to see a crash. Last weekend in Port Perry there were 3,000 or 4,000 people jammed in."

In other words, it's a bit like a stock car race -- without the foreplay. But the festivals of mayhem are more than a country autumn ritual. They're a main source of income for agricultural society festivals and fairs and generate revenue for volunteer organizations like the Lindsay boys and girls clubs.

"We raised $1,500 for the kids," said Jim Grant, president of Ontario Demolition Derby, one of the smaller promoters in the province.

But it's not getting any easier.

Some fairs and promoters report fewer entries. The weekend warrior is being forced to the sidelines by a combination of soaring scrap metal prices and rising fuel costs. Junk cars that once could be had for $100 now are worth nearly triple the price as scrap.

"Guys are losing a bit of interest because it is so expensive. In March you could get $700 for a full-size V8 that didn't run anymore (as scrap). Two years ago, a derby guy could've got that car for a hundred bucks," Johnson said. "The end result ... is reflected in the number of cars we get in each event."

Grant said his group has had only "one derby that has been down in the number of cars entered, that was Minden ... but it is harder to find (affordable) cars. A lot of scrap went to China to build that Bird's Nest."

Johnson says the most dramatic illustration is their annual Madoc stop: "We used to get maybe 150 cars. This year we might see 60 or 70. Still a lot, but ..."

The "but" is that it can cost $1,500 to buy a car, strip the glass and wiring, add safety features, get the engine running well, pay the entry fee then get, well, your doors blown off.

"It's a hobby. You have to keep that in sight. It's not a money maker," Johnson said.

When participants didn't have to drive farther afield (it's not unusual for competitors to go as far as the Carolinas) to find cars, and when they could get them cheaper, competitors could break even. Now says Johnson: "Some guy who has got three kids, making 15 bucks an hour, trying to pay for a car, mortgage and put food on the table. Now to spend $500 just to buy a car, then build the car and pay the entry -- well, people don't have that."

Grant says if competitors run smaller four-cyclinder cars and keep it simple the derby is still viable. Part of the problem is that under the fridge-art paint jobs and bent metal sits what can amount to a tank on wheels.

"I'm old school, tie the doors shut, cut the glass out, make the cars run well and go," says Grant, a former USA indoor and outdoor champion.

"But not all this plating and welding. It takes away from watching the car cave in. We'll protect the driver at all cost but to hell with the car. Ours cave in and that's why people love it. Our regulations are designed so the car will bend, fold and mutilate."

The drivers? In more than 250 events Grant never suffered worse than cuts and bruises. As for the fate of the derby? Unlike the lost art of seed-spittin' and the long-forgotten hog-hollerin' contests, they cling tenaciously to the rural party landscape.

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WHERE TO SEE THEM

Some of the demolition derbies scheduled within driving distance of the GTA in the coming weeks:

- Cambridge Fair (Dickson Park), tonight, 8 p.m.

- Warkworth Fair, tonight, 8 p.m.

- Georgetown Fair, tomorrow, 7 p.m.

- Owen Sound Fair, tomorrow, 6:30 p.m.

- Picton Fair, tomorrow, 7 p.m.

- Orillia Fair, tomorrow, 1 p.m.

- Beamsville Fair, Sunday, 4 p.m.

- Six Nations Fair, Sunday, 4 p.m.

- Kingston Fair, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.

- Mohawk Fair, Sept. 12, 6:30 p.m.

- Niagara Regional Exhibiton, Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m.

- New Hamburg Fair, Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m.

- Brampton Fair, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.

- Madoc Fair, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.

- Port Hope Fair, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.

- London Fair, Sept. 14, 6 p.m.

- Kingston Fair, Sept. 14, 2 p.m.

- Ancaster Fair, Sept. 19-20, 7:30 p.m.

- Wainfleet Fair, Sept. 20, 6 p.m.

- Bolton Fair, Sept. 20, 7:30 p.m.

- Lindsay Exhibition, Sept. 21, 6 p.m.

- Bobcaygeon Fair, Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m.

- Coldwater Fair, Sept. 26, 7 p.m.

- Milton Fair, Sept. 26-27, 8 p.m. and Sept. 28, 2 p.m.

- Simcoe Fair, Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m.

- Rockton Fair, Oct. 12, 5 p.m.

- Simcoe Fair, Oct. 13, 6 p.m.

- Rockland Eastern Ontario Championship, Oct. 19, 1 p.m.


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