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Demolition derby draws crowd at Boyle County Fair

June 19, 2008|MAC MCKERRAL

Halloween isn't until October, but Wednesday night at the Boyle County Fair was all about things that go bump in the night - mixed with a whole lot of screeching, screaming and a few scary moments.

Demolition derbies bring on that kind of stuff.

The bleachers facing the track filled by 7:30 p.m., and by the time the crashfest started at just after 8 p.m., a lack of seats pushed patrons up against fences on both sides of the track.

America's more than 50-year fascination with car carnage came to the forefront at the fair, and few left their seats until the final event ended after 11 p.m.

Depending on who you believe, the demolition derby roots run back a long way.

Bill Lowenburg, an enthusiast of the sport, writes on PBS.org that several get credit for organizing the "first" derby, including stock car driver Larry Mendelsohn in Long Island, N.Y., in the late 1950s; West Coast racing promoter Don Basile in 1946; and a used car dealer named "Crazy Jim" Groh in Franklin, Wis.., in 1950.

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A Los Angeles Times article also mentions earlier derbies "springing up at county fairs during the Great Depression."

Lowenburg writes that demolition derbies grew steadily more popular throughout the 1960s and took on "subculture" status. ABC's Wide World of Sports provided occasional national coverage of demolition derbies in the early 1970s, he wrote. And Lowenburg surmised that the sport really arrived when a demolition derby appeared in an episode of the 1970s "Happy Days" TV show. The show's Fonzie had a romance with Pinky Tuscadero, a professional demolition derby driver.

But that was then, and this is now.

So Rhoda Elkins, who helped keep Wednesday night's event on schedule, offered a contemporary take on the demolition derby popularity.

"It's my son's favorite thing at the fair," she said, while helping Misty Vought of Git R Done Racing take entries. "They like to see things break."

Breaking some of the most dinged-up modes of transportation on the face of the earth seemed unlikely - until the action started.

Black vehicles dominated the landscape and appeared most menacing.

Appearing not the least bit menacing nor succumbing to the call of Midway rides or games of chance was Levi Swann, 14, of Harrodsburg.

He lounged on the hood of what rolled off a General Motors assembly line in 1973 as a Buick LeSabre. It would compete in the Outlaw Division, he said.

Now it features a full complement of "demo" wear, including a piece of 6-inch steel pipe for a rear bumper and rear quarter panels folded over and welded to a scrunched trunk. The steel, rectangular red gas tank that sits anchored just behind the car's original front seat holds 7.5 gallons of 112 Sunoco Racing Fuel at $8 a gallon. The fuel and the $40 entry fee set back the owner $100.

That owner and the car's driver, Bo Goodlett, 39, of Harrodsburg, Levi's uncle, built its "355" engine himself some 14 years ago, Goodlett said.

"He got me started," Goodlett said, nodding toward his father, Harold, who sat on a four-wheeler and smoked a cigarette, and who admitted to driving in a few derbies himself some years back.

Earlier, the nephew tried to spin a yarn that put him at age 16 and as the car's owner. But demolition derbies are not like fishing, and tall tales don't play well. So, he backed off that story, while contending that at age 15 he would drive in a derby.

His uncle started early.

At age 17, Goodlett drove a 1976 Buick Electra 225 in his first derby, he said.

"When I was old enough to hold a wrench, I was working on something," he said.

Just like Hagen Grubbs, 18, of Danville, who drove car 33G.

Car wars

He competed in two divisions. Both times 33G stopped running one car short of making the finals.

"My radiator hose came off," he said after finishing third in a preliminary heat. "I knew I wasn't going to win, so I shut it down. I didn't want to tear up the engine."

Earlier, his grandfather, Ed Alsman, talked proudly of his grandson's accomplishments with cars. He snapped pictures from the rail next to the announcers' stand and watched keenly as his grandson took and delivered some mammoth blows.

"My wife would not come out," said Alsman. "She said, 'I'll have a heart attack.' She's a bad worrier."

However, no one seemed to worry much at all as the vehicular chaos ensued - even though bumpers and tires flew off and vehicles hurled large chunks of mud into the crowd.

An engine caught fire, and the vehicle's driver climbed out the front window frame, stuck his face in a gap in the hood and tried to blow it out. Four fire extinguishers - not the driver - quelled the flames. The crowd roared when a car intent on delivering a killing blow backed up to and then on top of another vehicle. A double-whammy attack to one car nearly turned it over.

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