|Demo derby a fair favorite, but it’s harder to scrape together entries|
|Written by Todd Mishler/Walworth County Sunday|
|Friday, 19 August 2011 12:13|
As the cost of junker cars had gone up, the number of competitors in demolition derbies, like the ones held at the Walworth County Fair, are down. File photo by Terry Mayer
(Read the story in the Aug. 21, 2011 e-edition HERE.)
ELKHORN — Ira Cheney has competed in all but one demolition derby at the Walworth County Fairgrounds in Elkhorn during the past 46 years, sitting on the sidelines only because of undergoing open-heart surgery.
“I raced one year with a cast on my arm, and six or seven years ago I competed right after having my gall bladder taken out, but that maybe wasn’t the best thing to do because the first hit felt like I had been shot,” the 68-year-old Sugar Creek Township resident said. “You have helmets and seat belts, so the chances of getting hurt are pretty slim.”
Cheney’s passion for the event in particular, and for racing in general, is unmatched. So, it’s not surprising that he was the first one to register for this year’s activities at the 162nd annual fair.
However, fair officials are hoping that Cheney’s enthusiasm spreads — and in a hurry. The demolition derby will feature grandstand shows at 1:45 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Labor Day (Sept. 5).
Dennis Nelson and his family have owned and operated International Demolition Derby the past eight years. Located in northwestern Indiana, the company oversees events in the Hoosier state, as well as Illinois, Michigan and West Virginia, plus those at the fairs in Walworth and Racine counties.
Nelson said the southern Wisconsin events are arguably the best shows they put on, but like everywhere, the costs are going up and the numbers of participants have been dropping.
“First, cars in general have tripled in price,” said Nelson, who competed in the derby circuit for about 20 years. “You used to get a used car that you could drive around for the summer or back and forth to work for $500, but now you can’t get anything for under $1,500. And with the price of metal, people can get at least $400, so they’re selling them. And you’ve got all of the ‘cash for clunkers’ sales. So all you see in derbies now are smaller, compact vehicles.
“Besides the cost, there are a lot of guys who can’t take off work on weekends like before because of the economy,” Nelson added. “You can go to county fairs anywhere, and nobody gets 100 cars anymore. We’ve been at 14 fairs so far this year, and 51 cars is the highest participation we’ve seen.”
So, the events in Elkhorn and Union Grove have bucked that trend. The Racine County Fair drew 136 entrants last year and 109 for the event July 31. Walworth County hosted 127 drivers a year ago.
“The advantage that Walworth County has is that they do three shows,” Nelson said. “Our goal is to get 90 cars, and that way, we can have about 30 in each and give the fans a good show. But the numbers have been going down, so there are no guarantees.”
Still, the tradition is strong here, and people love the derby’s entertainment value, Nelson said.
“It’s the fairs like this one that try the hardest that will succeed,” he said.
That might be true, but demo derbies aren’t immune from politics and have their critics.
Jason Pellman, 31, of Elkhorn competed at the Walworth County Fair for the first time at age 19 or 20. He will be entering a 1998 van this time, but said he and many others haven’t entered the past few years because of their dissatisfaction with International’s flexibility, or lack thereof, when it comes to adding divisions and adjusting rules to accommodate more drivers.
“We’ve been talking to them and they’ve fought us for years … ,” Pellman said. “A lot of us love to build our own cars, but they won’t let us cut stuff off or add this or that. Some guys put in 100 or even 200 hours into building their cars, and we’d like to enter knowing that we can be competitive.
“We don’t want to spend all of that time and money and have them break right away.”
Cheney said he’ll compete as long as he’s able, but he knows what Pellman and others are talking about.
“I want to set up my cars to be halfway competitive, but I don’t want to have to spend a fortune doing it,” Cheney said. “But because the price of metal is so good, people are getting rid of their (demo) cars and you don’t see nearly as many around.”
However, despite their frustrations, Pellman and Cheney said that they and many of their friends love competing at the event in Elkhorn.
“Walworth County is always one of the biggest ones, so we love going there and putting on a good show,” said Pellman, who has finished as high as fourth or fifth in the feature. “It’s a big, excellent facility and you’ve always got 2,000 fans screaming in the stands. There’s nothing better than hitting somebody good and hearing the crowd react.”
Years ago, Cheney raced stockcars in such places as Lake Geneva, Jefferson and Slinger. He said he’ll be entering the 1973 Chrysler Newport that he used last year, although he had to replace the rear axle.
“I’ve loved cars all of my life, and I have a ’57 Ford classic and a 1970 Torino, the fastest cars in Elkhorn,” Cheney said with a chuckle. “I’m afraid the days of demolition derbies are coming to a close. But it’s the most fun you can have in a car with your clothes on.”
|Last Updated on Friday, 19 August 2011 12:24|