Adrenaline drives demo derby competitors

Demolition derby drivers put a lot of work into stripping down and modifying cars to get them derby-ready.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008 | 10:12 p.m. CDT; updated 2:57 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Mike Bradshaw's car shows some wear and tear during the Demolition Derby on the final night of the Boone County Fair.

COLUMBIA — Roaring engines. Big hits. Crunching metal.

The goal: Build a good car that will outlast the competition.

Mike Bradshaw’s demo derby cost

Entry fee: $25
1972 Chevy Caprice: $200
New engine: $2,500
Other accessories: $500
Total: $3,225

Prize money: $600

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Demolition derby is the adult version of bumper cars, and road rage is at a maximum. Determining victory is simple: The last car running wins.

But for demolition derby drivers and their families, preparing a quality derby car is not a simple process.

Mike Bradshaw of Harrisburg was one of 32 demolition derby drivers entered in Sunday night’s competition at the Boone County Fairgrounds. Bradshaw, 34, has competed in demolition derbies for about seven years. He travels to compete at derbies at Missouri fairs four times a year on average.

Bradshaw owns M D Transmissions & Automotive in Columbia and says working on cars for a living is why he started entering demolition derbies. He grew up around derbies, and many of his family members are involved in it.

As with most derby drivers, he uses one word to describe what he loves about competing.

“Adrenaline,” he said. “Especially when they come across from one side of the track and hit you when you’re looking the other way. That’s when the anger gets out, and you get mad.”

But demolition derby is more than just smashing into other cars and destroying them. There is strategy involved — driving in reverse and using the car’s rear end to ram into other competitors, for example. This keeps the engine away from damage.

There is also lengthy preparation.

Bradshaw said he starts by looking for private owners with old cars because junkyards don’t like to sell an entire vehicle.

“I just get them from people who don’t want them no more,” he said. “I like running the Chevy Caprices, the older style ones. That’s what I usually drive because they’re tough. So when you see one that’s just sitting in someone’s yard not running, you just go up there and ask them. See if they want to get rid of it.”

Bradshaw said purchasing cars can cost from $100 to $1,000, and getting the car derby-ready can cost even more. He said he takes out the factory engine and replaces it with an engine and transmission designed specifically for demolition derbies.

Bradshaw said he spent the two nights before the Boone County Fair derby in the garage working on his car until 4:30 in the morning, and he was still working on it in the pit area right up until the competition.

“It depends on how you set your car up,” he said. “But you can spend every bit of a week working on one, if you do it right.”

According to the Demolition Derby Drivers Association Web site, drivers first strip down a car by removing all of the glass, lights, chrome, carpet, dash, interior panels and everything under the hood that isn’t needed. Other than the front seat, it’s important for drivers to remove all flammable materials from the interior. The battery and gas tank are moved inside the car and safely secured.

Drivers build a cage to protect themselves with bars and some padding, and they are required to wear a seat belt and helmet. They are not allowed to intentionally hit another car on the driver’s door.

Each demolition derby has a different set of rules, but typically drivers are separated into three heats. The top three drivers that come out of each heat move on to the feature event, which is the final showdown that determines the winner. A consolation round is held before the feature and offers drivers who lost in the first three heats another opportunity to advance.

Many derbies have a class for compact cars and mini-vans, while some even have a class for school buses. Larger vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks are becoming more popular in derby events.

Two of Bradshaw’s cousins also competed in the Boone County Fair derby, and they helped each other at the event. In the feature, Bradshaw and his cousin Jake Reed had the last two cars running. A collision with Reed broke Bradshaw’s drive shaft and he finished second. Reed took home the $1,200 first-place prize. Bradshaw’s other cousin Michael Chandlee finished fourth.

Leslie Bradshaw-Dingwell, of Centralia, another of Mike Bradshaw’s cousins, spent 24 years competing in demolition derbies. Before doctors told her she couldn’t do it anymore, the 39-year-old mother of five would compete in nearly 20 derbies a year.

“They told me my back was too fragile,” she said. “It’s hard for me to walk away from derbying. When I found out, I got teary-eyed, and it felt like my heart was in my throat.”

Dingwell said she won the first derby she drove in at the old fairgrounds off of Broadway, and she has been attached ever since. She was one of the few female drivers, and over the years she picked up the nickname “Derby Queen.”

Dingwell said she has had many interesting experiences while participating in derbies, including catching on fire several times.

“I had a battery that blew up on me one year, and they were dumping coolers of water on me,” she said. “My pants were just all ate up. It was really bad!”

As for why demolition derby drivers do what they do, Dingwell said the money spent is usually more than the money earned, but it’s worth it for drivers.

“You never get it back in return. That’s why a lot of people try to get sponsors or try to reuse what they have left,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, and there’s more money in their cars than they get paid for winning. But people do it because of the adrenaline.”

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