Derby driver was fan first

Saturday, July 25, 2009 | 8:54 p.m. CDT; updated 9:52 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 25, 2009
How to construct your car and protect your person if you plan on entering a demolition derby.

COLUMBIA — Jessy Gonzalez, from Columbia, once watched the demolition derby at the Boone County Fair safely from the stands.

Now he finds himself in the action.

Gonzalez, a Columbia resident, saw his first demolition derby in 2000. He liked what he saw, and since 2004 he has competed in five to six derbies per year around Missouri. He is set to go again at 7 p.m. Sunday in this year's event at the Boone County Fairgrounds. 

"At first, I thought those people were crazy," Gonzalez said. "It looked fun and dangerous at the same time, but once you try it your hooked."

Gonzalez said the derbies can be dangerous. He said he has seen cars catch fire and roll over. His uncle Trevor Howard broke his hand in a collision. He also said he has had to miss days at work after jarring derby collisions. He has pulled muscles in his back and neck.

But the dangers of the derbies doesn't keep Gonzalez from the track. He said he enjoys the adrenaline rush of running into other cars and said it was a good way for him to relieve stress.

"When your out there, you stop thinking about everything else and you focus on the task at hand," Gonzalez said. "It's also a way to let out any frustrations you have."

The demolition derby was a family affair for Gonzalez. His father Lee Howard and his uncles Trevor Howard and Dusty Camp all entered the derby in 2004. They all modeled their cars after those of their favorite NASCAR drivers. 

Camp and Lee Howard no longer compete in the derbies, but they still support Gonzalez and Trevor Howard when they go out on the track.

Lee Howard and Gonzalez can often be seen in their garage working to get a car ready for derbies. Lee Howard is a stock car racer and taught Gonzalez a lot of what he knows about cars. 

Lee Howard said no one in the family has won a derby, and they put more money into the cars than they receive in prize money.

"They just like to go out there and do it for fun," Lee Howard said. "The money we do get from the derbies helps pay to get the car ready for the next derby."

In the week before an event, they said they spend 11 to 12 hours a day putting together a car. They said they spend about $500 to $600 to restructure Gonzalez's car before each derby.

They first bought a 1979 Ford stationwagon and stripped everything from the interior until there was only the body and the frame left. Gonzalez built his own eight-cylinder engine for his car. The interior contains one seat and in the back seat area contains the gas tank, battery and transmission cooler. A metal cage goes around the seat to protect the driver.

The body of the vehicle is solid black with an orange stripe running across both sides of his car. The No. 3 can also be seen on the side of his car. He modeled the paint after the car former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt used.

The goal of a competitor is to be the last car running on the track. The competitors are split into three heats with the last three to four cars in each advancing to the feature derby. The final car remaining on the track for that race will walk away with $1,000.

Gonzalez plans to compete in the modified car division, where cars are larger than 104 inches wide. Gonzalez said he and Trevor Howard would attempt to avoid contact with each other in the derby, but they will collide if necessary.

"We will hit each other if we have to," Gonzalez said. "If we are the final two cars left we will go at it."

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