COLUMBIA — Mud flew through the air and cheers erupted from the stands as three cars crashed into each other at the center of the track. The demolition derby was under way.
The grandstands at the Central Missouri Events Center were full for Wednesday night's Boone County Fair demolition derby. Drivers competed to be the last car standing in an event centered around crashing cars.
Even though a typical derby won't last more than a few hours, drivers prepare for months before they start their engines to enter the grandstands.
Derby cars are practically built from scratch. Drivers reinforce the frames with steel. Some add a hole in the roof for a quick escape.
William White, 37, had to use one of those holes at a derby in Macon. His car caught fire, and he escaped through the roof.
"There were 30 or 40-foot flames coming from my car," White said. "Someone took a still picture of me getting out of the car, and my wife saw it and told me I was an idiot for sitting on top of my car when it was on fire. But it was a still photo, I was in the process of getting out of the car. If you'd seen me, I got out pretty fast!"
Derbies are as dangerous for the drivers as they are entertaining for the onlookers.
"I broke my arm in a race once," Brandon March said. "I put it in my lap and kept driving."
March, 35, has been competing for 14 years and has driven in more than 100 derbies.
"This is an expensive hobby that just costs a lot of money and ends up in divorce," March said.
March was driving a friend's car in Wednesday's competition and said work on the car for the event began in January.
"We're high-tech rednecks," March said. "We've got a removable steering wheel, custom-made bumpers and a brand new motor. As long as it doesn't catch on fire, I'll be good."
The car has been in six competitions, which is a lot for a derby car.
"People have been calling it 'Christine,' because it won't die," March said, in reference to the Stephen King novel of the same name.
March said the reason to compete in derbies isn't the prize money but the bragging rights.
"The name of the game is where you go and how you drive," White said as he waited for the derby to kick off. "There's a science to it."
The prize for winning the demolition derby was $850, which March said is low for a typical derby. Bigger competitions' awards range from $4,000 to $5,000.
"The trophy stays around; the money's gone before you leave the track," March said.
Drivers paid a $50 entry fee to compete, and passengers paid $30 to ride along.
"We had to pay to be the entertainment," March said.
White was riding in a car Wednesday evening. March said White and other passengers' main job was to run their mouths.
"I used to do this every year," White said. "I trashed the car I was going to run."
White said he'd been helping everyone else out with their cars, and that it was nice to be able to build them and see them come together without having to spend any money.
"It's always fun to beat something with a sledgehammer at the end of the day," White said.
White also said that the demolition derby isn't what it used to be.
"This used to be one of the biggest shows around, but over time, with fuel costs, people can't afford to do it anymore," he said.
Last time on the track
Joe Bell and his father, Gary Bell, were competing for the final time in the demolition derby.
"This is where it all started," Joe Bell said. His first competition was at the Boone County Fair.
Joe Bell, 28, has been competing in demolition derbies for 13 years. He started competing after watching his father compete as a child.
"It's just time and money," Joe Bell said, explaining why he and his father were ending their derby days.
Joe Bell's car took almost two months to build, working on it nights and weekends.
"You can spend up to $10,000 or $15,000. We reuse parts, but it's expensive," Joe Bell said.
Joe Bell said his father had won more derbies than he could count.
"We had a trophy burning," Joe Bell said. "It's not about the prizes, it's all about fun and family."
The father and son team traveled and competed in derbies throughout the country. Joe Bell said he'd been as far north as North Dakota and as far south as Arkansas.
"I've been to more derbies than I've competed in," Joe Bell said. "I drive, but I also ride and film the derbies."
Joe Bell has been working on derby cars with his friend Shane Clark for 13 years.
"He tried to kill me once, I'm not kidding," Joe Bell said. "We were driving down to Ashland for a rodeo, I still haven't gone to it, and he went off the side of the road and over-corrected. He crashed into the embankment, and I saved his life. I decided he was going to pay me back by building and riding in the cars with me."
Joe Bell said he wanted to put Clark through what he had been through in the crash.
"I wanted to see the fear of god in his eyes," Joe Bell said. "And I have."
Inspectors examined each car before the event to insure they met the competition's standards, but both March and Joe Bell said there is a gray area.
"We don't cheat," March said. "We compete."
Cars are allowed to have as much steel in their bumpers as the drivers like, as long as they still resemble a bumper. The cars can't be too heavily welded to the point where they won't bend, and drivers are required to wear flame retardant jackets.
"Some people don't," White said. "Some people still wear sleeveless shirts, but if you're smart, you'll have a jacket.
Cars are allowed one fire, and if the driver can get the car running again, they can continue to compete. If they experience another fire, the driver is disqualified. If there isn't too much fuel spillage in the process, cars are also allowed to roll over once.
The track for the competition is muddy to reduce the wreckage the cars can wreak on each other.
"Some of these have more horsepower than a drag car," March said. "They can cause a lot of damage."
Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.