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Northwest Salmon



Rookies young and old punch pedal
to metal at Day County derby

by Emre K. Erku

A teenager wearing a fire retardant blue jumpsuit watched uneasily as the first heat of clunkers spat up dirt and crunched into each other in front of a large crowd marveling from the grandstands.

For the young man, 17-year-old Webster local Colton Koslowski, this day was to be his first whiplash ever in what’s widely known as the demolition derby, which took place during the Day County Fair Aug. 13. Inside a muddied ring surrounded by large tractor and scraper tires, more than 35 competitors revving a wide array of compact and full-size cars and trucks would feed the crowd’s appetite for destruction. And it was just a week before this spectacle that Koslowski and his friends decided they’d take a beat up 2002 Mitsubishi Galant and put it to the test, with Koslowski behind the wheel.

“At the beginning I was really excited,” said Koslowski, who was the youngest rookie driver competing. “I thought it was going to be like Thunder Road (Watertown). But when I was watching the teams out there, I got kind of nervous because I didn’t want to get hurt.”

Koslowski, who usually spends his autumns smashing quarterbacks for the Webster Bearcats, feared he may experience the brutality of being on the receiving end of a compact car smashing into him at 15 mph. Sometimes, this is why drivers wake up with curious bruises on their body. This is also why many of them maintain the famous notion that after the first hit you either love derby or hate it.

“Once you get hit by the first person you realize you’re good and you go from there,” said Koslowski. “The scariest part is when you’re in your car and it shuts off like mine did and you see someone coming across to hit you.”

Of course, driver infancy means rookie mistakes. Once the start flag flew, Koslowski made the costly oversight of flooring his 2.4 liter engine and striking it head on against another driver from too far of a distance. His front sustained too much initial damage, so his vehicle quickly died out. Typically, drivers like to avoid these quagmires through crudely yet ingeniously executed modifications. For Koslowski, he says he not only plans to install two deep cycle batteries to his system while running the hot wire to the coil, but his point of attack may switch as well.

“I’ll use the 20-foot rule,” Koslowski said. “I’m going to try to use the back of my car, and not hit people from more than 20 feet away.”

Although the high school student didn’t place, the action-packed adrenaline must’ve given his plug the spark it needed as he went on to drive a Chevrolet Lumina at the Brown County Fair derby the very next week.

At the other end of the smashing spectrum was 62-year-old local Mark Davidson, the oldest rookie competing.

A long-time Webster local, Davidson exploited his wisdom as a veteran truck driver and managed to last quite a time longer than Koslowski in the chained compact heat.

“I’ve been around a while,” said Davidson. “I just had it figured out on where I needed to hit.”

Digging into the earth with a scrappy yet durable Saturn S-Series SL1, Davidson was convinced by his co-workers to sacrifice his bones in the face of danger; nonchalantly figuring why not?

This led to his crew of devil’s advocates obtaining a scrapper from 24-year derby vet Mike McCreary, who hoards a lengthy lot of clunkers in his backyard. On average, especially for compact competition, between $500-$600 are dumped into these projects, making it a relatively cheap endeavor.

“The guys at the shop said ‘if we build it, you’ll run it,’” said Davidson. “And I had a great time out there. It wasn’t bad at all. Everybody thought I was going to be sore the next day, but it really hasn’t hit me. It could’ve been elder abuse if (the other drivers) hit me.”

If fans standing ringside looked closely enough, they could see that Davidson had a smile on his face, even as other motor heads crushed into his car. However, as much fun as he had, Davidson says his time as a derby driver is a hit and run.

“Once was enough,” he ended.

Signs of life

Some may claim Day County isn’t a derby type of place, and this may be true considering up until three years ago fairgoers didn’t have a derby to watch, which was on hiatus for some time.

According to current derby organizers McCreary and Tim Eisenbraun, since rebooting the local derby circuit, a sound community effort has led to more participation.

“In the first year, there were 10 participants,” said McCreary. “Now, in the third, there’s 36. It’s exploding in Day County because people are willing to sell their cars cheap, helping keep the costs down. And winning money is always a nice bonus, but you don’t do it for the money.”

Besides cash prizes, a lot of time and effort goes into holding a derby. After inspecting each vehicle, making sure they abide by the more than 20-page long rule book, each heat must revolve quickly, which is challenging when most vehicles are rendered motionless after sustaining a headache of hits. Luckily, head official and tech inspector Travis Ascher and his six other officials had one pay-loader, one skid-steer and two telehandlers hauling car carcasses in and out of the ring before the announcers started to joke about waiting for the next round.

The effort was so quick, in fact, five features were held within two and a half hours – Ascher started that day at 9:30 a.m. and ended it at midnight.

For McCreary, who’s gone through more than 150 cars in his career, he estimates, inspection time is used to help fellow drivers.

“It’s a big family. Everybody helps each other out,” he said. “You’re all hitting each other out there. It’s just like football – you want to tear each other apart. But when it’s over, you’re all friends. It’s nothing personal... Imagine going into a car wreck and you’re looking right at the person and you’re going to drive right into them.”

This is when the radiators, tie rod ends and axles are exchanged to better each other’s chances at winning. According to McCreary, in his tenure he’s only won four first prizes (his wife, Cheryl, won it on her first try). Some of these drivers, in fact, want to win so badly they sometimes put in eight to 10 hours a day into getting their rides ready.

Nevertheless, in the end, Ascher, who’s been a derby driver since 1997, imparted some of his best wisdom to the rookies.

“Pick and roll,” he said. “Pick your shots, make ‘em count and move on to another shot.”

Next year, the derby is planned to hold a kids’ event using small battery-powered trucks.

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