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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Searching for America at the Cuyahoga County Demolition Derby

Posted By on Tue, Aug 16, 2016 at 12:27 PM

click to enlarge Lenny Rogers, driving Car No. 2, and the other competitors pause while local firefighters put out a small blaze. - ERIC SANDY / SCENE
  • ERIC SANDY / SCENE
  • Lenny Rogers, driving Car No. 2, and the other competitors pause while local firefighters put out a small blaze.
Hundreds of eager families piled into the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds grandstand Sunday night, strollers and stuffed Pokemon toys in tow, bracing themselves for metal carnage and, in the words of the evening's emcee, "one heck of a show."

After a week of rain, the final day of the county fair eased up a bit on the manic weather. Children ran from ride to ride, pausing only to tear into a cloud of pink and blue cotton candy, while harried parents worked pints of birch beer on the sidelines. "There's nothing like the fair," everyone seemed to say at certain points with varying inflections on the phrase.

But like bearings to a magnet we were drawn collectively to the demolition derby championship. $10 for a ticket, cash only. We handed over our bills without a care for our depleted wallets and wandered into a rare series of empty seats in the fifth row. 

As we talked about the cars and about the abnormally long introductory remarks filtering through the PA system, I noticed all the characters that we had met earlier in the day were galumphing up the steps to their own seats. We exchanged friendly glances. Everything was building to this moment. The whole fair was here.

Throughout the week, competitors buzzed through a number of qualifying rounds. Those derby drivers whose cars survived the heat inched closer to the championship, which ended up featuring around 18 cars on Sunday. I had never been to a demolition derby event before, so I had no idea what was going on. "This is what America is all about," I was told on several occasions.

***

Later, after the event, I catch up with Aurora resident Lenny Rogers. He's been competing in derbies for more than 20 years. He was there Sunday night, in Car No. 2, crashing forward and backward into other cars in the dirt and mud.

click to enlarge ERIC SANDY / SCENE
  • ERIC SANDY / SCENE
"Me, my father-in-law and my brother-in-law, we built that car I ran on Sunday night in four days," Rogers tells me. He's referring to Bill Funk and Rick Funk and to their '94 Lincoln Town Car. Here's how that process goes: You change the bumper, you take out the inner wheel wells, you move all the wiring (because if the computers and relays and sensors remain on the fender wells, "that'll take you out," Rogers says), you put the battery inside the car, you put a strap around the gas tank and you chain the doors. Rogers says he runs snow tires, because, well, have you seen what rain does to a derby course?

That's a big part of the fun, though: the act of creation. It's as American as a Ford assembly plant, with an intriguing asterisk of impending crashes on the back end. 

Of course, there's a standing risk of injury to this sort of activity. On Sunday, we saw firefighters put out a minor fire inside a car. Earlier in the day, there was a rollover. One car hit another on the passenger side and ended up on its roof. "He just thought that was the greatest thing. He wanted to roll over again," Rogers says, referring to his friend who was driving.

Last year, a driver broke his arm during an event.

Most drivers weld a cage into their vehicles so that the body of the car doesn't collapse onto them. Rogers works in collision, so he and Rick and Bill know well how to get an efficient cage in there.

Once the drivers hit the gas, chaos intervenes. 

***

Prior to each event, we counted up from 1 to 10 and watched the destruction unfold. The feature event — the championship — began with four rows of cars. On the count of 10, each driver reversed into the car behind him or her and pretty much just spent the entirety of the thing trying to ram the hell out of the nearest vehicle. (House rules sort of discourage front-to-front collisions, but, in the moment, there's not a lot that one can do to prevent such things.)

"My biggest thing is I try to keep the front end of the car out of the hitting," Rogers says. "You try to use the back end as much as you can. But if there's a good shot going forward, I take it.

"You do what do have to do to win."

Cars rammed into other cars, pushing them headlong into a metal barrier or, in many cases, into even more cars. Tires popped, and the crowd cheered. Pure friction produced billows of smoke as drivers bore down on rims and earth. 

Indeed, toward the end of the event, Rogers took another car and pounded it into the corner where it couldn't get away, and then zeroed in on the last car. All around them, idled cars sat stewing in smoke as their drivers watched the last moments of destruction play out. 

"I was hitting him hard," he says of the final opponent. "I just kept pushing him into the other cars, and they kept waving me to go again. I could hear the crowd yelling while I was in the car. You hear the oohs and the aahs of the good hits."

Rogers won, and his '94 Lincoln seemed to be in pretty good condition even at the end of it all. Off to the southern side of the track, Rick Funk, Rogers' brother-in-law, was seen jumping up and down, running back and forth. Pure excitement. The thrill of it all was contagious.

And those other two cars? The last two that he was left crushing? Good friends of Rogers. This is a family-oriented community, after all. (Rogers' sponsors are  D.B.R. Motorsports , Northfield Collision and Northfield Tire, all friendly and helpful partners in his win this year.)

For those partaking as competitors or audience members, it's a fun alternative to whatever else is happening in town, and, again, it's a marquee event for the thousands of people already attending the annual fair. "Are you going to the derby tonight?" a young woman had asked me as she poured a plastic cup full of fresh lemonade earlier in the day. It was rhetorical. It was a given.

"People are there to see a show." Rogers says. "They want to see metal crunch. They want to see cars bend."

***

Many years ago, Rogers was sitting in the grandstand at the Cuyahoga County Fair with his girlfriend at the time, Nicole. They were taking in the derby — the enticing destruction of it all — and he turned to Nicole and said that he wanted to try that. It looked fun.

Two weeks later, Rogers landed in the Geauga County Fair's derby in what he calls a very under-built car. "I was young," he says. "I had no idea what to expect or what I was going against."

Since then, Rogers has run in countless derbies around Northeast Ohio. Better yet, he married Nicole. She comes to every event to cheer him on. "She helps me paint [the cars]. She'll do the drawing and the lettering," he says.

"It's fun. I wish more people would get into trying it," Rogers says, adding that, pure numbers-wise, derby events aren't what they used to be. There just aren't as many drivers interested in bashing other cars for sport and there aren't as many "clunkers" on the market. 

Rogers says he used to watch 100 cars or more roll into a derby. They'd have a feature event every night at the fair. Now, he explains, it's hard to pull in 30. 

But, still, there remains a trickle of adventurous folks interested in giving it a go. The American spirit of building something and making entertainment of its destruction is on display as always. It's hard not to think of James Earl Jones' spiritual Field of Dreams speech. "If you build it..."

"There were a couple people out there for the first time," Rogers says about the county fair this year. "They were ecstatic. They thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. 'Oh, we'll be back! We'll be back!'"

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