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Smashing good time

Casey Pilcher of Findlay, a veteran demolition derby driver, with the car he’s getting ready for Monday’s smash-em-up at the Hancock County Fair. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

Casey Pilcher of Findlay, a veteran demolition derby driver, with the car he’s getting ready for Monday’s smash-em-up at the Hancock County Fair. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By LOU WILIN
STAFF WRITER
Take testosterone and titanium to the Hancock County Fair and — CRASH! BASH! SMASH! — you’ve got the annual demolition derby.
Guys have spent thousands of dollars and many hours muscling up machines for Monday’s event at the south grandstand. Vehicles will compete in four classes: a stock class of ’80s and newer cars, full-size cars, compact cars and full-size pickups.
In each of several heats, the drivers will smash into each other, and the last vehicle still working will be the victor.
Much of the rest of the automotive handiwork and expense will be destroyed.
“Full-tracking” is a driver favorite: Spot a target, back up your car, then race it — often in reverse to save your own front end — 100 yards across the track, torpedoing the opponent.
“What you’re pretty much trying to do is pop tires, bend the A-arms so you break their ball joints, or you take out their steering,” said Casey Pilcher, a veteran Findlay driver. “I mean, that’s pretty much what happens, or you break an axle off.”
Ryan Tittle, a veteran Tiffin driver and promoter of Monday’s event, chuckled.
“I know a guy who has $7,000 in his motor alone,” said Tittle. “Everything from titanium rods and pistons to running NASCAR ball joints and tie-rod ends that are made out of your highest-strength steel.
“They are spending beaucoup dollars to put on a show for the crowd,” he said.
But much of it will be destroyed in minutes.
“Then you gotta replace it,” Tittle said.
You could never tell by looking at it, but in its latest reincarnation, Pilcher’s car is a 1993 Grand Marquis body with a 2006 sheriff’s cruiser frame. Pilcher knows what he is doing.
“With the cop cars, they fold up different. They fold up like a banana instead of smashing completely in and ruining everything you’ve got,” he said.
His car will not be the only thing taking a beating on Monday. Pilcher, 33, expects to be sore Tuesday morning.
“Bumps, bruises, elbows, shoulders,” he said. “Or your knee gets bounced off your shifter. I mean, I’ve been tossed clear over to the other side of the car, and stuff. Pick myself up off the passenger side, get back in the seat and going right back at it.”
He wears a helmet and a neck brace, a long-sleeve shirt and jeans for protection.
Cars get equipped with smaller, six- to 10-gallon gas tanks fastened in the passenger area. The tanks are covered with fireproof mats or enclosed in a metal box. Batteries are secured and covered on the passenger side floorboard.
Intentional shots to the driver’s door are forbidden. Drivers’ doors are painted white to help prevent those strikes, but sometimes they happen accidentally.
All glass, plastic and chrome must be removed before the derby. Flying objects aren’t wanted.
Still, objects do fly.
“We have had to stop the derby for bumpers that are flying off, rear axles being broke and axles sticking up. We have had to stop it for vehicles flipped over on their roof,” Tittle said.
Some cars, like Pilcher’s, have a steel bar over the top to prevent a roof collapse when the car overturns. Four steel bars inside the car prevent it from collapsing on him laterally.
“I’ve had a little whiplash here and there, but nothing that you don’t sleep off the next day,” he said.
The thrill of the derby makes it all worthwhile for participants.
“Three thousand people yelling and screaming at you to get ‘em. The roar of the motor,” Pilcher said. “You know you’re putting a good hit on somebody. It’s a rush.”
“Then you hear the crowd go, ‘RAH!’ It’s a good time, for sure,” he said.
Colliding without consequences is a thrill.
“It’s just fun tearing stuff up,” Tittle said.
Reckless as it all is, winning the event takes a surgeon’s precision. You want to inflict the right kind of damage while doing little or unimportant damage to your own car.
“You want to go after their A-arm,” which links a front wheel to the rest of the car, Tittle said.
So you bash the opponent’s front tire or wheel.
“If you can bend or break their A-arms, they’re going to lose all steering,” he said.
But shots must be done properly. Striking at a 45-degree angle enables the attacker to slide off. Hitting squarely at a 90-degree angle can turn an attacker into a sitting duck.
“You’ve got a chance of getting hung up on whatever you knocked off,” Pilcher said.
A good shot at someone’s front end can take out their radiator, causing the motor to overheat.
But the front end is as much an Achilles’ heel for attacker as target. So drivers often shift to reverse to strike blows with their rear ends.
“Probably 40 to 50 percent of our time is spent in reverse,” Pilcher said.
Of course, everyone else is trying to do the same damage to your car. Attackers unwittingly become targets in an instant. So, smart demolition drivers play defense, too. They sometimes hide the front of their car in the track’s corner, position it toward a guardrail or rapidly whirl the car.
Yet for all of the violence and destruction, demolition derbies do not degenerate into fights or temper tantrums, Tittle said.
“We’ve never really had any problem. It’s more of a sporting event. Everybody seems to get along well. Everybody knows they are out there just to compete and put on a show,” he said. “There’s been tempers flare up, but it’s very, very minor. In the whole time I’ve ever done it, I only had to have one person escorted out. It’s actually a pretty mild event. Everybody pretty much knows they are there for the same reason as the next guy is.”
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin

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