ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BOB WOELK
When you live in Florida, what do you do for a short vacation? If you’re Gerry Harris, you travel to Hillsboro and announce the annual Marion County Fair demolition derby.
Harris has other reasons to return to Marion County. After all, he sold cars for a living in Marion for 34 years. He owns Hertz rental car agencies in Salina, Manhattan and Hays. And, he enjoys an opportunity to visit with old friends.
Still, it’s the derby that draws him back to Hillsboro each August. He is the only announcer the 28-year-old derby has ever had.
“This is the granddaddy of all the area demolition derbies,” Harris said. “We’ve all kind of grown old together. Gib Suderman called me one day back when we started this thing and asked if I would be willing to help out. I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then, Harvey County called and wanted us to help them get one started there, so we did.”
Marion County’s was the original, Harris said. “And, it’s been a tremendous money maker for the fair all these years. I served on the fair board for a few years. So, I know what it’s done for the finances.”
Harris, who has lived at Merritt Island, Fla., for the past two years, owns a used car dealership there named Linda Kay Motors (in honor of his wife). He said he still enjoys the people of Marion County.
“I still have fun with it,” he said, referring to the derby. “It’s like life: you get out of it what you want to. When we started, I was in the car business. Guys would ask me to hold some old tub of a car for them. They’d say they’d pick it up later. Then they’d show up in July with $100. They’d sell each fender to some merchant, and they’d be all set.
“Now, we’re seeing the second generation. It’s like Amway out there. Instead of one per family, there are two or three involved. They get their pit crews together. That’s a lot of blood, sweat and beers. I think the camaraderie is great. These guys are all in there having a ball.”
The derby is so big these days, officials had to turn away cars this year for the first time in memory.
“They may want to think about expanding it,” Harris said. “I don’t know exactly how you’d do that over two nights, though.”
In addition to selling cars, Harris has also been a successful basketball official. He called a decade’s worth of Division I college games, and served for 12 years as the commissioner of the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
He said he sees a connection between his roundball career and his announcing job at the derby.
“I think part of the fun of it is just being with people,” he said. “Having officiated basketball so long, it’s fun to see the crowd get into it. A lot of these people have been here year after year.”
And, after 28 straight years, it’s not hard to take Harris’s word for it.