Derby hopes compact cars add big fun

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
To improve what’s already acknowledged as the most popular sporting event at the Marion County Fair would seem to be a daunting task.

But with progressive thinking and an old-fashioned nose for fun, this year’s demolition derby is shaping up to be the best in its 31-year history thanks to the addition of a heat featuring compact cars.

“We’ve been thinking about trying compact cars for the past couple of years, but it’s hard to get the ball rolling,” said Dean Suderman, derby chairman. “I’ve never seen compacts run before, but in some parts of the country that’s about all they do run.”

This year’s derby will once again be the fair’s climactic finale starting at 7 p.m., Saturday.

“The compact cars will be something different,” Suderman said. “Rather than just having the big cars, we’ll have a heat with these little cars running around. And it’ll sound completely different, too.

“The big cars have those big motors, but the little cars will just be buzzing around with their little four-cylinder engines.”

Suderman said the rules for compact cars mirror those for the larger models-with the exception of the size of the vehicle.

“These cars are limited to a 102-inch wheel base,” he said. “There aren’t any weight restrictions, but it has to be a factory wheel base. You can’t shorten up a larger car.”

Derby planners view the addition of a heat for compacts a way to rekindle interest in some drivers and get new drivers involved, Suderman said. But fans will be the primary beneficiaries.

“This first year I think the entrants in the compacts will be mainly the same drivers we’ve had in full-size cars over the years,” he said. “I know some of the guys who have built in the past kind of get burned out on the same old thing, and this sounds like a good idea to them.

“It also looks like this will be a good way for beginners to get into the sport, too.”

Even though the cars are smaller, Suderman said the same meticulous safety rules apply.

“I don’t think the little cars will be any less safe than the big ones,” he said. “But, obviously, there isn’t as much room for a driver in these cars because they’re already compacts.

“These cars won’t have as much momentum because they won’t be going as fast,” he added. “Since they won’t weigh as much, they won’t get as much traction or speed.

“These cars will have protection like the larger cars, with driver-door reinforcements and all the same safety rules.”

Suderman said the arena will be prepared the same as for other heats.

“We’ll leave the ring conditions the same as far as size and how wet we have it,” he said. “In the past, we watered the track down, and it was muddy. But at our derby over Memorial Day weekend, we had a drier track.

“There’s a fine line between too dry and fast and too wet,” he added. “But the crowd really likes the big hits and that’s exciting. We had a lot of good feedback from both the crowd and the drivers.”

Suderman said car speed has to be regulated so no rollovers occur. But the flow of the event is better when the track is faster.

“You don’t have cars getting stuck and hooked together when it’s drier,” he said. “That’s not too exciting-and besides, the drivers want to put some hits on the others, too.”

Deciding which make and model of car is ideally suited for the compact derby is anyone’s guess, according to Suderman.

“Just like in the big cars, the older car you can get, the better chance you’ll have because the old ones were built stronger,” he said. “It’s hard to say which one will make the best compact derby car because we haven’t had them yet.

“Actually I think the AMC cars, like Gremlins and Pacers, would work best because they were built pretty tough. But they’re still small enough to qualify as a compact car.”

Suderman said he hopes younger spectators will identify with the newer compact cars.

“I hope the crowd will see the compacts and some of them might remember when they or their neighbor had a car like that,” he said. “That just makes it a lot more fun to see them get crashed up.

“It’s more fun getting to see current-type cars,” he added. “Anymore, not that many people grew up with a ’74 Impala.”

Suderman said the availability of compact cars is something that might entice future demo competitors also.

“These cars are so much more readily available,” he said. “And in the future, we might also include small pickups with the compacts.

“We won’t do that this year, but it’s something we’ll look at in the future,” Suderman said. “A lot of pickups would be available.”

Just how many compacts will be entered in this first year isn’t certain.

“We hope to have enough for a full heat (eight cars), but they’re not all confirmed,” he said. “Even if we don’t have a lot of compacts this first year, hopefully this will get the ball rolling for a big response next year.

“It’s hard to get something new started, but I think once people see this, they’ll like it and really look forward to it.”

The top four finishers will receive cash awards with first place earning $250.

Suderman is himself preparing a compact for the derby.

“I’ve been entering a car for several years, and this looked like something different and a new challenge,” he said. “I’ll be driving a Mercury Bobcat, which is the same as a Ford Pinto. Mine’s a station wagon.

“I found it locally and it looks like a strong little car,” he added. “Most derby cars have been parked in the weeds, and there’s really not that much wrong with them, especially for a derby car.”

The compact car portion of the derby will be run immediately following the second consolation heat, just before the finals.

“We always give the drivers 15-20 minutes to get their cars ready for the finals-and that time gets pretty long, especially if you have little kids,” Suderman said. “We’re hoping the compacts will be a great time filler.

“As soon as the compacts are done we’ll head right into the finals and there won’t be any dead time,” he said. “Basically, we’ll have two championships back to back. Hopefully, this will be a crowd pleaser.”

Another change the committee is thinking about implementing is a “rookies only” heat for the larger cars.

“This heat would just be first-year drivers,” he said. “The two winners (of that heat) would still go into the finals with the veterans, but this would assure that at least two of the first-year guys make the finals.

“This would hopefully encourage more beginners to get into the derby next year,” he added. “And you’re only a first-year driver once.”

On average, Suderman said about 40 cars are entered each year. Luck plays a hand in determining the eventual winner.

“I think you have to have luck, good driving abilities, and a good solid car to win,” he said. “It’s fun to see if you can build a better car than the other guy, and it’s fun to get out and tear your car up.”

Suderman hopes the response to the compacts will be a springboard for the future.

“I just hope the compacts are something we’ll be able to expand in the future and it’ll take off in popularity,” he said. “It might get someone interested again who had lost interest.”

Suderman said the larger cars will be vying for an expanded purse this year.

“We’ve raised first place prize money to $800 this year,” he said. “And that’s in addition to the $100 each heat winner gets.

“We’re looking forward to another great derby,” Suderman said. “We’re always looking for something new because this is our biggest event.

“We don’t want to fix something if it isn’t broken but on the other hand. We want to stay ahead of the game and keep it exciting before it starts to die off,” he said.

“This is an experiment for us and we really don’t know what to expect with the compacts…. But we’re looking forward to a fun event.”

Tickets for the Marion County derby cost $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 12. Children 5 years old and younger get in without charge.

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