Demo derby drivers finish preparing cars for tonight's competition at SEMO District Fair

Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Jess Short shows how he climbs into the driver's seat of the 1986 Lincoln Town Car he will be driving in the demolition derby tonight at the SEMO District Fair. (Fred Lynch)

With the dual demolition derby set to take place at the SEMO District Fair today, participants are putting the finishing touches on their cars for the competition.

According to Bob Mauer, vice president of Auto Race Promotions, the derby's 80-car limit will probably be filled.

Auto Race Promotions, which has been in business for almost 40 years, produces dual demolition derbies at various events such as fairs in Missouri and Illinois, including the SEMO District Fair.

Dual demo derbies allow the driver to have a passenger during the race.

"Most derbies don't allow passengers," said local demolition derby driver Jess Short.

For the upcoming derby, Short will have his brother as a passenger.

Short's car, number 55, will include signage to support the United Way, where his wife works.

He has been participating in derbies for 10 years. Before that, he was a stock car racer. He made the switch to demolition derbies when his family started to grow because it requires less time to prepare the vehicle.

Short said the preparation time ranges from competitor to competitor. Vehicles can take as little as two days or, like Short's car, can take up to four weeks to be derby-ready. Short also said the price of derby alterations can range from $500 to $5,000 depending on what the driver or team does to the car.

The basic preparations include knocking out all glass except the windshield, removing the rear seats and removing the gas tank and mounting it where the rear seat used to be. He said the cars usually use stock tires.

The more elaborate entries in demolition derbies put in things like custom-built engines, transmissions and rear ends. They also sometimes replace the original tires with forklift tires because it allows the vehicle to stay up longer.

Mauer said that all cars in the derby will have a roll cage inside the car to protect the driver and passenger. Some drivers may reinforce their cars with bars across the top of the vehicle or by reinforcing the outside of the doors, he said.

Most of the modifications are made for safety reasons. Auto Race Promotions has created rules and regulations that drivers must follow in order to participate in the derbies. Vehicles are inspected before the race to ensure that they meet the guidelines.

"Sometimes you have to save people from their selves," Mauer said.

Short said one of the steps he takes to prepare his vehicle for the races is to make sure it is fireproof.

"The fuel and transmission lines need to be tight. You don't want anything that can cause a fire," he said.

In addition, Short wears a fire-resistant jacket, a helmet, safety glasses and gloves.

Auto Race Promotions has a rule that General Motors cars must be 1978 or newer; Ford, Chrysler and any front-wheel-drive cars must be 1980 or newer; full-size foreign cars must be 1980 or newer.

According to Short, who also organizes a small demolition derby in the summer, that is because the promoters want to keep the cost of the cars down. He said that 1970s General Motors vehicles are highly desirable, and thus more expensive than the 1980 and later vehicles.

For competitions with such rules, Short said he looks for a Ford Crown Victoria or Lincoln Town Car from 1980 or later because they can withstand the forces received during the races.

In a demolition derby, a driver is declared the winner when his or her vehicle is the last to be considered operational. According to Mauer, that's the "last one moving and the last one running."

According to Short, race strategies are a hotly debated subject. He said that some believe the strategy is to put on a show for the audience. However, some believe it is to try to avoid getting hit. He said the first strategy usually does not result in victory.

"There is a gray area. You want to put on a show, but you don't want to get destroyed in one hit," Short said.

The race will consist of four qualifying heats, a consolation heat and the feature race. The top five drivers in the feature race will be awarded cash prizes; $800 for first place, $400 for second place, $200 for third place, $100 for fourth place and $50 for fifth place. In addition, $300 will be awarded to the highest placing adjoining county resident in the feature race.

The dual demolition derby will begin at 7 p.m. today at the grandstand.

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