Two mangled cars sit in a clean shop, one on a lift, the other pulled halfway out, dripping unknown fluids into a bucket. Brothers Casey and Caleb Ewing are up to their elbows in the car’s guts, replacing gaskets, and nearly everything else under the hood, before the demolition derby at the Scotts Bluff County Fair on Saturday, Aug. 15.
“You know it’s the week before the show when you start to see the problems with your car,” Caleb said, laughing. “We’ve had to do a full transmission replacement the night before, we’ve had to replace an axle the night before.”
Both cars, Casey’s 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass and Caleb’s 1976 Chrysler Cordoba are on their last run, meaning a lot of time and money to fix up a car to total, but the Ewing brothers said it’s all worth it.
“There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush when you’re out there,” Casey said.
“Might not seem worth it to someone who’s never done it,” Caleb said.
Demolition derby, as many great American sports, has a creation myth. Stock-car racer Larry Mendelsohn is credited with the start after he flipped a ‘49 Ford and sailed into the grandstands in 1958. Three years later, Mendelsohn promoted the first official demolition derby at Long Island’s Islip Speedway.
But there’s a longer history dating back to the 1920s of “Hell Drivers,” who would travel in troupes to drive cars through flaming hoops or crash them into one another before audiences.
While an estimated thousands of derbies occur (in normal times) in county fairs around the country, it’s a different kind of bloodsport then taking a jalopy for one last joy-ride.
But they are diminishing, with often a third of the cars of even a decade ago. The Ewings say time and money are both barriers.
“You can’t just find a junk car and knock out the glass, maybe that’s how it used to be, but not anymore,” Casey Ewing said. “It’s getting to the point, like any other sport, where the people who sink the money into it are going to win, and it’s not cheap.”
For ‘70s cars, the preferred steel boats perfect for the sport, demand for scrap metal often changes the availability of cars. Cars now can cost $2,500 to $3,000 to purchase, and making it drivable is another matter altogether. Casey Ewing said higher prizes in some shows such as Juab County, Utah, offering $10,000 means the winner can spend more on the car, while others walk away from just a pile of scrap metal.
“We’ve poured countless hours into fixing up cars,” he said. “During fair time, we go to work, come home and spend until midnight, 1 a.m. fixing the car until we have to go back to work the next day.”
Derby organizer Aaron Green who’s been derbying for 10 years said there should be more than 20 cars for this year’s smash at Mitchell.
“I’m expecting the car count to be there,” he said, adding that he hopes to see spectators, despite COVID-19.
“Without fans, you can’t justify having a derby,” he said.
The Ewing brothers have been participating in area demolition derbies since they were 16. Now, Casey, 27 and Caleb, 22, have quite a few wins under their belts, in both the weld and chain classes.
“There’s several times it's been down to just Caleb and I,” Casey said. “Then we have to take each other’s cars out, which can be frustrating.
Caleb added, “Then, help each other fix ‘em up.”
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