Monday, August 14, 2000

Demolition derby rocks county fair

Published in the Addison Independent

NEW HAVEN — A junkyard was parked in the mud. The crowds were gathered to watch the ultimate battle, a fight to the mechanical death. The last one to need a repair shop wins — except they all could already use some body work, and maybe a few new parts.

A coat of paint? Definitely.

But then, this is the Addison County Fair and Field Days demolition derby, where muscle and steel count for everything and things like windshields and mufflers don't even exist.

Fire crews and an ambulance stand ready to rescue drivers whose cars get destroyed — or rather, finished off. Seventy vehicles are in the lineup for the night, in six heats with a final feature smash-up for the big money.

Without the traditional Field Days rainstorm, the Vergennes Fire Department had to pre-soak the ground to ensure the proper degree of mud for the first night of competition on Wednesday. The destruction began with four heats of big six-cylinder cars.

Here is a look at how the action went.

In the first heat, Thadeus Sorrell in the No. 41 car took several long high-speed runs, reversing into the mass of cars at one end of the ring or the other. But his fortune turned against him when several cars seemed to gang up on him, reducing his car to a smoking hulk with massive bends in its frame.

Matthew DeBisschop in car 70 took Madeline Martell in car 57 and Travis Forbes (car 45) on a long ride most of the length of the ring, pushing Forbes over the concrete barrier at the edge.

"Number 51 is now a compact," the announcer said, after a big multi-car collision.

The heat winners were Chad Steady (car 99) and Mike McGrath in car 11. Wendell Mason in car 21 was third.

The top two in a heat win money and are eligible to appear in the final feature of the night. The third driver is also eligible for the final, though the driver wins no money for the heat.

As the smoke cleared, two Bobcats and a forklift entered the ring to begin removing the steaming, smoking wrecks. Most of the drivers were able to steer their cars; some were able to move under their own power after being extracted from other cars or the barrier edging the ring.

The second heat started with Pat Deering (car 12) nicking part of the log barrier on his way into the ring.

Nathan Bingham (car 9) was quickly driven up high on the barrier. Thomas Sattus (car 38) hit Troy Goduo (car 30) heavily, but was then pinned by three disabled cars. Eric Huestis in car 55 cleared Goduo with a heavy hit.

Derrick Dykstra (car 81) got stuck in a corner for a while, but managed to make it out eventually. Because his car was protected from the early carnage, Dykstra was able to make some long damaging runs later in the heat.

Goduo put a huge hit on Deering, lifting both cars off the ground. Car 55 had destroyed its rear end, but Heustis continued smashing competitors with the back seat.

When action resumed after a fire was extinguished, Nathan Bingham took his No. 9 on a long run, pushing Harry Chamberland (car 22) high up onto the barrier. Chamberland was able, though, to spin his wheels enough to get unstuck.

VanDeWeert and Chamberland were the top two in the heat, while Bingham also survived to be eligible for the final round.

In the cleanup, Garrett Given's No. 77 pushed Matt Deering (car 13) out of the ring.

As the cars entered the ring for the third six-cylinder heat, Phillip Stevens' No. 63 died before even getting past the barrier. Stevens, obviously frustrated, was towed away, but would return in the fourth heat.

This round was characterized by several cars pushed up on the barrier very quickly, and by the massive fishtail tactics of Boomer LaFountain in the No. 57 car.

For a time, Kenny Lussier in No. 2 was sandwiched between LaFountain and Gerard Grant in No. 71, but escaped and slammed Jeffrey Sampson's into the wall.

Sampson got stuck in the corner behind Jody Bartlett's No. 72. Sampson kept backing into Bartlett, hammering away trying to get out, but eventually the engine had enough and quit in a massive cloud of smoke and steam.

LaFountain and Lussier won the heat, with Ben Paquin (car 69) in third.

"It was my first time out there," Lussier said, "I just keep hittin' and hittin' and hittin'."

In trying to remove David Parker's car 51 from its position on the barrier, the Bobcat drivers nearly flipped it. When they did get it unstuck, though, Parker was able to drive out of the ring without a problem.

Stevens got his car 63 into the ring for the fourth heat, but only took one run at an opponent before it died.

The No. 35 car, driven by Roxie Hall, caught fire and Hall got out quickly. Safely in the crowd, she could still see the flames in her head.

"I had watched the fire long enough," she said.

Gregory Manchester in No. 52 and Michael Gill in No. 32 set up a joint attack on Mike LaFountain's car 84, but it went awry. Gill successfully hit LaFountain, but was immediately hit by Manchester.

Bruce Putnam, in No. 50, had some serious trouble with his partially-detached bumper. No matter where he headed, he had to drive over his own bumper to get there. It made for a rockier ride than usual for Putnam, whose car later caught fire.

The final three were locked in battle for a long time. Manchester and LaFountain sandwiched Tim Tenney's No. 44, compressing it from both ends simultaneously. When Tenney finally escaped, his car was crippled.

LaFountain executed a smooth evasion of a threat from Manchester, but was hit by Tenney's crawling car in a last-gasp effort to keep car 44 in the running.

In the back lot, work was frantic. Drivers who won their heats were trying to fix up their vehicles to give them a good chance in the final.

"They're just rippin' stuff off, ripping fenders off, changing tires, chains and that," said Mike McGrath. He didn't have much work to do, though.

"I just tried to plug up the radiator so it won't leak," he said.

In the meantime, the four-cylinder cars were lined up to drive each other to bits in two heats.

Jason Paquette in No. 42 was first off the line, but Chris Bearor in car 9 stole the early stages with a long sweeping run piling up several cars on the rear end of his.

Todd Huestis in No. 75 had a flashing light atop his car. After a few hits, though, the light quit flashing and just stayed on.

Jeremy Markwell in No. 65 smashed into Bearor, putting both through the barrier.

"It's crunch time at the Addison County Field Days," the announcer said.

Melissa Smith in No. 31 went head-to-head with Kevin Wedge in No. 17. Smith, granddaughter of legendary demo derby driver Wally LaFountain, took a huge evasive swing and drove Wedge into the wall for the win.

In the second four-cylinder heat, John Bannon, Jr., in car 22, didn't get off the line.

The other cars did, though, and soon bumpers, tires and car parts littered the mud, popping tires and adding to the mayhem.

In a tribute to the American automotive industry, several cars took head-on collisions and kept moving, with their drivers unhurt.

Mike Paquette in No. 19 and Steve Miller in No. 33 were the last two. Miller's car was much stronger, but Paquette's was more agile and outmaneuvered its opponent for the win.

The final feature heat brought back the winners in the six-cylinder class. Some were in the same cars, while others had traded up to better cars for the final.

Mike McGrath in No. 11 dominated the final, making hard hits on Jason VanDeWeert in No. 25 and Mike LaFountain in No. 49. LaFountain and Harry Chamberland in No. 78 spun their tires into cinders and smoke.

LaFountain and McGrath were the last two, engaged in a dance for the cash. They spun in circles, went back and forth, side by side. McGrath's dashboard warning lights were all lit up.

In the haze and smoke the two drivers eyed each other, each aiming to disable the other's car without a fatal blow to his own. After several attempts, McGrath got free and set up for a crushing reverse blow. He delivered it and went back for another, both of which landed solidly.

LaFountain's engine caught fire, and it was all over.

McGrath came over to the stands, waving his trophy to the adulation of his fans. His most enthusiastic supporter, though, was Dave Musante, who gave McGrath the car.

"When I first came here in 1998, I drove into a snowbank," Musante said. "Mike pulled me out and said it looked like a good car for the derby. I told him, 'It's yours when I get rid of it.'"

On Thursday, the action continued, with Dave Holbrook outlasting everyone and taking the championship.