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PICTON, ONT.—Amber Walsh professes to be a safe and cautious driver under normal circumstances. But all that went out the busted window when she challenged the guys to a match of motorized mayhem.
The first-time demolition derby driver left them dead in the dust as she smashed her way to victory in her feature heat at Picton’s recent fall fair.
“Awesome!” declared the 31-year-old mother of a blended family of five kids. “I want to show them that girls can do anything boys can do.”
Demolition derbies are as much a part of country fairs as pies and poultry. But female drivers are as rare as hen’s teeth, outnumbered by men 100 to one, according to one estimate.
But male or female, derby daredevils in their junkyard jalopies have one goal: cream the competition. It’s no holds barred — except for hitting drivers’ doors or pushing cars over the concrete safety blocks — in the bid to be the last one moving.
“They light on fire, fall upside down and, once, one landed on top of another,” says David Everall, who, with his cousin Steve Everall, has been hauling wrecks out of the ring for more than 10 years.
In the car, where helmets and fire extinguishers are required and neck braces are recommended (though rarely used), it’s instant enrolment in the school of hard knocks.
“The first couple of hits, I was like, ‘Man!’ You really feel the car shake,” says Walsh, who works for a maintenance services company.
But it can be a glorious finale for a vehicle that’s reached the end of the road — indeed, scrap dealers are often waiting in the wings.
“She went out a winner!” cheered Carol Powers after the 1996 Ford Revell she donated to Walsh paraded past the packed stands.
“I just bought a new car; I don’t need two,” explained Powers, a friend who witnessed her first derby and the battering of the car she’d driven for 16 years.
It’s a rough ride from road to ring for the vehicles. Derby rules, backed up by keen inspection, require that the interior be stripped, windows knocked out, battery and gas tank placed inside, and everything be wired or welded shut.
For the lucky ones, prize money may help offset the $300 or $400 it costs to get a car ready, says veteran driver Eric Conlin, who destroyed 18 in a season two years ago.
“I just like wrecking cars,” says the factory worker and former stuntman. “When I do derbies, it takes a lot of road rage off.”
The father of five says he’s never been injured in the high-risk sport, thanks to his “good luck charm,” a roof-mounted photo of his 4-month-old son Logan, whom he lost to SIDS six years ago.
“He rides shotgun with me,” says Conlin, 32.
It’s people like him who help keep fairs going, offers announcer Elsie Dowdle, a crowd favourite who’s been doing events around the province for 31 years.
“You can meet the greatest guys and gals,” she says, sporting a purple cancer survivor T-shirt with hair to match. “They deserve all the credit and respect in the world.”
She’s thrilled to see driver Derek Pidgeon with cancer awareness messages painted on his 2001 Grand Marquis, a retired taxi.
Pidgeon, a 39-year-old family man, has lost friends to the disease and has relatives who survived it. The draw of the derby, for him, is its destructive bent.
“I love the excitement, the thrill of being able to smash a car without getting into trouble. It beats doing drugs,” laughs Pidgeon, who gets to only one or two derbies a year because of his lawn care and maintenance business.
At this event, run by Lindsay-based Impact Motorsports, he delights spectators with an unplanned parking job on top of a concrete barrier.
Another casualty is not so lucky when firefighters spend half an hour cutting him out of his crushed pink car with the jaws of life. He was taken to hospital but wasn’t thought to be seriously injured.
For Jeff Dufour, the adrenaline rush starts in a can of spray paint. The professional tattoo and graffiti artist spent 10 hours and $100 turning a mid-’90s Intrepid into the “Anti-Chrysler” adorned with devils and graveyard.
“Half the fun’s putting it all together,” says Dufour, 30, one of several team members behind driver A.J. Scott.
Dufour’s artwork might wow the crowd but it doesn’t save Scott’s hide. Madwoman Walsh shows no mercy as she slams the Revell’s backside into his exposed mid-section.
“I hoped they wouldn’t make me a target because they know I’m female and they don’t want to get beat by a girl,” she says.
Demolition derbies are in full swing around the province. Here are a few coming up:
Sept. 27-29: Milton Fall Fair
Sept. 27-29: Caledonia Fair
Sept. 28: Roseneath Fair
Oct. 3: Metcalfe Fair
Oct. 9: Norfolk County Fair
Oct. 26: Fall Brawl, Lindsay fairgrounds
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