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    Categories: Lifestyle

The sights, sounds and smells of the demolition derby

"SHE'S PRETTY FOLDED" – Matt Prefontaine (left) and his dad Mitch examine the damage to Matt's 1986 Lincoln Continental after one round of a demolition derby.

The annual demolition derby held as part of Legal’s Fête au Village is about way more than just watching a bunch of cars get smashed up.

Certainly that’s a big part of it, but it’s hard to describe the full-on sensory experience of the demolition derby: the sight of pieces of metal flying off the cars, the sound of crunching metal and revving engines, the smell of one fluid or another spilling out of an engine and possibly catching fire, and even the feeling of an occasional clump of dirt that gets kicked up and finds its way over the barricade and bouncing off your cheek.

And watching the way some of the drivers get bounced around inside their modified 1980s steel boats, one can’t help but think there’s a good reason there were hundreds of fans – if not a thousand – and just a few dozen drivers looking to mix it up.

But for those who do brave the driver’s seat in a sport where the main goal is to literally destroy your opponents’ vehicles, the main reason to do it is because it’s so much fun for the drivers and the audience.

Phil Brenneis, winner of this year’s Best Sportsman award and a 15-year veteran of the event, succinctly explained why he does it.

“I just go out and put on a good show. That’s what the demo’s all about,” he said. “It’s a great way to wreck a car. It’s better than seeing it sit out in the field and rot.”

For Dion Huot, who has close to a decade of experience in the derbies himself, the reason for getting involved is just as clear.

“It’s something boys like,” he said. “It’s loud, it’s fast and it relieves stress.”

And for the audience, which got noticeably louder every time two cars collided, a scrap of metal flew off, or someone’s radiator burst fluid all over the pit, it was clearly just about watching some cars get smashed up.

Preparation

Of course, getting a car ready for the demolition derby isn’t just a matter of heading over to the used car lot and driving an old boat down to the demo pit.

The first step is finding the right car, which is getting harder and harder as the old classics become more rare.

Matt Prefontaine, who was competing in his eighth demolition derby this year, said there are certain requirements a car has to meet to be a contender.

“It needs to be ’90s and under, driven recently and not parked for 10 years so that it actually runs and drives half-decent,” he said. “And the size, I guess.”

This year, he picked up a 1986 Lincoln Continental because that’s what he found on Kijiji for the right price. Sometimes it takes less than an evening to find and pick up the right car, but other times it can take months of searching.

Then once you’ve got the car, there’s a week of work that needs to go into making it safe for competition.

“You strip them completely: interior, exterior, and anything that can fall off,” Prefontaine said. “You’re only allowed your door panel for the interior.”

Tracy Roulston, the town’s fire chief and also the main organizer of the demolition derby, said the rules allow for a beam along the door for the driver’s safety, but aside from that everything has to be stock.

Furthermore, the battery and gas tank must be moved into the cab to ensure they don’t get smashed and leak, which would be an obvious safety hazard.

Even though he’s never competed, Roulston said in the many years he’s watched competitors he sees the “art” that goes into preparation.

“It’s the tricks of the trade, the little attention to detail that keeps you going into the next round,” he said.

Drivers may put an extra throttle linkage into the cab, for example, so if the linkage to the gas pedal is severed they’re still able to get around. This is invaluable in a sport where you lose by not moving for 60 seconds.

Another good modification, he said, is to weld the differential gear so that both wheels can propel the car forward instead of just the one.

“If one’s in the mud, then you’re going to get it out with the other one,” Roulston said.

Prefontaine said it’s possible to get a car ready to compete in as little as 10 hours, but if you really want to do it right you’re looking at something closer to a full work week – with plenty of overtime to boot.

“A well-put-together car will take 40 to 60 hours,” he said. “You can do it in 10 if you want, but usually you miss something.”

Strategy

While competitors are always looking for large, classic, steel-built cars because they just tend to last longer in competition, having the best car by no means guarantees victory.

“If you have the biggest car you still might not win; all it takes is one screw-up.” Huot said. “It’s 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill.”

There are several strategies drivers will employ to keep themselves in the competition, and all revolve around doing maximum damage to the other cars and protecting your own.

It’s far more common to see the cars moving backwards to lay on the big hits, because most of the essential components are located under the hood, but it doesn’t take long for the trunks to crumple and drivers to be left with little choice but to use the front.

For Justin Walsh, still clearly feeling the adrenaline after coming out on top in his first heat, the strategy was simple.

“Put the pedal to the floor and hit hard,” he said. “Keep the driver’s side always to the outside.”

Fixes on the fly

“I think there’s a crack in it,” Barry Boutin said, fixing a last-minute coolant leak on his Chevy Impala before the first round.

“Mangle it and get it out. Or try to hammer it in,” Mark Mirus said to him.

The last-minute fixes, or the urgent repairs made between rounds to get the heat-winning vehicles in shape for the finals, aren’t the typical swap-and-replace kind of work mechanics often do. Instead, it’s more about jury-rigging fixes and just getting the car running again.

“If you make it to the finals, you’re ripping and tearing, fixing as much as you can before you go back in,” Huot explained.

The sounds of sledgehammers, hacksaws and power tools was ubiquitous throughout the pit area between rounds as drivers scrambled to assess the damage and figure out the best – and fastest – fix.

Prefontaine looked at his smashed up Continental after making it through the first round, trying to strategize how best to get it back into competitive shape. It was no easy task, mind you, as in his own words it was looking “pretty folded up.”

That didn’t scare him too much, though.

“As long as she starts, it’s all good,” he said.

A family affair

Prefontaine’s dad Mitch, who was serving as his pit crew for the event, had a more optimistic assessment of the Continental.

“It’s finely conditioned for the next run,” he said with a smirk.

For the Prefontaines, like many other competitors, the competition is as much about getting together as a family as it is about smashing up some cars.

“I had an uncle, and we did this when the demolition derby first started in the early ’60s,” he said. “When I was a kid I followed him around, then he was my pit man, and now I’m the pit crew here for my son.”

It’s a similar story for Amberlea Bovair, 16, who was racing for the first time with some help from her father Don who can no longer compete due to a back injury.

“I used to race, too, and we’ve got friends and family,” he said. “I’ve always helped my friends and that, but I’m proud to help get a car ready for her.”

She said she had no worries about competing against a bunch of men, especially knowing she had a strong pit crew backing her up.

“Anything boys can do, I can do better,” she said.

For Don, the best part is not just passing the torch down to his daughter, but the whole experience of bonding as a family while getting the car ready for competition.

“This is in our blood,” he said.

The family connection also runs deep for Kevin Zilinski, who came out on top after the finals with his 1985 Pontiac Parisian station wagon.

He said he had a lot of help from his dad and his brothers, and they put in the time to help him even though they all had their own vehicles to work on, too.

“They’re all in it this year, too, so there’s always a little competition, but I won this year,” he said.

And while the $600 in prize money might not cover the costs that go into buying and modifying a car, it can nonetheless make a big addition to the beer fund.

Doug Neuman: