As the drivers were still lining up to pass a mandatory breathalyzer test before The Great Frederick Fair’s demolition derby Wednesday night, 11-year-old Patrick Terrebonne, of Ijamsville, was already holding down his seat in the front row of the grandstand.
“We really, really like the demolition derby. This will be my fourth demolition derby,” Patrick said. “It’s the most exciting when they first start, because all the oldest and coolest cars drive in.”
Just like he said, the crowd’s excitement gradually rose as the first heat of cars rumbled into the stretch of dirt track before the grandstand shortly after 7 p.m., culminating in a countdown to set the competitors off. Soon the crowd was audible only over the occasional lull between the roar of the competitors’ engines and the smacks and crunching of metal and plastic impacts.
Although Patrick was a bit too young to compete, he said he’s picked up a general idea of what the drivers are trying to accomplish from attending previous events, usually attending the fair on both nights the event takes place.
“I think they’re mainly trying to not be the one with the most damage up until the very end,” he said.
Patrick’s hypothesis was fairly accurate, according to Frederick resident Kenny Hottinger, who began competing in the derbies in 2008, when he was just 16, and has given it his all ever since. While some tactics can help, Hottinger said he suspects that another factor plays a larger role.
“Luck,” he said with a shrug. “Luck and just trying to watch out for what everyone else is doing. You also really want to avoid getting stuck in the bottom of the track closest to where the announcers are, because if you do, you’ll probably end up getting pinned.”
Myersville resident Nick Fogle, who works as a mechanic at Younger Toyota in Hagerstown, also began competing in the derby at a young age — 18 — back in 2004. Aside from tactics, Fogle has picked up quite a few tips over the years that he believe can help him win competitions even before they start, including which cars to look for befire the event.
“For example, I like to use Crown Victorias,” Fogle said, referring to a Ford car that was a popular model still used by some police agencies today. “Old police cruisers are the best ones to get, because they’re built different from civilian cars, so when someone says, ‘Hey! I’ve got the same car as you, but yours didn’t bend!’ Well, it’s not because I’m cheating, it’s because it’s a different model.”
This year Fogle entered a 2003 Crown Victoria as his “big car” and a 1994 Toyota Camry station wagon as his smaller one, both of which competed Wednesday. Fogle was still working on his cars the week of the fair, which he said was not unusual for derby participants, who are often strapped for time and take it up as a hobby.
Another factor is the increasing cost that derby competitors must shoulder to participate, Fogle said. Based on the number of seats at the grandstand and the $23 ticket price for the two-night event, Fogle estimates the fair makes between $60,000 and $80,000 a year from the event.
“But the drivers don’t see that kind of money. The most we’ll ever see is a couple hundred dollars and, generally speaking, most people pay three to five hundred dollars. Some people pay up to $1,000 for a car ahead of each event,” Fogle said. “It comes down to it being a hobby, and I get that, but you want to try to recoup some of your money.”
Last year the winner of the entire derby, Myersville resident Tyler Fisher, took home $400, according to previous stories in The Frederick News-Post.
While scrapping used to help compensate drivers for the cost, scrapping prices have plummeted in recent years, with Fogle estimating a yield of maybe $150 per car.
Still, there is never a shortage of drivers itching to participate each year and Fogle says he will likely remain among them, at least for the next few years.
“I work with cars for a living, so it’s kind of like my second nature to build cars and drive them, and there’s no other adrenaline rush that can compete with it, from my experience,” Fogle said. “Plus my kids like to watch me drive. Every year I tell them I’m not doing it this year, and they twist my arm into getting me to do it again.”
By the end of this first heat, Fogle had another compelling reason to keep competing; after a thrilling contest that included Fisher, last year’s overall winner, Fogle had emerged victorious with his Camry.