Derby drivers will smash and destroy their way to final event at fair

— Photo from JM Motorsport Productions

Firefighters extinguish a wrecked car at a demolition derby hosted by JM Motorsport Productions, the company hosting the derby at the Altamont Fair this year.

ALTAMONT — After almost a decade, the demolition derby is returning with a crash to the Altamont Fair.

While car racing had once been a big attraction at the fairgrounds, the demolition derbies didn’t start until 1994.

This year’s derby will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18, at the grandstand, with four qualifying rounds for a final championship event.

Last year, the fair introduced a monster-truck event, hosted by JM Motorsport Production — the same company hosting the demolition derby this year.

Jay Milligan, owner of JM Motorsports, who announces the company’s shows, once participated in a derby 30 years ago, to see what it was like.

“You ever stop at a red light, and the light turns green and the other car sits there, and you want to just slam into them?” he asked. “It’s like that, and you love it.”

Veteran competitor

Rich Bishop, 61, of Richmondville, has competed in demolition derbies since he was 16, including ones in Altamont. He is preparing for a derby in Cobleskill, he said, and would have been participating in the Altamont Fair’s derby had he had earlier notice. But he said he plans to be in next year’s Altamont derby and will be watching this year’s with the rest of the crowd on Sunday.

Bishop, a double-amputee — a train ran over his legs when he was 12 — said he started competing in derbies because it was one of the few sports he could participate in. He said most people don’t notice his prosthetics. He also had easy access to cars when he was younger, as his stepfather owned a junkyard and he knew people in the area who would offer a junked car.

Bishop said that derby drivers today are much more competitive, spending thousands of dollars on cars to use and to move up to bigger circuits. But the camaraderie is still there, he said, guaranteeing that, if you need to change a tire between heats, three or four drivers will come to help.

The basic things to do to prepare a car are to chain or weld the doors shut, and strip away any plastic or glass that could break and any fabric or carpeting that could catch fire.

“You’re going to have fires in derbies,” he said, adding that he’s dealt with three or four.

Other things that can be done include putting a baggie over the distributor or waterproof spark plugs. Since radiators must be filled with water instead of coolant, it is possible that an engine can get wet if hit, he explained. Other items like the battery can be put behind a firewall for protection, he said, and the gas line can be given an extra layer of protection to keep it from breaking.

The cooling line to the transmission can be closed off, he said, to prevent the transmission fluid from leaking, as overheated fluid is better than none.

The average age for derby drivers is from 30 to 40, but he said people of all ages and genders participate, noting his wife has won a few heats in cars he built for her.

Bishop doesn’t have a strategy. After he hits his first car, everything just comes into place for him. But he noted another driver once told him he thought of a heat like a game of chess, and planned out every move ahead.

Drivers usually hit a car at most going 40 miles per hour, said Bishop, and they hit at an angle to avoid a head-on impact. It’s hard to explain, he said, what it’s like behind the wheel; you either love it or hate it after hitting that first car, he said.

“Most popular thing”

Pat Canaday, the fair’s treasurer, said that the 10-year hiatus is ending because utility poles that had been close to the track had been moved so that it was no longer a risk that a pole or line could be hit.

Fair manager Amy Anderson told The Enterprise last year that people had been clamoring for more motorsports events, but the fair had not hosted a large event in years after a fight broke out at the demolition derby.

She had also noted that demolition derbies increased attendance at fairs like the Schoharie County Sunshine Fair in Cobleskill, but did not bring people to the rest of the fairgrounds.

“We don’t have as much trouble as Cobleskill,” said Anderson on Monday. Speaking to, for example, a food vendor, she said, it appears business increased when demolition derbies were once held at the fair. She added that there are always rowdy fans at derbies.

Anderson, who did not work at the fair when the derby had been hosted previously, said she is excited to see it come together.

“I think we’ve got enough going on to do both,” said Canaday last week, of getting fairgoers to both the grandstand and the rest of the grounds.

Canaday added that the derby will be occurring on the last day of the fair, which would mean that people would enjoy the rest of the fairgrounds for the previous five days.

Milligan said his company has been hosting demolition derbies since his father, Jay Milligan Sr., founded the company in 1962. The company had even hosted derbies at the Altamont Fair for 15 years before another company was contracted by the fair, he said.

The event is free to attend after entering the fairgrounds.

Drivers participating in the derby pay a $15 entry fee ahead or a $25 fee to enter the day of the event. Drivers also pay for insurance, said Milligan.

The company contacts other derbies and fairs to find interested drivers, as well as local automotive companies who may want to sponsor the event. As of last Friday, Milligan said 24 drivers had signed up, but he expects there to be 30 or more signed up by the time of the event.

The event is for both seasoned drivers and those new to demolition derbies, Milligan said. Although drivers can do more to prepare their cars, the basic requirements are to remove anything that could break off the car like glass or plastic, and to secure the doors and trunk.

Drivers have to wear appropriate gear and helmets, and hitting the driver-side door is off limits.

The company’s pamphlet suggests that drivers can also replace their fuel line with a rubber hose, waterproof their spark plugs; move the battery or electrical boxes to the firewall; cut and join transmission cooler lines together; and pad the driver-side door with foam from the backseats.

Welding to change the exterior or interior of the car is not allowed, and gas tanks must be secured and leakproof.

The cars are built to be as safe as possible, no one had broken a bone at a derby in two decades, Milligan said.

Anderson said that, in addition to the first responders who traditionally are stationed at the fair, the Albany County Sheriff’s paramedics and the Altamont Rescue Squad will be on site at the derby Sunday. The sheriff’s office is also providing police officers for the entire week, she said.

The fair will hold four heats and a final championship event, with drivers setting out to bash and crash into other cars until they can no longer run. A driver can enter a car in each of the first three heats.

The drivers of the last two cars running in the first three events will qualify for the final championship event and will also receive $100 and a trophy. A “last-chance event” is open to anyone who did not win in the first three rounds; the last two cars running will receive $50, a trophy, and will move on to the championship.

The eight drivers moving on will participate in the final “championship event,” and the driver of the last car running will receive $1,000 and the championship trophy; the second-place winner will receive $300 and a trophy.

JM Motorsports is also again hosting a monster truck rally and a power-wheels derby — children in electric-powered toy cars going bumper to bumper — as well as new offerings of monster-truck rides at the fair.

“Pretty much everything we do has to do with destruction,” said Milligan. “Which is the most popular thing at an event.”

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