Amid the smell of dirt and the sound of crunching metal is a tangible feeling of family, which may seem ironic in a contest where competing drivers ram old cars into one another until every car but one is out of commission. But, in the stands, in the cars and behind the scenes, demolition derbies are a family affair for fans, drivers and promoters alike. Take Ultimate Derby promoter Sam Williams, for instance.
Williams began promoting derbies at county fairs in 2007, and by 2017, his business graduated to sold-out events. After selling his two national events, “Blizzard Bash” and “Capital City Carnage,” to Smash It Demolition Derby in 2017, he believed his promoting days were over. But this year he is back partnering with his son Chris and daughter Nicole to host a new show called “Whiskey City Revolution” at the Peoria Civic Center.
According to Chris, derbies have been a family tradition for three generations, starting with Sam’s father. Sam began participating around age 16, Chris started even younger, and Nicole drove in her first a few years ago and has continued competing.
Chris says Sam decided to get out of promoting in 2018 to spend more time with family, but now that the kids are no longer teenagers, the family decided to get back into it together.
Including inspectors, technicians and safety staff, their team is comprised of 20 to 30 members. At the Peoria event, 170 drivers competed for monetary prizes, with top winners taking home between $2,000 to $5,000.
Demolition derbies are also in the blood of 14-year-old driver Zoey Awe from Mount Pulaski, driving in the youth class. “This was her first demo derby, and it will not be the last,” says her mother Josie Awe. Her grandfather David Awe competed in demo derbies before switching to racing at local tracks in a street stock car. Her father Shawn grew up in the garage with his dad building cars.
“As fate would have it, Shawn got into derbies before moving to racing at the local track. As we settled down to grow our family, he felt the itch again and jumped back in,” she says. “Zoey’s been by his side helping strip the cars, painting, decorating and in the crowd cheering. She too felt like she wanted to give it a go.”
Once old enough, the family had fewer than two weeks to get a car safe and ready for her. “We told her, ‘Go out, have fun, and don’t worry about winning,’” says Josie. “She did just that, with many people in the crowd, from grandparents, aunts and uncles to cousins, to cheer her on. We are proud. It takes a lot of guts at 14 to get behind that wheel and wreck into people.”
“It’s scary going out there, but once the first hit is done you realize it’s not as bad as you’d think” says Zoey. “It’s not just a boys’ sport—there were four other girls in the same class as me.”
Her advice to other newbies is simple: “Don’t just stay on the gas pedal,” she says.
Rick Dobbels, on the other hand, has competed in demolition derbies for 30-plus years. His love for the sport began as a kid in the audience watching derbies at the Henry County Fair in Cambridge.
Rick, a member of Corn Belt Energy Corporation, says he loves the rush and taking his frustrations out on the cars, but another part of the draw is building cars with his nephews and friends. His current car is a baby blue 1974 Chevy Impala.
Surprisingly, he says he hasn’t had any scary moments. “The car has a roll cage, the bumpers and doors are welded, and the hood and trunk are wired,” he explains. Rick is also a promoter with Viola Boyz Promotions and Viola Boyz Backroad Speedway, which hosts go-kart racing for kids and adults.
He says it has become challenging for people to participate in derbies. “It’s harder for people to get involved now due to higher scrap and catalytic converter prices,” he says. “They don’t always have the initial $600-$800 the cars cost now. I just hope people support county fairs, and there’s a good turnout for the derbies.”
Stacey Holsapple, an organizer of the demolition derby at Cumberland County Fair, agrees. “People put a lot of money in them, even thousands for the bigger cars.” Stacey has organized the event in Cumberland County for about 10 years. “We usually have a big crowd,” he says, adding that they haven’t seen any serious injuries. “We’ve been pretty lucky.”
According to him, each fair has different classes and rules. Drivers choose events based on which fit their cars. He says he sees the same drivers from year to year, but Cumberland’s event has had drivers from other states as well, including Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.
“We usually have between 70 and 85 drivers,” he says, although at one of the four events that took place during the pandemic, more than 120 participated. Stacey says the prize for first place at Cumberland typically runs from $1,200 to $1,500, but the stock compact class will pay out $5,000 at their event this month.
He says his personal favorites are the pro-mod cars. “It’s crazy how they’re built,” he says. “The stoutness of them. Motors can be $5,000 or $6,000. They’re loud, too.” Stacey, like Sam Williams and Rick Dobbels, has had personal experience as a demolition derby driver. “I demo’ed when I was younger. I was always into demo derbying.”
Some derby drivers get started as toddlers driving electric ride-on cars in a class of their own, typically called Power Wheels. Children participate under the watchful eyes of their parents and officiants, getting the opportunity to bump into one another, too—giving them a taste of the fun while fueling the next generation of demolition derby drivers.
2022 County Fair Demolition Derbies
- Cumberland County Fair, Greenup – May 28, thecumberlandcountyfair.com/demolition-derby
- Henry County Fair, Cambridge – June 18, henrycountyfairillinois.com
- Heart of Illinois Fair, Peoria – July 23, heartofillinoisfair.com
- Marion County Fair, Salem – Aug. 6, marioncountyagfair.org
- Brown County Fair, Mt. Sterling – Aug. 7, browncofair.com
- Pana Tri-County Fair, Pana – Sept. 5, panatricountyfair.com
For a comprehensive list of Illinois county fairs that may be hosting demolition derbies, visit www2.illinois.gov/sites/agr/Fairs/CountyFairs.