Smoke hovered above the track at Fairgrounds Speedway, the smell of funnel cake and hot dogs filled the air, sledgehammers striking metal could be heard in the distance, and excited fans packed into wooden stands.
A Demolition Derby had again arrived in Cortez on Aug. 4, and the atmosphere was electric. As drivers sporting beards and barbed-wire tattoos worked in the pits, the voice of local announcer and radio host Ray McDonald carried across the arena.
On many levels, the scene at this year’s demolition derby was one that has come to define all that is beautiful and unique about small-town America. From the rugged workingmen in the pits to the tight-knit families in the stands, a shared sense of community forged a seemingly unbreakable bond.
Below are some of the most intriguing storylines from what will be remembered as one of the most thrilling evenings at the annual derby.
Paul Krueger wins thrilling final roundBefore the final round of this year’s derby, Durango resident Paul Krueger looked over his battle-worn vehicle and realized that driving his way to victory would not be easy.
The longtime derby competitor knew that he had a chance, however, thanks to skillful repairs made with a welder, sledgehammers and several skilled mechanics on his crew.
As soon as the final round began, Krueger piloted his vehicle to the right side of the arena, where he was somewhat protected from the carnage playing out in the center of the arena.
Derby veterans Ted Neergaard and Dwayne Bradshaw were especially aggressive, and after delivering several shots to their competitors, found their cars on fire and locked together by their front bumpers.
As officials raced into the arena waiving red flags, Neergaard and Bradshaw escaped out of their windows and watched as fire extinguishers were deployed to put out the small blaze.
Once the fires were extinguished and all the drivers, including Neergaard and Bradshaw, returned to their vehicles, the action and carnage resumed. After about 10 minutes, every car was severely disabled, and steam from broken radiators engulfed the arena.
Krueger, who was parked at the right side of the arena, managed to start his car and deliver one final shot to two competitors who were stuck together by their bumpers. The shot, which was mundane compared with many others, was enough to lift the Durango driver to victory.
M-CHS students benefit from experienceWhile many of the drivers at this year’s demolition derby were grizzled veterans, some recent Montezuma-Cortez High School graduates made their presence felt, thanks to a car that was prepared as part of a class project.
The car, a 1977 Chevrolet Checker Taxi, was found by M-CHS’s agriculture teacher, who hoped to provide students with a memorable senior project. After the car arrived at the high school, students were charged with stripping the car’s interior, removing glass and chrome and dismantling electrical wiring.
Dalton Janz, who graduated from M-CHS last spring and drove the car in this year’s derby, played an integral role in the project, which he described as one of the most memorable learning experiences of high school.
“As our last senior project, our teacher wanted us to do something, and we didn’t want to do something just normal,” Janz said. “We all came up with the idea to build a derby car. Our teacher found the car, and it made a perfect demo car because of the massive size and quality of it.”
Because of time and money constraints, Janz and his classmates were unable to finish their car before the end of the school year, but thanks to help from Target Rental in Durango, Janz and a few classmates finished preparing their car for this year’s derby.
Although the 1977 Chevrolet did not qualify for the final round, Janz delivered several hard shots in the preliminary round and the consolation final, where he finished second overall.
“I’ll always remember how bad it hurt when I got hit from behind,” Janz said. “It whiplashed me a little bit, but (the experience) was unbelievably fun.”
Conner Ainge honors family tradition While Janz and his classmates prepared for their first Demolition Derby, Conner Ainge of Moab, Utah, stood near his 1998 Ford Crown Victoria and prepared to carry on a longtime family tradition.
The son of longtime derby driver Ray Ainge, Conner Ainge said that he had been working on derby cars and attending derbies for as long as he could remember, but prior to this year, had never driven a derby car of his own.
“My mom, my dad, my stepmom, my cousin, my grandma, everybody is here,” Ainge said. “We’ve been coming to the derby in Cortez pretty much every year. Demolition derbies are a family tradition for us.”
Cheered on by family members throughout the final round, Conner Ainge fell just short of victory, but said that he will never forget his first derby experience and indicated that he fully intends to come back for more.
“It was an adrenaline rush for sure,” Ainge said. “It’s not like riding a roller coaster or something like that. It’s a whole different level, and it’s just wild. I definitely enjoyed it, but I’ll tell you what, I’m going to be sore in the morning.”
UTV race and Tough Truck competition thrill fansWhile the derby served as the focal point of the exciting evening, a UTV race and a Tough Truck Competition provided new flair to derby festivities.
In the UTV race, which required drivers to race head-to-head through a course that included several bumps, jumps and berms, James Moore defeated Jimmy Wilson in the final race to capture the title.
In the Tough Truck competition, which required trucks to navigate the same course that the UTVs raced around earlier in the evening, Ben Wilson stole the show while driving a Subaru Station Wagon that began spewing transmission fluid after catching air on a jump that was designed for much larger vehicles.
At one point during Wilson’s trip around the track, announcer Ray McDonald commented that McDonald was “a maniac” and laughed as the Subaru nearly dislodged its undercarriage while bottoming-out on a row of bumps.
By the time that the long night of racing and car smashing concluded just before 11 p.m., fans flocked to the exits with smiles on their faces that served as a testament to one of the most exciting evenings in Cortez Demolition Derby history.