Twenty minutes before a group of uniquely decorated cars drove onto the track at Fairgrounds Speedway for the annual Cortez Demolition Derby on Aug. 3, the stands were already packed with a colorful cast of spectators.
“Make America Great Again” hats were everywhere, and the smell of cigarette smoke and deep-fried food was strong. Excitement was palpable throughout grandstands that were painted to resemble an American flag and the ruggedness of small-town culture was on full display.
In the pits behind the arena, cutting torches hummed while emitting blue light as drivers and crew members swung sledge hammers and made last-minute adjustments and modifications to cars whose tough steel frames harkened back to another time.
All those at Fairgrounds Speedway, be them drivers or crew members, were there for one thing and one thing only – to see cars bang one another into oblivion and witness a type of carnage that only takes place in Cortez once per year.
As the bright neon sun dipped under a cloud near the western horizon and the clock struck 6 p.m., engines purred to life, cars entered the Fairgrounds Speedway arena and derby time officially arrived.
Unique cars take center stageAs the owner of Backwoods Towing and Recovery in Dove Creek, James Cundiff has become very familiar with cars and their various makeups.
As a young man, he marveled at the powerful builds of Detroit’s famous muscle cars and in recent years, he has shaken his head as manufacturers have placed hybrid engines inside of shiny plastic bodies.
A longtime veteran of demolition derbies, Cundiff knew all too well that a Toyota Prius would not cut it in this year’s derby event. Rather, he needed something with plenty of solid metal and a tough engine to match.
Eventually, after a bit of searching, Cundiff settled on a 1989 Oldsmobile Cutless whose relatively small size allowed for maneuverability and tough frame appeared capable of inflicting damage in the derby arena.
“I own Backwoods Towing and Recovery in Dove Creek and this car was given to me,” Cundiff explained. “I actually got the car for my son, Danny Stuckman. He is driving it in the derby this year.”
After removing all of the glass from the vehicle, relocating the gas tank to a safe location, welding reinforcement bars along the driver’s side door, cutting a hole in the hood, installing a roll cage, and adorning the body with a Jurassic Park sticker and some colorful paint, Cundiff knew that his machine was ready to go.
“The Jurassic Park sticker was my son’s idea,” Cundiff said. “Otherwise, we just worked the car up to give protection to the driver. I’ve been doing derbies for years. It’s just a lot of fun.”
‘Adrenaline rush’ keeps drivers coming backA longtime competitor in demolition derbies, Durango resident Darell Cordary has become quite familiar with the bumps, bruises and whiplash that often follow big-time collisions with heavy 1970s-era cars.
Never one to be intimidated by a bit of physical discomfort however, Cordary entered this year’s derby with a 1973 Buick Century intent on doling out destruction.
“(My car) was in an old guy’s field and his kids took the keys from him because he was too old to drive,” Cordary explained. “I got it for a couple of hundred bucks and here it is. I just try to hammer people until the car quits. Don’t stop, that’s my strategy.”
Asked what keeps him coming back to the derby year after year, Cordary, who also races Sport Mod stock cars at tracks throughout the region, explained that the adrenaline rush provided by demolition derbies is beyond compare.
“The adrenaline rush, you can’t get it anywhere else,” Cordary said. “I drive race cars and it ain’t nothing like this. This is just a lot of fun.”
Derby veteran brings home titleStanding next to his 1973 Oldsmobile Cutless before the final year of this year’s derby, Mancos resident Ted Neergaard had the feeling that a title at this year’s derby event was well within his reach.
After all, his boat-like vehicle had sustained little damage while smashing its way through the preliminary round and its stout body appeared as if it could run through a brick wall if it was so asked.
“(The type of car) makes a pretty big difference,” said Neergaard, who has competed in demolition derbies for decades. “Every manufacturer made cars a little different. Once you start getting into the 1980s, they started putting in crumple zones and things, which don’t work as well for derby cars.”
Although Neergaard expressed concern that a broken linkage cable might limit him in the final round, the veteran had little difficulty smashing the competition as he and his car emerged delivered the last hit in the derby’s final round and emerged victorious.
“I’m getting way too old to be doing this, but I’m not going to quit any time soon,” Neergaard said. “I just went out and hit as hard as I possibly could. I tried to take the competition out.”
Truck derby and off-road race thrill fansWhile smashing cars provided the most memorable highlights at this year’s demolition derby, a Tough Truck/UTV race along a dirt track and a truck demolition derby also provided memorable moments for fans.
Several impressive jumps by off-road vehicles during the Tough Truck/UTV competition elicited cheers from fans and Bayfield resident Ken Fusco stole the show during the truck derby when he piloted his 1994 Ford 150 to victory.
“Tonight was the first time that I ran a truck,” Fusco said. “I’ve been running cars for about eight years now and it’s pretty cool. In a truck, you get some great hits. What’s neat about the derby is that we’re all friends and we’re just trying to have fun. We’re all just easy going people and it’s great to have good friendship and go at it.”
A great event, indeed, and a vital part of this year’s Montezuma County Fair that will not soon be forgotten.