Though a specially-prepared car may only last a few minutes in the , it is the result of hours of mechanical preparation, searching for parts and the right car to begin with.
For example, junior TJ Raycraft started looking for the right ride for his first run as a May Fair Demolition Derby driver months ago.
To stand up to derby punishment, drivers generally choose a pre-1980 vintage American car, most of which were built stronger than today's average fuel-efficient Prius. Since 1980 carmakers have significantly thinned the metal in fenders and chassis.
TJ chose a 1970s vintage Chevy station wagon. Then the fun began.
He wheeled the huge, battered hulk into his grandfather's fully-equipped tractor garage on the Raycraft farm two miles southeast of Dixon--where members of the Raycraft family have farmed for six generations, since the first pioneers arrived in the area.
TJ's grandfather, Richard Raycraft, says TJ “learned a lot in the shop, working on that big ol' Demo buggy.” TJ and several friends, including young members of the Percival and Kett families, who, in addition to the Raycrafts, have produced several Derby winners over the years, worked on their cars together in the Raycraft tractor shop.
TJ's first order of business was removing the Chevy's V-8 motor and welding in heavy-duty steel engine mounts. Though the basic Derby driving tactic is backing up, both at ramming speed and in evasive maneuvers, sometimes taking a hit in the front end can't be avoided. Though Derby pit crews can deal with many varieties of mechanical damage, a dislodged motor takes a car out of contention in an instant. The radiator, also crucial, is re-installed in a reinforced frame and moved back several inches from the grill.
TJ knocked all the windows out, stripped out the seats and cut away wheel wells and lower portions of fenders to prevent tires from getting cut up. He replaced the tires with heavy-duty truck versions and spray-painted the tire rims a gleaming silver.
To further minimize damage potential, he removed the headlights, welded the doors shut, removed the gas tank under the trunk. Backing up at 15 to 20 miles an hour and ramming another car without removing the tank would turn TJ's Chevy into a bomb.
Instead, he mounted a portable two-gallon army surplus gas can where the back seat had been. Gas mileage is one problem derby drivers don't have to worry about. He also replaced the hood latch with four half-inch thick bolts and cut a hole in it to accommodate a massive two-foot tall air-cleaner/carburetor.
Though two side doors in his Chevy hulk were already accidentally bashed in when he bought it, TJ bashed some more with a sledge hammer, providing the body more “Derby cred.” The result looks like something out of the Mel Gibson macho movie vehicle “Mad Max,” with fresh, gleaming coats of red-and-black paint and the names of his sponsors neatly lettered in white here and there.
With all the time TJ, his friends and dozens of Derby drivers have spent in shops around Dixon getting their heavy-duty “Derby buggies” ready, look for a series of colorful, hard-fought and long-lasting heats leading up to the final event. The fun begins in the re-configured concert area at 6 p.m., Sunday.