Crowds and cars roar at derby

Published 9:44 pm Monday, October 14, 2019

The Demolition Derby on Friday night was a raucous good time for Suffolk Peanut Fest attendees, who packed the bleachers at the arena on that chilly night for crashing cars.

Festival lights flashed as engines whirred steadily and howled sharply before each crunch and crackle of metal in the arena. Wheels sent dirt flying from the stone enclosure, and the smell of smoke and car fluids became stronger. Emergency personnel were on standby, just in case.

Sparks flew as cars rammed into each other. Some hits drove vehicles into the stone barriers, which jerked and rattled with sudden shocks.

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According to derby volunteer and event emcee Chris Moore, there were 18 vehicles in the compact class Friday evening, and 19 vehicles in the full-sized class. Drivers followed the rules in preparing their vehicles for big hits, with safety being the biggest priority.

Drivers wear helmets and protective eyewear. Car doors have to stay closed and attached, and anything hazardous is removed from the scene immediately.

“You saw tonight we had some vehicles that lost wheels,” Moore said. “We won’t disqualify them or do anything like that, but we had the one wheel that came off that pulled the axle with it, and that’s a safety issue. That’s why we called stoppage on that.”

There were two heats for both classes of vehicles. The final four cars that survived each heat advanced to the “main event” for their respective classes.

Each finale turned into cat-and-mouse games by the end, with dwindling numbers of active vehicles chasing after each other — right to the last man or woman behind the wheel. The energy in the arena was fierce as the crowds cheered every hit with glorious applause.

Because another crucial rule at the derby, Moore said, is that “hits must be aggressive.” Drivers that made especially crowd-pleasing hits were rewarded with “Mad Dog” trophies.

“You have to be making aggressive hits,” Moore said. “You can’t skirt around the outsides just to last longer. You have to be making aggressive hits. That’s one of the big things we look for.”

Andy Anderson of Norfolk, driver of car No. 88, took home first place for the compact class. It was his fourth consecutive year winning at the Suffolk Peanut Fest Demolition Derby, he said.

Anderson, 41, said that being in the middle of one of these crashing derby heats feels different for each driver, between the excitement, adrenaline and moments of clarity.

“It’s different for everybody,” he said after the event. “I’ve been doing derbies now for almost 10 years. I’ve learned that the more crazy and antsy you are, the worse off it is. For me I’m antsy, but as soon as I make that first hit, my body just relaxes. I concentrate on what I need to do.”

He credited his friend Jeffy Schoeman, the man behind his derby sponsor Jeffys Fab Farm, for teaching him derby strategy. Because there’s more to it than just slamming the accelerator and aiming to crash.

“There’s actually a real big strategy to winning a derby. (It’s) not just building a tough car and going out there,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of strategy to actually driving in it. That’s what I think helps me a lot to win derbies.”

It was one of the biggest turnouts for Peanut Fest demolition derby spectators, Moore said, with a “phenomenal” showing by nearly 40 cars.

“A lot of the cars didn’t make it through the first heat,” Moore said. “We had some cars that weren’t able to come back, but we had a couple people that were able to borrow vehicles and be able to run a different vehicle that already ran into their main (event). It made for a great show.”

The derby is made possible by sponsor support and the dedicated efforts of volunteers, including Moore, Mack Lester, J.D. Higginbotham, Craig Branch, Jerry Powell, Mack Taoton, Chris Vaughan and Scott Wiggins.

“These guys work hard for the festival, and work hard to put this show on,” Wiggins said. Friday marked the fourth year that he and his group have volunteered at the derby. “This is our fourth year doing this as volunteers, and we put on a good show.”

Andy Anderson won first place for the compact class of vehicles, Zach Buchanan won second place and Gerald Williams won third place. Brandon Comer took first place for full-sized vehicles, while Jeremy Comer placed second and Chris “Shark” Joyce placed third.

There were trophies and prize money for each winner. The prize money for the full-sized category was $1,000 for first place, $500 for second and $250 for third. For the compact class, the prize money was $800 for first place, $400 for second and $200 for third.

There were also four Mad Dog winners with a trophy and $250 in prize money each. This year’s “Mad Dogs” were Chris Wheat, Christian Keller, Zach Buchanan and Tyler Heaster.