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Demolition derby: It’s a smashing time at the Hopkinton State Fair

  • Russell Donahue of Webster celebrates after winning the demolition derby at the Hopkinton State Fair in 2016. Courtesy

  • Cars chase around the mud track during a demolition derby at the Hopkinton State Fair in 2016. Courtesy



Monitor staff
Saturday, September 01, 2018

Eileen Mann had a nickname when she was wrecking cars in demolition derbies around New England: Pinky Tuscadero.

That was the name of Fonzie’s old flame from Happy Days, who competed in a demolition derby against the hated Malachi Brothers.

Mann did her share of crunching behind the wheel as she banged and bashed other vehicles over the years at fairs and festivals around New England.

These days, Mann is co-owner of Woodbooger Demolition Derby, which runs the annual derby at the Hopkinton State Fair, one of about 20 the company does each year.

“When I was driving, it felt almost prestigious,” Mann said of the event, which is the biggest derby in New Hampshire. “The drivers seem to be more skilled for this event.”

Tens of thousands of people will descend upon Hopkinton this weekend for the 103rd fair, but the demolition derby – where junkyard cars smash and crash until the last one rolling is declared the winner – has a special ability to draw large crowds.

Woodbooger Demolition Derby, a company out of Tauton, Mass., took over operations for the derby at the Hopkinton State Fair two years ago. Since then, the event has been dubbed the New Hampshire Championship.

This year’s champion will receive $9,000, up from $7,500 last year. The winner also receives a special black jacket.

Russell Donahue, 25, of Webster, was the 2016 champion.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Donahue said. “If you’re facing the other way and you’re not bracing yourself, you’ll get thrown around some.

Donahue will compete again this weekend with a 1978 Chrysler Newport, a car he found online and picked up from Tennessee just for this event.

It’s hardly the farthest Donahue has gone to pick up a car. He’s been competing since he was 18 and has traveled to Florida to find the right ride.

“Sometimes you find them around here,” he said. “But most of the junkyards are gone, so you’re usually looking on Craigslist.”

He already has a couple of cars lined up for next year: a 1975 Oldsmobile wagon and a 1978 Chrysler New Yorker. No matter the season, Donahue says he’s always keeping an eye out for the next car.

“You can get lucky and find one quick,” he said. “Or it might take a whole year, or you find one during the month (of the derby).”

The cars can be picked up for as little as a couple hundred bucks, and then a little more is spent setting it up to pass the safety specs put in place by Woodbooger.

Demolition also precedes the derby. All glass, from the windshield, windows and mirrors, must be removed. Lights, bumper covers, moldings – anything that could be knocked loose has to be taken off ahead of time. Even the airbag has to be taken out; if one goes off during the event, the driver is disqualified.

All of the seats are removed, except for the driver’s, of course, and a roll cage is installed. Drivers strap in with a standard seatbelt and must wear a helmet.

Donahue replaced the motor and transmission in his car – which sports the number 77 – for sharper power to help in chasing down and attacking the other cars.

The derby draws drivers from as far as New York and Canada. Donahue says you can get a car and make it ready for as little as $500 but some will spend over $1,000 on a car for a single event.

Sometimes the clunkiest of the clunkers comes out the winner.

“Some people will put all of that money in a motor, so it’s kind of like racing in that way,” he said. “You can throw a car together for nothing and sometimes it does just as well as a guy with a $1,000 motor.”

The “track” is a mud pit about 90 feet wide and 200 feet long. Cars start on either end and the competition begins with a “Woodbooger handshake,” where the drivers come to the middle and tap bumpers.

Some derbys begin with a simple countdown and the cars take off from either end and crash in the middle. But that sort of start tends to lead to early knockouts and violent whiplash, Mann said.

“Others say ‘Go!’ and they take off from the line and croak each other,” said Mann, who runs Woodbooger with her husband, Jim, both of whom have won derbies at the Hopkinton fair. “The way we do it prevents anyone’s car from getting ruined or the driver getting whiplash.”

Some drivers will move forward to reach the middle of the track at the start of the event, but most begin by facing the wall and backing up to the middle, touching the other car with their rear bumper. This keeps the engine and battery away from the impact point for most cars.

The goal is to ram the other cars on the track until they breakdown. And while it looks like a chaotic game of bumper cars, there is some strategy in how to attack opponents.

“Taking out the wheels is a big thing,” Mann said. “If you know where the battery is under the hood, you can hit that side.”

Fans fill the grandstands around the track. A seat on one of the lower rows comes with the warning of getting dirty as mud shoots out from beneath spinning tires and sprays fans seated near the track.

The demolition derby is Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Saturday’s slate includes the Power Wheels derby for kids, followed by the Front Wheel Derby and qualifying for Sunday’s New Hampshire State Championship.

Tickets for the derby, and all other events at the fair, are available online at hsfair.org/buy-tickets/.