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'Baling Wire And Haystring': A Trip To The Demolition Derby At The Orleans County Fair

An orange and teal painted demo derby car has a panda hanging out the back window.
Erica Heilman
Rumble Strip takes a trip to the demolition derby at the Orleans County Fair.

People come from all over the Northeast Kingdom to watch the demolition derby at the Orleans County Fair in Barton. This year, independent producer Erica Heilman stopped by to watch, and talk with some of the participants.

There’s really only one goal in a demo derby and that’s to destroy other peoples’ cars before they destroy yours. If your car doesn’t have to be hauled out with a giant forklift, you pretty much won.

Dick Therrian is a demo organizer.

Erica to Dick: Who does this?

Dick: Rednecks. We have a wide variety of people. It’s not just the people that come out from the deep woods. We have professional people – doctors, lawyers.

Erica: What’s the difference between a racer and a demo derby racer?

A troll sits on top of a demolition derby car.
Erica Heilman
You never know what you might find on the track at the demolition derby.

Dick: Some of them are the same. We’ve got a couple people here who race at local racetracks. Both of them are great sports. And it takes special people to do it. To be a demo derby person, you gotta be very special. They hold back nothing. And I guarantee you you’ll be in awe as to what happens.

Erica: Alright. Who should I talk to out there?

Dick: I’d talk to anybody. You may just find your future husband. You never know what you’re going to find. Are you married?

Erica: [silence]

Dick: You got a man?

Erica: [more silence]

Dick: Well, I can take you over and find you one. I guarantee it. You’ll be happy as hell.

Cars revved. I met Kevin Bacon.

Kevin: People put a lot of time into these cars. We strip them out, put different motors in, transmissions in. All the glass has to come out. We go out and compete against one another to try and see who the last person is who can be running. And it’s a family tradition for me. I’ve been doing it for 16 years. My father’s been doing it 35-plus. We got a few wins under our belt, I suppose. It’s fun. It’s an adrenalin rush for sure.

Erica: Where do you live?

Kevin: I live right here in Barton.

Erica: And where do you find your cars?

Kevin: Oh goodness, I can’t tell that. Do you tell a man where your favorite fishing hole is? You don’t tell a man where your favorite fishing hole is.

Erica: I walked around and watched pit crews putting their finishing touches on the cars, which in some cases meant trying to get the engine to turn over. Here’s Paul Therrian of Derby.

A man leans over a car.
Erica Heilman
Scenes from the Demolition Derby at the Orleans County Fair.

Erica to Paul: What’s the problem?

Paul: I’m not getting fuel to my motor.

Erica: Because of an electrical thing?

Paul: Mm hmm. It’s either the fuel pump itself or it’s a short in my system somewhere, but I’m putting straight power right to my fuel pump and it’s not working.

Erica: Is this part of it?

Paul: Mm hmm. Yes it is.

Erica: I mean isn’t there always a problem?

Paul: Sometimes.

Paul bangs on something in the car…

Paul: Damn. That’s gonna suck.

Erica: This is Doug Bandy of Lyndonville.

Erica to Doug: You’re a winner?

Doug: Yeah. Won quite a few. My very first one was when I was 13-years-old. Yup.

Erica: Not even driving age.

Doug: Nope. Had my parents’ signature. And I had to beg for that.

Erica: What makes you good at this?

Doug: A lot of it is strategy. Being out there hitting each other. You can’t just go haywire. You gotta pick and choose your shots.

Erica: Who does this?

Doug: Rednecks. Backyard mechanics. That’s where I started. I loved turning wrenches when I was little and I’ve been doing it ever since. I own my own shop now. Instead of going to the strip club, we go strip our cars at the shop.

A car at the other end of the demolition derby in Barton.
Erica Heilman
A car at the other end of the demolition derby in Barton.

E: This is Dave Ber of Lyndonville.

Erica to Dave: How do you find cars?

Dave: It’s getting harder. But you still can find cars. Just ride around back roads and find some old guy that’s got one sitting out back. You can still find deals. You just gotta know how to talk to them.

Erica: Tell me your name again.

Dave: Dave.

Erica: Dave Mitchell?

Dave: Dave Ber.

Erica: How do you spell that?

Dave: Just like Budweiser. It’s B-e-r.

Erica: This is Bob Wright, one of the officials who runs tech on the cars.

Erica to Bob: What do people do to cheat?

Bob: They weld their struts so the car has no bounce. A lot of Subarus, you can take the front bumper off, held on with a couple bolts you can slide it out and pack those frame rails full of steel rod. Slide it all back together. That strengthens the car up.

Erica: Who does this?

Bob: Demo derbies? This is a downhome county fair that a lot of the locals come to. We have a lot of people that aren’t local because of the prize purses being offered today. Basically, it’s local people.

Erica: And these people are mainly from the Northeast Kingdom?

Bob: Correct.

Erica: So how are Northeast Kingdom rednecks different from, say, Rutland rednecks?

The demolition derby at the Orleans County Fair, with mud in the forefront, under an American Flag.
Erica Heilman
People get creative when it comes to building out their cars for the derby.

Bob: Sophistication. You have the people from around here — they can do a lot with bailing wire. They can do an awful lot with bailing wire and spit. Your bigger cities where there’s more money, they’re doing it with parts. But a lot of these people, like I said, are using bailing wire and hay string and anything they can find. Mud flaps.

Erica to a pit crew working on a car problem: So what’s the problem?

Driver: Oh they need a seatbelt in the front seat.

Erica: So what is he going to do?

Driver: Well. We’ll figure it out.

Erica: It was time for this thing to start.

Dick: Ladies and gentlemen boys and girls, demo fans of all ages. Are you ready?

The national anthem played.

Erica: The program was dedicated to two derby racers who’d passed away, Tyler Poginy and Stacey Mayhew. Some of Stacey’s family members spread his ashes on the track, and then the cars came out.

Dick counted down and then they were off.

Demo derbies are really loud. They smell like transmission fluid, antifreeze, burning rubber and mud. It’s the best rubbernecking ever. Everywhere you look there’s a car accident, but no one’s telling you to move along, and you can be pretty sure nobody’s getting really hurt.

And after today, those cars that aren’t bound for the junkyard — they’ll get tied up again with bailing wire and haystring and we’ll see them again next year.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Corrected: September 24, 2021 at 3:02 PM EDT
This story has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Tyler Poginy's name.
Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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