Call it the circle of life.
When Charlie O’Connor started competing in demolition derbies some three decades ago, he found himself quickly humbled.
“My first derby, my car ran about three minutes; I couldn’t keep it running,” he recalled. “My second derby, I got hit so hard in the corner, I never made it out of the corner. I never even got to back up. I got hit so hard, it crushed the back of the car to the ground, and there I sat.”
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Over time, O’Connor found more success, winning the derby at the Johnson County fair on three different occasions — and in 2015, he had the chance to put another newcomer in the same position he had found himself in back in the 1980s.
Rookie Damian Walters of Trafalgar, then just 19 years old, came at O’Connor during his debut derby, and being overly aggressive proved costly.
“My bumper went underneath (O’Connor’s car),” Walters recalled, “and I was pushing and got my radiator pushed back and the frame bent.”
Another relative newcomer, 2016 Edinburgh grad Zach Pendleton, also has struggled to find his footing during his first two Johnson County fair derbies, but he’s hopeful that his third time out will turn out better.
He’s been doing his homework this summer, going to county fairs in such cities as Columbus, Martinsville and Rushville to study the successful drivers.
“I go to about a different derby every week just to try to learn more and more,” Pendleton said.
In addition to boning up by watching live action, Pendleton and Walters both have the luxury of learning from some of the county’s most decorated derby vets. Pendleton’s uncle, Mark Hommel, was a fixture at the Johnson County fair for a generation before heading to the sidelines a couple of years ago, and Walters’ father, Mike, has been at it for the past 28 years.
Hommel got his most indispensable wisdom from another local derby icon, Tom Hood.
“(Hood) said there’s two ways you can derby,” Hommel said. “You can go out and have fun, or you can go out to win. You pick.
“If you go out to have fun, you’re going to just go all out. If you go out there to win, you’re going to pick your shots.”
Little by little, the youngsters are figuring it out.
“I’ve learned what not to use,” Damian Walters said. “I used my front end (two years ago) more than the back end.”
Learning where to get hit and where not to is half of the battle. The other half is mental. In addition to resisting the urge to floor the gas pedal at all times, newer drivers need to learn to keep a level head.
O’Connor, in his second year as the promoter of the Johnson County Fair show, calls the demolition derby “legalized road rage” — but later qualifies that description, calling it “legalized road rage with a game plan.”
Hommel agrees, adding that anger gets a derby driver nowhere.
Pendleton seems to have that part figured out. His other pastime — he plays for the golf team at Ancilla College in Plymouth — may seem like it’s on the complete opposite end of the hobby spectrum from a demolition derby, but Pendleton says they’re more similar than you might think, noise aside.
“They’re both kind of the same mental process,” he explained. “Golf course you’re thinking, ‘Okay, don’t get mad at yourself; you’ve got to keep on it.’ Same thing with derbying — if you mess your front end up or something, you can’t get mad about it. Just turn around and go in reverse the whole time.”
Even with the right mindset, there’s still no substitute for experience. Spending years in the game helps you pick up on little things that can’t always be learned from watching.
“I was 18 when I started,” Mike Walters said. “I’m 46 now; that’s a lot of years. We learn how to compromise. What everybody else would call cheating, we call compromising.”
As the years go by, the next generation will pick up on those compromises — which get passed down the same way that the love of the sport does.
Once demolition derby gets in your blood, it’s not coming out.
“It’s crazy,” O’Connor said. “Probably back in 1978, I worked at a tire shop; I was only 16 years old or so. And they built one for the Johnson County Fair, and we all helped work on it, and we all got in a pickup truck and loaded up and went south to the fair.
“The car was not well built; it didn’t run good at all, and it didn’t last five minutes, but from that point on I was hooked.”
Johnson County Fair Demolition Derby
Start time: 7:30 p.m.
Classes running: Power Wheels (children), mini, minivans, stock
Start time: 7 p.m.
Classes running: Power Wheels (children), mini, midsize, stock
Admission: $10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under; pit passes are $15
Entry fee: $40