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Team demolition derbies a hit in Joliet

Brice Marthis wife Michelle Lockport. Martdrives for Orange Crush. | TinAkouris~Sun-Times Media

Brice Martin and his wife, Michelle, of Lockport. Martin drives for Orange Crush. | Tina Akouris~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 27, 2013 10:03AM



About an hour before the demolition derby was to start at Route 66 Raceway’s dirt oval in Joliet, there was nearly a half-mile backup on Route 53, and signs on the Raceway’s box office windows said the event was sold out.

The parking lots were full, and the smell and smoke from barbecue grills hung in the humid evening air. Some tailgaters had elaborate setups; others just sat on lawn chairs eating and people-watching.

Most demolition derby fans got to Route 66 right when the gates opened at 4 p.m. on this particular Saturday, Aug. 24.

But this isn’t your county fair kind of demolition derby, or so says the Route 66 public-address announcer. It’s team demolition derby, with two teams of four cars on the dirt oval during each round of racing.

And you can tell it’s a different kind of sporting event right from the get-go when the national anthem is played — it’s Jimi Hendrix’s version that he played at Woodstock in 1969.

Eight teams have competed in the derby this summer: Orange Crush, Real Steel, Junkyard Dogs, Mean Green Machine, Reckoning, Full Throttle, Seek-n-Destroy, and Damage, Inc.

Orange Crush and Real Steel are tied atop the team demo rankings with 35 points each.

The derby also has a sanctioning body akin to NASCAR and IndyCar, for example, in the Frankfort-based Team Demo Association, which is run by the husband-and-wife team of Shayn McMartin and Sherri Heckenast. The couple also run

Top Notch Events, which promotes the derby at Route 66.

“It has its own cult following,” McMartin said. “We have a point structure, and through the five races, there is a championship points deal. At the end of the year we crown a champion.”

The derby runs on the oval one Saturday a month from May through September, with the championship round coming up Saturday.

How popular is team demolition derby? Speedway president Scott Paddock said it has sold out the past two months.

A brief history, and then some

Before the Route 66 oval opened in 1998, demolition derby enthusiasts went to Santa Fe Speedway near 91st Street and Wolf Road in the Hinsdale/Willow Springs area. When that venue closed in the mid-1990s, drivers and fans had no place to go in the south and southwest suburbs for demolition derby.

The first race at the Route 66 dirt oval was in 1998, and the derby came to Joliet full time a year later.

Paddock never saw a demolition derby until he came to Chicagoland Speedway just before the 2011 season. But when he experienced it, he was hooked.

“I love how this one day is like their Super Bowl,” Paddock said. “This is Americana right here.”

But “Americana” also brings its challenges. Paddock said preparation for the derby is much more complex than when the speedway hosts National Hot Rod Association drag racing or any race in the NASCAR series.

“You don’t have to do much with an asphalt track,” Paddock said.

But since the track is dirt, trucks must water down the oval multiple times before the derby begins to make sure the surface is good and muddy. Fans sitting in the first couple of rows can attest to that — by the end of Round 1, most were wearing polka dots of mud on their faces and clothing.

Another challenge is safety. Although the derby drivers are not naive and know what to expect when they are hit, sometimes a serious injury can occur.

During the July derby, Orange Crush driver Carl Brouwer suffered a punctured lung, seven broken ribs and broke his scapula from one hit during the final round. A collection pot circulated among the crowd before the Aug. 24 derby, for donations for Brouwer, who was able to be at Route 66 that night.

With Brouwer out, Orange Crush turned to Brice Martin of Lockport. Martin has been taking part in demolition derby races for about seven years.

“I left Damage, Inc. because (Orange Crush) needed a backup,” Martin said. “My wife, Michelle, took me to one of these to watch her uncle race (years ago), and I said, ‘I’m going to do this one day’ and she said, ‘No, you’re not!’ ”

Heckenast said drivers are not allowed to intentionally hit the driver’s side door. All drivers must wear seat belts, helmets and a neck collar.

“But hitting head-on is OK,” Heckenast said.

On Aug. 24, first-round racing was stopped — or red flagged — for nearly 30 minutes when Orange Crush’s “Iron Man” Ron Tyrakowski rammed into an opposing driver near the finish line and became trapped in his car.

The Joliet Fire Department, which is on site at every race, went out onto the track and extricated Tyrakowski from his smashed-up car and placed him on a backboard. Tyrakowski gave the crowd a thumbs-up as he was taken off the dirt oval on an ATV cart.

What’s in it for me?

Drivers who compete in the derby are doing it as a labor of love. They lose more money than they’ll ever make.

Heckenast said each derby winner receives a trophy and the association tries to get the winning driver and team as much in the way of free supplies and any kind of help they can. There is a $7,500 cash prize to the winner.

“It’s a low-income deal for them,” Heckenast said. “It’s hard to keep this sport going, but these guys are very dedicated.”

Martin said he spends about 40 to 60 hours building a car for a derby. Doors are welded shut, the dashboard and back seats are removed, the fuel tank is placed in the back seat on the driver’s side, and there are usually snow tires on the front and agricultural-grade tires on the rear.

Cars usually are not salvageable after demolition derbies because the frames are bent. So drivers need to strip as many viable parts out of the cars as they can and put them in another one for the next derby.

“I can find cars anywhere from 400 to 800 bucks,” Martin said. “I’m not in this to make money. A lot of people try to live off this, but you can’t.”

McMartin said the sport can “be as expensive as you want it to get.”

“There are some teams that spend up to 50 grand a year,” McMartin said. “I don’t know how they do it.”

Ryan Decker of Palatine drives a 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood for Reckoning and knows all about which cars are the best ones to buy for each derby.

“(Cadillacs) take more of a hit and give a good beating,” Decker said. “Sometimes you can go through 15 cars in a season.”

Decker used to run demolition derby up at Sycamore Speedway, a clay-based track, but prefers Joliet because the rules are different and the competition is better.

“The intensity of the hits and the speed you get going are a big difference,” Decker said. “If you do head-on hits (in Joliet), you can get up to 40 or 50 mph. Up there, you get in a circle and it’s every man for himself, but here it’s a team sport, which is nice.

“I call this ‘the major leagues of demo.’ ”

Advance sale tickets for the final demolition derby are $16 for adults and $11 for children. On race day, tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children.



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