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Our View: Demolition derby canceled, not dead

Friends, families tinkering on vehicles our favorite part

The thing we like most about the demolition derby hasn’t been the crashing and smashing of cars and trucks, although it’s a blast to watch. Or the strategy of driving fast in reverse to protect engines, while annihilating other vehicles. Or the defeat evident when steam rises from one’s radiator, signaling the event is pretty well over for that driver.

What we most appreciate is the lead up – the communal tinkering on cars. We like nimble hands with lines of motor oil under fingernails, and relationships built while helping each other. Pre-derby, participants work on each other’s vehicles, tricking out insides with duct tape, removing anything that could fly off and become a hazard, adding tractor tires and slapping on paint with colors that pop.

It reminds us of a previous era on weekends, when hoods were up with family members bent over engines, figuring out what was wrong or needed attention. It wouldn’t take long for a neighbor to wander over and ask, “What have you got there?” before leaning in to take a look, wiping dirty hands on handkerchiefs or jeans.

But at the derby, once that green flag drops, no alliances. It all switches to a lone, competitive motorsport with everyone wanting to have that last vehicle running. Every contender has an angle, whether it’s modifying engines to run cool if the radiator gets cracked, or ignition and ground wires secured to restart after a hit. Or crushing the trunk to prevent it from coming loose.

The adrenaline, the mud, the very American twisted fun of preparing a vehicle for the derby just to destroy it. The joy of demolition.

What’s not to like?

But let’s put this derby business in perspective. As much as we love the passing on of mechanical skills specifically for the derby – this cool family outing, this popular spectacle for sold-out beer-drinking crowds – the event’s liability risk has become too much.

No one’s fault.

Still, La Plata County commissioners’ decision to cancel the derby at the fairgrounds made a number of residents livid.

Commissioners have been chewing on this decision since about 2008. But that 2021 request for 16-year-olds to participate brought closer scrutiny from the county’s insurance company that revealed this rodeo arena was a sketchy – if not unsuitable – place for a demolition derby.

Adequate protections for spectators from airborne parts, as well as injuries to animals from small pieces of metal, unnoticed in the dirt, were the greatest concerns.

These situations may be unlikely but tell that to an insurance company’s actuary. It’s a matter of calculations and likelihoods – what are the chances? So far, we’ve been safe, but lucky, too.

To meet the insurance company’s requirement, a permanent 10-foot fence would need to be installed. As beloved as the derby is, it’s a roughly three-hour event once a year. This fence would affect viewing for all other arena events. Not fair to these spectators.

Knowing what county officials know now – one person getting seriously hurt could have extreme, costly consequences – we have to ask, is a county rodeo arena an appropriate place for a derby?

There’s the larger question of county governance. An unpaid insurance claim could dramatically impact the county’s financial position, affecting any number of services we depend on.

We expect – demand, even – that elected officials as well as county staff be responsible. Critics of the decision to cancel the derby say any event can be insured. Yes, but at what cost? And should the county bear this cost with our tax dollars for a special, secondary insurance policy?

What about staff hours, reviewing multiple high-risk policies? Time is money. Our money.

The demolition derby is not dead. It just needs a new venue. Previously, the Sky Ute Downs & Event Center hosted a derby. The tribe might welcome it. Private properties or the Fairgrounds Speedway in Cortez, complete with barriers, are other options.

The derby is one event at the La Plata County Fair but it’s not at the heart of it. 4H, Future Farmers of America programming, and our agricultural and rural heritage celebrations are.

Enough fans want the derby – it will carry on. And with it, we hope, people putting down phones, and sharing skills on how to keep our vehicles up and running. Whether it’s for the derby or just to get around town.

(Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)