Moments before Darrel Cordary’s car was enveloped in an orange fireball, the longtime driver who has won numerous demolition derby events during his illustrious career knew that a fiery situation was possible.
Never one to run from danger, however, Cordary pushed his gas pedal to the floor and delivered one final blow to an opponent before flames enveloped his car and he quickly escaped through the driver’s side window.
The memorable moment was one of many at Saturday night’s demolition derby, which took place at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds on April 17 and drew more than 1,600 fans to Fairgrounds Speedway.
“It was awesome,” Corday said. “All these people in Cortez love the show. Even though it was me on fire, they loved seeing it. It’s all about fun and putting on a show.”
While Cordary’s encounter with flames was unforgettable, the energy permeating this year’s derby came not from a single moment, but from the cast of colorful characters that flooded the pits in the Fairgrounds Speedway infield and the stands.
The smell of Texas Barbeque mixed with cigarette smoke and radiator steam wafted through the air as fans of all ages crowded near the front of the bleachers and near the center of the Fairgrounds Speedway infield to catch a glimpse of the carnage.
Among those who drove in this year’s event was Cortez resident Larry Van Buren, who captured top honors in the Sport Compact Class while driving a red 1996 Honda Civic sponsored by bail bondsman Clint Simmons that refused to die.
“My daughter wanted to race in the demo cross that they did last year in October,” Van Buren said. “This one is its fifth, and we’re going to see if it kills it this time. We did whatever we could to make it the best that it can be. We even put a little lipstick on it.”
Also competing in the event was Yuma, Colo. resident James Miner, who hauled his vehicle on a trailer for 10 hours to compete in an event that attracted drivers and fans from throughout the region.
Miner’s 1980’s Lincoln Town Car, which rode on forklift tires, featured enough welds to build a small bridge, and sported a creatively painted logo with the words COVID-19 on its side, won the Full Size Car Class after it smashed several opponents into submission and Cordary’s car burst into flames.
“We thought we would try a new terrain and have some fun,” Miner said. “We built my car in three weeks. It involved a lot of welding and a lot of time. I had a lot of fun, and it was well worth the trip.”
Although big-time collisions have come to be expected during demolition derbies at Fairgrounds Speedway, Saturday night’s event featured even more carnage than usual thanks to several aggressive drivers and an arena that provided plenty of traction.
By the end of the “Sport Compact” event, at least one car had rubber hanging loosely off two of its tires and after the Truck Class, a forklift hauled a truck with its entire rear axle separated from its body out of the arena.
Arguably the most intense moment of the night however, came when Cordary’s car went up in flames as fans alternated between gasps and cheers and the longtime driver struggled to escape from his burning vehicle.
“I lost reverse halfway through, so I knew my transmission was going out,” Corday said. “Going in drive and running it hard, the fluid pumped out and hit the header, and it was a big fireball. I got my head stuck the first time I tried to go out, and I had to go again. I got out quick.”
As track officials rushed at Cordary’s vehicle and dispensed fire extinguishers to quench the flames, Cordary stood near the center of the arena and acknowledged ruckus cheers from the fans while sporting a homemade t-shirt that said, ‘Talk Derby to Me.’
“It’s great that we were able to have a derby this early in the year,” Corday exclaimed. “The stands were packed, and the fans had a great time. Hopefully we can eventually do three or four derbies a year (in Cortez). I’ll do them all.”
Among the many other storylines that made Saturday night’s derby event special was the presence of long-standing family traditions and the presence of strong bonds between drivers and their fans.
In the pits, derby veterans including Ted Neergaard and Paul Krueger lent helpful hands and offered valuable advice to derby newcomers while fathers and mothers held the hands of their sons and daughters and cheered their favorite drivers and cars.
Laying out just how important family traditions are in derby culture, Truck Class champion Tristan Whited, from Sterling, explained that his heavily modified and skillfully welded 1965 F-100 truck would not have been possible without family members who exposed him to derbies shortly after he could walk.
“I had uncles 30 or 40 years ago that got into (demolition derbies),” Whited said. “It is something that I have been around my whole life, and it just kind of grew on me. It has always been in my blood and it’s just something that I grew to love at a young age.”
While seemingly every driver and fan that participated in this year’s derby left Fairgrounds Speedway with a grin, perhaps no individual sported as big of a smile as Fairgrounds Speedway promoter Gene Williams, who worked tirelessly to make the event possible.
Williams indicated that the idea to put on the event came approximately three weeks ago when several individuals approached him about the possibility of putting on a derby event prior to the start of the racing season.
After making several phone calls to line up necessary sponsorships, Williams and 30 volunteers began preparing the Fairgrounds Speedway track and planning an event that drew more than 1600 fans and paid thousands of dollars in prize money to drivers.
“These events bring so much money into this county,” Williams said. “The motels in town are full and a lot of it is just from the derby guys and the fans. We have fans that drove all the way down from Denver just to be here and we had cars that came from thirteen hours way. The fans love it.”
Although Williams did not indicate whether a demolition derby in April will become an annual tradition, he indicated that has been hired to promote the annual derby that will take place later this summer as part of the Montezuma County Fair.
“Fairgrounds Speedway is very much an asset (to our community),” Williams said. “All your local businesses will tell you how much this track means to them and how much revenue it brings. We raced all year last year during COVID 19 and businesses in Cortez have thanked me because without this race track running last year, they wouldn’t have survived COVID. We packed the motels, we packed the restaurants, and it turned out great.”