NEW HAVEN — The usual huge crowds last week flocked to both nights of what is arguably Addison County Fair and Field Days’ single biggest attraction, the No. 1 Auto Parts Demolition Derby, during which veteran driver Tim Whitney won three of 11 heats and Boomer LaFountain celebrated 20 years of crunching collisions with a Thursday win.
Unlike in past years, no end-of-the-evening main feature winners were crowned. Drivers said they had mixed feelings about the format change.
“I don’t think fans got to see the same battle,” said Bridport’s Jerry Wright.
On the other hand, features often created mismatches between cars in different weight classes and in often wildly varying states of repair, depending on how drivers’ earlier heats played out. And drivers had little time to bang battered metal back into shape before returning to battle in the rectangle surrounded by concrete blocks.
“The more we talk, the more we realize it’s better for us because we don’t have to scramble to fix our car,” Wright said. “You run what you brung, and bring it home.”
Sometimes, that run can be short. On Wednesday, LaFountain made an early exit that he recalled after his better result on Thursday.
“You go out and spend $400 or $500 for a car, and you get out there like last night and run for less than five minutes. That’s pretty depressing. It takes a lot of time to get the car ready and you spend a lot of money to come here and put on a show,” LaFountain said. “It’s a lot of luck. Anything can happen to anybody.”
But bad luck does tend to happen more to drivers who have spent less time over the years dodging other cars and learning that it is wiser to hit other vehicles with their cars’ rear ends, where there are fewer sensitive parts like radiators and engines.
“You’ve got to have some experience if you’re going to last, that’s for sure,” LaFountain said.
That experience helped him win the fourth heat on Thursday, featuring a dozen V-8 rigs and a number of other seasoned drivers — including two other members of the LaFountain family, Travis and Brian; Rochester’s Troy Lapell and Fair Haven’s Justin Bolsta, both Wednesday heat winners; Brandon’s Chuck Havens; and Salisbury’s Gary English.
Nobody was shy. Addison’s Geoff Grant in a blue rig; English in silver wheels; Lapell in a blue-and-yellow sedan; North Clarendon’s Mike Shoefox in a bright-red ride; and especially Leicester’s Joe Kemp in a big blue box, did major damage and sent dirt flying into the grandstand.
Finally, it came down to English, LaFountain and Grant, with Grant appearing to have the liveliest wheels. But Grant momentarily bogged down in the mud along the near wall. Afterward, he said he saw LaFountain and English both pointing at him.
LaFountain confirmed the teamwork occurred as both he and English hammered Grant.
“Usually, you’re running with a couple friends of yours, so they help you out a bit,” he said.
But English’s car died after delivering a blow. LaFountain could barely move enough to follow the announcer’s orders to make another hit, but eventually managed it as Grant spun his wheels in the muck. Time ran out on Grant, and LaFountain ended up raising the two-foot-tall trophy in triumph, while Grant settled for second-place money.
LaFountain — whose father, Willy LaFountain, founded the derby two decades ago — said there were plenty of thumps along the way to the win, and that he had to adjust his battery to keep his car operating. All derby drivers keep their batteries on their front seats next to them.
“I got launched a couple times right out of the seat there. I had to reach over and hook the terminals right up. Nothing like it. A couple times I shut the car off because I thought I was injured,” he said. “But I said I can’t stop now, the car’s running too good, so I kept going.”
A couple of lumps like that are not enough to keep LaFountain and other drivers from coming back for more.
“It’s the ride out there. You don’t get a ride like that anywhere,” LaFountain said. “And my dad started this derby, and I can’t give it up, because it’s a tradition, you know. It’s a blast. I have a lot of fun, that’s why I do it.”
In a 4-cylinder heat that featured nine of 11 drivers from neighboring Addison, the event that drew the loudest applause and laughter came from a car bearing the logo of that town’s fire department, sporting a flashing roof light and driven by Devin DuBois.
DuBois delivered a solid and tactically sound rear-end hit on a multi-colored wagon driven by fellow Addison resident Richard Tatro. But Tatro’s front end slid under Dubois’ car, leaving DuBois without enough traction to unsnarl the mess.
Despite the announcer’s advice (“Drive back off the same way you got on. Don’t try to go over the top.”), the cars — with Dubois’ hardly dented — remained linked, and unluckily eliminated. “Don’t worry. You’ve got a car for next year, anyway,” said the announcer to Dubois.
Meanwhile, drivers Ryan Putnam, Brent Warren, Aaron Desabrais and especially Whitney delivered crowd-pleasing hits. Whitney prevailed after knocking out Addison residents Putnam, who took third, and Desabrais, who finished second.
English and Brian Blake Jr. proved to be the most active drivers in the next heat, featuring 6-cylinder beaters. But English made the mistake of making a long run and front-ending Scott Cram in the late going, and his car stalled out.
Cram, who delivered some punishing blows of his own, kept running and finished in a first-place tie with the senior Blake, who also contributed some aggressive driving. But neither car could move at the end, and the stalemate was called in a heat in which Kyle LaFountain and David Johnson also got a couple of good licks in before their cars gave up the ghost.
In Thursday’s second 4-cylinder heat, Middlebury’s Josh Kennett didn’t finish in the money, but got his money’s worth: Kennett delivered at least four big hits, including an early jolt to Jackson, who took third, and found himself on the receiving end of at least four more. One caused a huge pop, and Blake Jr., who took second, ran Kennett into the wall.
Addison’s Mike McGrath also made his presence felt before heat winner Ed Shackett pinned him against a block midway through and ended his night.
At the end, Shackett whacked both Blake Jr. and Jackson at the same time for the win. He then sat on his roof and raised his trophy high over his head as the crowd cheered.
HEATS FIVE AND SIX
Blame the recession, maybe, but only three minivans and three pickups showed up to duel in Heats Five and Six, respectively.
In Heat Five, Middlebury’s Steve Whitney in a blue minivan and Ferrisburgh’s Mike Strong in a Ford Econoline made sure Ed White’s trip down from St. Albans wasn’t worth the trouble. First Whitney thumped White’s family transport against a concrete block, and then Strong finished the job with about 30 seconds gone.
That left the two vans to dosey-do for a few minutes, during which they mostly rear-ended each other with differing levels of effectiveness.
“You guys keep it up and you can be on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’” the announcer heckled.
Finally, Whitney lined up Strong, whose back end was against a block, and struck him with enough force to lift him onto the concrete. The rear-wheel-drive van was helpless, and Whitney won.
Bridport’s Jason Ethier, Middlebury’s Kennett and Tim Whitney came out for the final joust of the year, and it proved to be a more level three-way duel, although Whitney had to survive a huge early blow from Ethier that left him briefly hung up on a block.
Finally, Whitney drilled Ethier and hung him up on the wall, and then turned his attention to a by-then barely mobile Kennett. Whitney lined him up for three straight broadsides, and the fight was stopped for another summer.
Andrea Warren contributed to this story. Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]