A Harvest of Demolition

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In David Hyndman’s newly remodeled optometry office in Boonville, Indiana, just one plaque hangs by the check-out window – an image of a 1974 Massey Ferguson 300 combine.

It’s a reminder of a big day. At the 2005 Warrick County 4-H Fair, Hyndman climbed into his Lions Club’s brightly painted combine and competed in his first combine demolition derby.

He wasn’t sure what to expect. He had never even driven a combine, and he knew about the violence of car demolition derbies. Would large combines mean more powerful collisions? Hyndman soon discovered the bulky size cushions direct hits and prevents fast speeds.

“After I knew it wasn’t going to hurt, I had a blast,” he says.

Hyndman has plenty of company. Combine demolition derbies have been cropping up around the country, from Washington State to Ohio. Legions of fans flock to county fairs and arena events to watch the demolitions, which often serve as fund-raisers for local fire departments, service clubs and other organizations.

Combine demo derbies helped boost attendance at the Hancock County Fair in Britt, Iowa, and attracted a younger generation, according to derby participant Brent Renner.

“We have to continue to find ways to get kids who live in town to come to the fair and get involved in agriculture. Fairs are a great way to let them know what we do,” Renner says.

With combines named Jaws, Frank-enbine, the Intimidator and the Pink Panther, it’s no wonder fairgoers can’t resist getting a glimpse of the action.

Old, abandoned machines rescued from the scrap pile are transformed into warriors, thanks to sweat, elbow grease and teamwork. Hyndman’s combine needed 40 hours of work just to get it off the dealer’s lot.

Some say it’s anger management for farmers. Others don’t know quite what to make of it.

“It’s hard to explain,” says Dan Benhoff of the St. Rose Fire Department in St. Rose, Nebraska. “It’s just fun to hit stuff. … It’s exciting.”

For Renner, the reason is pretty simple.

“We’re just a bunch of guys having a good time, doing something most people wouldn’t consider normal,” he says.

Winning a derby requires a mixture of luck and strategy, according to Renner. “I tell you what, you really have to strategically hit and not get hit to survive,” he says.

Renner’s theory worked out well. His late 1950s John Deere 55 combine emerged relatively unscathed from his first competition in Britt, Iowa. His machine suffered a blown tire, needed a new rear axle and endured some rear-end damage.

Hyndman wasn’t so lucky; his machine was dead after just one hit.

Combines usually require the most work before their first competition. Participants make alterations to meet various derby requirements: removing glass; taking off ladders; welding or bolting shut the cab; adding seatbelts, safety bars and shields; removing loose sheet metal and hydraulic hoses; and reinforcing some areas.

All that labor pays off, as derby combines usually last longer than derby cars. A car can easily be destroyed in just one event. But with a few repairs, combines can live to see a handful or more competitions, says Renner.

After the metallic beast is battle-ready, it’s time to make it pretty. Themed combines, like the Dukes of Hazzard, Tony the Tiger, patriotic red, white and blue, or skull and crossbones, are a popular way to stand out in the crowd.

Spray-painted taunts cover the combines. (“Hit me with your best shot.” “Move!!!” “Back from the bone yard again.” “Git-R-Dun.”) Drivers emblazon sponsors’ logos and advertisements on their machines. Fleets parade before cheering crowds to crown a best-decorated winner. Then the bashing begins.
Farmer and Washington State Senator Mark Schoesler has crashed and crunched combines for 18 years at the combine demolition derby – “the granddaddy of them all” – in Lind, Washington.

With 20 successful annual events under its drive belt, the tiny town of about 500 hosts one of the nation’s longest-running combine demo derbies.
Schoesler scrounged three counties to find his relic, and he says mastery of the massive machines takes time.

“It took me about three years to figure it out. On the fourth year, I won,” he says. “I’m itching to do it again.”

So is Simon Lanoue of Marshall, Minnesota. There’s just one problem – he’s only 3 years old. The little demolition-man-in-training conducts derbies at home with his toy combines. When out on the town, he improvises, smashing high chairs together or running in circles.

Luckily for him, he might not have to worry about searching for a real combine when he comes of age, says his dad, Paul Lanoue.

“The combine my dad is driving right now in the fields will probably be ready when Simon is ready,” Lanoue says.

Until then, Simon will have to be content sitting in the stands, watching his dad drive the Simon-inspired “Cookie Monster” John Deere 55 combine at the annual smash-fest in Milroy. Let’s hope Simon wasn’t paying too much attention when the Cookie Monster sputtered and died faster than you can say “C is for crunching.” A quick jump-start revived Cookie Monster, but not for long. The blue monster died again after just two hits.

“After all the hype, it was so disappointing. I was so frustrated. My family had worked so hard on the machine,” Lanoue says. “Part of me didn’t want to pull my flag so I could see what it was like to really get hit.”

Aching to hear a song about combine demolition derbies? The town of Lind has its own tune, “The Derby Blues.” Hear it online at www.LindWa.com/2005derbyblues.html