With a big smile on his face, Josh Levine stood beside his crumpled 1978 Chrysler Cordova and waved a checkered flag in the air, acknowledging a cheering crowd in the grandstands at the Southwest Washington Fair.
The Toledo resident outlasted five other competitors to win Tuesday night’s demolition derby. Though large portions of his car were crumpled like tissue paper, it still had enough life to smash into a final competitor and disable the rival vehicle, limping away as the driver conceded defeat.
Levine said his strategy was simple.
“Make smart hits, take out wheels,” he said. “That’s what slows someone down — flat tire, broken axle, things like that.”
Lee Stiltner, who helps organize the derby, said success in the event is a 50/50 mix of car-building and driving skill.
“It’s a lot of fun as a competitor,” he said. “You’ve got to try to build your car better than the next guy so you can withstand the crashing and running hot.”
For attendees, he added, the appeal is simple.
“People just like to watch cars race around a dirt track and slam into each other,” he said.
The crowd on Tuesday was in great spirits, letting out roars of approval when one car met another with a decisive blow. Between events, children lined up to ride a monster truck around the infield while competitors labored under raised hoods as smoke emanated from overheated engines.
Many of the cars in the derby took some coaxing to come to life, and more than a few backfires reverberated through the stands. Some lost wheels, dragged along dangling parts or leaked fluids all over the track. More often than not, though, the drivers and their teams somehow found a way to return them to the competition.
“Smokin’ Joe” Pettis, from Elma, won an early race before the main derby event. Despite the violence of the competition, he said it’s probably still more comfortable than trying to turn a beater car into a racing machine.
“It’s more fun in the event,” he laughed. “There’s a lot of bumps and bruises when you put the car together, and a lot of upsetting words.”
Unlike other drivers who often found themselves spinning out around the corners, Pettis kept his vehicle under control.
“Put it in low gear, put it to the floor and try to keep to the inside without getting spun out,” he said.
Both Pettis and Levine have been doing derby events for well more than a decade, a tradition they inherited from their fathers. Levine said he’s been through too many cars to count.
Tuesday’s derby event was the first of two at this year’s fair. Stiltner said the second event Sunday will be a larger affair, having drawn close to 30 entries. Levine said he plans to try to patch up his winning car and get it ready to go again by Sunday.
“We’ll check her out in the daylight and see if we can fix it,” he said.