Mike Thurman’s been around racing his whole life, and he’s been addicted to demolition derbies since his youth.
“It’s in my whole family’s background. Growing up in Tekamah we used to run in the demo at Oakland,” said Thurman, 43, who lives in North Bend now.
“It was a family deal,” he said. “Everybody helped out on a car, everybody got to go, everybody got to have fun with it.
“I was helping when I was probably about 7 years old. I was 14 or 15 when I ran my first car,” he said, sheepishly adding that he didn’t do very well in his first derby.
“My dad did stock cars years ago up in Sioux City, so I grew up around that too,” he said.
Thurman doesn’t compete much anymore, and instead on Wednesday was part of the pit crew for his son, Dillon, at the Washington County Fair in Arlington.
“When I was born,” Dillon Thurman said, “that’s what we were into. Ever since then that’s what we’ve been doing.
“I started driving when I was 16 and I’m 21 now,” he said.
His sister is planning to drive in her first derby soon – a powder puff class at Dodge.
Dillon Thurman has competed at the Washington County Fair five of the past six years.
His 1983 Caprice Classic even bears his father’s lucky number – 13.
Atop the car – until it got jolted off during the derby – was a stuffed Tazmanian Devil.
“I like putting on a show for the kids,” he said. “I have a 3-year-old buddy. He calls it his car.”
Demo driving has become a Bartek family tradition too, except instead of the son following the father into the sport, Kirk Bartek didn’t drive his first derby until five years ago when, at age 50, he followed his son Bryant, who had been racing for a couple years by that time.
“It’s a good father and son project,” Bartek said. “I always wanted to do it.”
“I was a little worried about him at first,” his 23-year-old son said, “but then he was going pretty hard.”
Wednesday was the first time the Weston family competed at Arlington, with Bryant Bartek taking second in the compact division. They usually compete in Wahoo.
Kirk Bartek had a picture of his dog, Missy, painted on the driver’s side door.
“She’s 16 1/2. I’m dedicating this show to the dog in case she doesn’t make another Christmas. I almost lost her a couple months ago,” he explained.
The attraction to the sport is spreading within the family; Michael Bartek, 27, will compete for the first time on Sunday.
The adrenaline rush keeps them coming back, they said.
“The main thing is just don’t get hurt, but it’s a lot of fun,” Kirk Bartek said. “You’re sort of in your own little world out there because you can’t hear anything.”
Attendance at the derby remains strong, fair board member John Henton said.
“Usually we have around 3,500 fans,” he said.
“It’s the last day of the fair and everybody wants to come and celebrate,” Henton said. “Everyone was here the whole week and they worked hard and they just want to let loose a little bit.
“We have a pretty nice arena, nice grandstands, and we have a nice venue for it compared to a lot of the county fairs,” he added.
Car numbers – 17 this year – were down a little bit, though, Henton said.
“Salvage prices are way high, scrap iron, everything costs a little bit more money and it’s affecting this sport,” said Henton, a former demo driver himself. “It’s an expensive hobby. A lot of these guys will build the engine, the transmission, they’ll change out the rear end, the more heavy duty parts, and they spend a lot of time and money on the cars.”
“Not everybody has the same mindset,” Mike Thurman said. “Some of the younger kids are trying to get into it to make money, and you ain’t never going to make money, you’re always going to lose money, so you just do it for the fun.”
The Thurman family encouraged Thomas Dobberstine of Fremont to drive in his first derby Wednesday.
Dobberstine, 23, got his car just a week ago, and with the help of friends had it ready to go. He’s hoping the 1983 Caprice station wagon will hold up long enough to compete in other derbies at Wahoo, Scribner and Dodge.
“The only thing we did to make sure the car ran good enough was, before we cut the actual gas tank out we put $15 worth of gas in it, threw the battery on the floor, and me and Dillon drove it from North Bend all the way to Linwood and back, just cruised with it to make sure it ran good,” he said.
He got knocked out of the first heat, but is eager to do it again.
“I thought it was going to be kind of scary, but I’ll be here again,” he said. “I was kind of nervous when I went in, but then as soon as I hit someone I was like, yeah!”