CHAMBERLAIN — A mix of sounds greeted those who arrived Saturday at a small open field just north of Interstate 90 in Chamberlain.
Loud '80s rock. The heavy revving of car engines. The happy chatter of dozens of people gathered on the backs of pickup trucks.
Eventually, the sound of crunching metal and cheers from the audience were added to that list as the River Run of Destruction demolition derby got underway, with cars of various sizes and shapes barreling into one another as their drivers competed for prize money and the approval of the multi-generational crowd.
“It’s the adrenaline rush,” Debi Ruiz, with Full Steam Promotions, the organizer of the event, told the Mitchell Republic. “You see these kids, they’re ready to see some action and see somebody hit somebody.”
The River Run of Destruction is a continuation of similar derbies held in Chamberlain going back six years. A family friendly event that brings in spectators and participants from around the region, the derby has evolved over the years, with the event sporting three race classes this year in the chain car, limited weld and compact divisions.
It was the first derby of the year, a day Ruiz said the drivers and fans were both looking forward to after a long year that saw relatively few large-group events scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A handful of derbies last year provided an outlet for people looking for something to do, and the crowd gathered Saturday indicated that interest remained high.
“Last year during the pandemic, the drivers and fans were hungry for something to do, so we put on three big derbies last year, and it was amazing,” Ruiz said.
The crowd that showed up Saturday surrounded the small berm-bordered dirt track area with pickup trucks and comfortable lawn chairs. They mingled with friends, snacked on burgers and shouted their approval with every well-placed hit between cars. In the pit area, drivers prepared their cars for inspection and competition.
The drivers and their crews range widely in age and experience, but they all bring a love of fixing up essentially wrecked vehicles and making them run tough enough to endure a race that sees every other competitor in the ring try to stop them from running.
Jeffrey McGhee, of Mount Vernon, was one of those drivers. He and his brother brought a pair of cars to compete in the limited weld division, and they were busy prior to their race making sure their entries were ready to wreck instead of be wrecked.
“It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of time, but yeah, I like building them,” McGhee said.
His car of choice was what was left of a 1997 Lincoln, heavily modified to meet race standards, including having the doors welded shut. His brother, Jared, was driving a 2002 Crown Victoria painted chaotically to match his sibling’s entry.
McGhee, 27, said demolition derbies had been a part of their lives since they were young.
“My grandpa used to do it and my dad when he was younger. My dad got me into it when I was 9, and I drove my first (derby) car when I was 13,” McGhee said. “It was something I started doing and I love it.”
Kids and adults alike can find something to enjoy about a demolition derby, Ruiz said. Though many of the spectators personally know the competitors and are there specifically to support them and cheer them on, others just enjoy watching an event where the sole purpose is to intentionally crash into other drivers.
Anyone can pick a car out of the lineup and cheer them on. They may drive a similar model of car in everyday life. They may like the paint job. Or they may just like how a particular driver approaches the art of intense fender benders.
It all boils down to entertainment, Ruiz said.
“It’s the excitement of the day. You pick your car and you go with it. If they go out right away, you pick another car,” Ruiz laughed. “And everybody has their own technique, you can watch how one driver goes versus another.”
In some cases, one of those spectators may find themselves in the middle of the action. The Saturday derby held a raffle for a chain class derby car, also built by McGhee, and the winner automatically became entered in one of the heats.
That winner was Jeff Reidt, whose name was drawn from among others who had entered the raffle. The car now belonged to him, and the right to drive it in the derby was his for the taking. But he passed on the chance, and instead bestowed the honor on another.
His 18-year-old daughter Kayli, who had never driven in a derby before.
Decked out in a driver’s helmet and receiving a quick crash course from other drivers and volunteers on the finer points of operating a derby car, Reidt took part in the chain class division with a handful of other competitors. She didn’t win, but she loved the experience, she said.
“At first I was super nervous, and also I’m really short, so that was interesting,” Reidt said. “But once I started going it was really fun. I really enjoyed it. For sure I would do it again,” Reidt said.
After a few earnest attempts to disable her fellow competitors’ cars, her vehicle gave out. But for someone who considers herself a fairly careful and courteous driver in real life, it was a nice way to break the rules safely and have some fun at the same time.
“It was cool hitting other people. That probably sounds bad,” Reidt said with a laugh. “But I said, 'Well, that’s easy! I hit curbs sometimes, so why not?'”
The event is held on city-owned land that the derby rents for space. The track was hand-built by volunteers, who maintain the grounds. Ruiz said the event only happens because of the support it gets from the people who offer their time and sweat strictly for the love of hosting a demolition derby.
The group worked late into the night Friday to make sure bleachers were set up, the track was dragged and other tasks that make the derby possible. It’s all a necessary part of the work that has to be done, Ruiz said.
“(We) found some property that would work for us to do a derby and built the track and built the berms. It’s a lot of work, you bring in the dirt and lay out your area, and you kind of have to envision what you want and then go for it,” Ruiz said. “Building it was a huge thing, now the upkeep is mowing weeds and making sure when it rains you have access to the property.”
Ruiz said she had hoped more competitors had shown up for the first derby of the year, but those who did show up threw themselves into the competition like they always do. They brought their vehicles, tinkered with them in the pits and then turned them into four-wheeled projectiles they hurled into their friends.
“It’s a good mixture. These guys all know each other, and everybody gets along. It’s all perfect,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said organizers plan to continue holding the derbies as long as they have a place to host them, the volunteers continue to show up and the crowds continue to gather for a summer afternoon’s worth of destructive fun. It’s good entertainment and good for the community, she said.
“We’re hoping we can stay here for a while, it brings good revenue to the town,” Ruiz said. “But it’s just a lot of fun. If you’re looking for excitement, this is it.”