“The most popular fair in the world.” That is the blocky hand-painted slogan stretching across the towering, white grandstand at Hillsdale’s fairgrounds in rural Michigan. A crowd swells below this large wooden structure; the people traverse narrow pathways between tractors, cotton candy stalls and animal displays. The Hillsdale fair might not be the World’s most popular as they so claim, but it certainly draws people in from the country, and boasts a number of events that are entertaining and unique.
We’ve come to Hillsdale for two reasons. The first is the Combine Demolition Derby. The second is the reason I found out about the event: my brother. Little brother Sean is a junior at Hillsdale College where he is majoring in Classics, with a minor in campus socializing (to the tune of the cartwheel club, the photography club, The Hilltop Moonshiners–a bluegrass band, unicycling, ballet, head RA, and constant critic of the school newspaper). It’s a beautiful college, situated on a hill but nestled by a variety of large trees scattered about the campus. The students are intelligent, hard working, and typically middle to upper class conservative.
The fairgrounds, on the other hand, offer a mix of people that would never be seen on the grounds of Hillsdale College. “Townies” some might say. Working class. Farmers. The atmosphere is vibrant though. Big and small, skinny and fat, beautiful, and um, not so beautiful… I’m talking about the animals of course!
The event at the top of the list for me was the combine demolition derby held on Sunday night. What’s better than cars smashing into each other in a concrete rink smaller than a football field? Combines smashing into each other in the same space! These massive pieces of farm equipment are the ultimate wrecking machine.
I walked around the perimeter of the fair’s racetrack before the derby began and took portraits of each of the competitors. Most of the guys were in their late 20′s and early 30′s, and all of them were farmers. From what I gathered, there is a real community between these “drivers”. Bobby runs with Jeff, and Todd runs with Sam. By “running”, I think that meant they share their towing equipment and tools for getting around to the various competitions. There’s a circuit for combine derbies!
Each combine was painted with a solid color and had various kinds of slogans or messages written on the sides. Things like, “Me thinks combines are sexy”, and “Born to die”. To the untrained eye, they look like giant heaps of rusted and smashed metal. But for people who know a thing or two about combines, these things are outfitted to seek and destroy. Heavy and useless parts are cut off. Additional bars and chains are welded on for reinforcement. In the official rulebook, if the front part of the combine falls off during the derby, it means the end of the combine, even if it can still move around. That’s why the drivers reinforce that area. One driver I met had even put $2,000 into improvements!
Is the money that good in combine demolition? Well, no. It’s a labor of love, I was told. I think the winner received $1,500, but one has to remember the costs for getting a rig ready for the competition. Some of the guys had to buy their combine, then retrofit it, then travel and tow the combine to the event. The gasoline costs alone must have been a fortune!
The actual derby was pretty intense. Grinding steel, sparking engines, shooting clouds of diesel exhaust. These were the sights and sounds of three-hour derby. As an announcer shouted through a microphone, three to four combines would line up within the arena. Then there was a countdown from five, in which the whole crowd joined in. The engines roared and the combines charged from opposite ends of the arena. The first hit was always the best! At 10-15 mph, these giant hunks of steel would smash directly into the front of another combine. But most of the time, the direct hits did little damage. The strategy that seemed to work for many was to corner another combine and repeatedly bash into the side of it–going for the wheels or gears. If a large tire popped, or a belt broke, that could be the end of the combine. Another technique was to physically push another combine out of the ring, effectively removing the combine from the competition.
There were some intense hits throughout the night though. At one point I was standing on the edge of the arena, when one of the largest combines was forced over a concrete barrier. Several people on the edge had to jump out of the way of the thundering metal monster.
As a combine emerged the winner from the heat, it returned battered and wobbling for a second heat, and then the finals. By the time the winning combines reached the finals, they were barely able to operate. The think the champion combine won the finals because he was the only one that could still move at an adequate speed! It was like watching dragons impaired in battle by losing a wing or having a foot chopped off.
I followed the winner that night back through the fair parking lot to his still-intact combine. He was whooping and hollerin’ the whole way, jumping over fences and shoving his friends as they teased him about the big trophy. For him, winning the Hillsdale fair combine demolition derby was about the greatest thing any man could achieve. And for that brief moment, I think I might have believed him.