Walworth County Fair demolition derby veteran celebrating 51st year
MILLARD, NORTHWEST OF ELKHORN—It's the smells of burnt rubber, exhaust and gasoline that get Ira Cheney geared up for the demolition derby.
Walking into the pit and getting a whiff of everything gets his blood pumping.
“I get to a racetrack, and it's the smell, right away, it's amazing,” Cheney said, a trophy from the Walworth County Fair's 2014 demolition derby sitting behind him at the Walworth Inn, his bar of 30 years.
This year, his 51st in the Walworth County Fair's derby, will be no different.
The town of Lafayette native has willingly crashed his vehicles into others since 1963, causing family members' blood pressure to rise as they watch.
Cheney, who is 72, missed one year because he had open-heart surgery. Barring that, he has competed with a broken arm as well as a month after having his gallbladder removed.
“On the first hit, I thought I had been shot,” Cheney said of the agony in his incision after getting smacked by another car.
Why does Cheney pour about $1,500 into a vehicle, spend nearly 100 hours making it perfect and risk serious injury?
For the thrill, of course.
“It's the most fun you can have in a car with your clothes on,” he said with a big chuckle.
With his beard and thick eyebrows, Cheney can appear intimidating. But his hearty laugh, sense of humor and love of fun reveal a kind, adventurous soul under the rough exterior.
The only injury he has ever suffered is a broken nose after his car battery got loose and a car part whacked him in the face.
Monday's demolition derby has three shows. The first two feature different groups of cars performing in heats. The winners of each heat compete in the final show to be the last car standing—or, at least, the last car to catch fire.
Cheney wasn't sure he was going to compete this year. He couldn't find a car that tickled his fancy.
But nearly two weeks ago, he stumbled on a 1991 Lincoln Town Car.
Cheney prefers driving the solid Cadillacs and Lincolns from the 1970s. That's when the real cars were made, he said. Automakers used stronger metals than today's aluminum, which cracks too easily and can be a death sentence for a derby vehicle.
To prepare a car for the derby, "Everything goes,” Cheney said. He tears out all of the unnecessary equipment so all that remains is the bones of the car.
Each car is inspected the day of the derby. Vehicles must have rear-wheel drive and no windows or airbags.
Cheney started racing stock cars when he was 18. He now competes in demolition derbies and races around southeastern Wisconsin.
Because he has been doing this for so long, he has a treasure chest of car parts. If it weren't for that, the price of competing each year would be higher. He often snags parts from old cars and uses them in his new ones.
This year's car had a burned-out interior, so Cheney swapped in a seat from a different car he owned.
One of Cheney's favorite moments was at a Jefferson County demolition derby. His nine-passenger Chrysler station wagon buckled so much that it ended up taller than he was, he said.
“I kept that car as a memento,” Cheney said. “When I go down hunting and pass it, my heart gets a smiley face.”
Cheney's strategy is to hit before being hit.
Targeting an opponent's front corner and popping a tire or breaking a rod is a good ploy, he said.
Drivers are not allowed to crash into the driver's side of a vehicle, but that can happen, he said.
It's game over when your radiator is hit, Cheney said.
Nothing is worse than being your own demise. Rechecking everything you've done and tightening everything before the derby is key, he said.
“I've had the transmission fall out right in the middle of the track. … Lesson learned,” he said with a smile.
If you've never been to a demolition derby, specifically the Walworth County derby, prepare for a big local crowd, Cheney said.
“Expect a lot of crashing and banging, and it will excite you. You'll wonder how the two cars will still be running after they hit so hard.”
And if you're competing, expect one thing when it's over: to be sore.