The return of the Delta County Fair's annual Demolition Derby last August following a three-year absence attracted 15 entries, large crowds, and a very unexpected new derby champion.
Madison Milner and her 1996 Subaru Outback decked out as a Minion from the "Despicable Me" movies outlasted all other vehicles, most made during the bygone era of solid steel muscle cars, to win the derby title and the $2,000 grand prize.
Milner said she thought it was all over after the Subaru got stuck in the mud caused by a thunderstorm that stalled over Hotchkiss for almost an hour and threatened to cancel the final heat. Mom Gail Houseweart screamed for her to rock the Minion back and forth, and the little all-wheel-drive Subaru responded.
With all the vehicles but the Subaru unable to move, Milner struck a dying 1976 Cadillac almost twice the Subaru's size as the crowds looked upon the carnage and roared with approval. The judges rushed out to congratulate her. To prove her car could still run, Milner drove the Minion, its worn-out engine screaming and wheels spinning, through the arena gates.
"Everyone laughed at me," said a defiant and rain-soaked Milner. "All these drivers, all of them laughed at me."
In the event's 17 years, "She is the first female ever to have won the main heat," said derby co-founder and event organizer, Fred Carson.
Fifteen cars, drivers and pit crews, backed by a slew of sponsors, registered for the event, and an estimated 1,000 spectators came to watch. Milner was the only female competitor. Before the start of the race she said that two other girls registered, but one couldn't get her car running, and the other didn't show up.
But there was no way she would miss it. This was the first demolition derby held in three years and it officially marked the opening of the 112th annual fair. Growing up in the Hotchkiss area, Milner remembers attending all the derbies. She planned to enter her own car once she turned 18, the minimum age a driver can enter. Stepdad Cody Houseweart promised her a car if she found a good one, and to help her get it ready.
Three years ago, the year she turned 18, the derby was canceled due to a shortage of entries.
The whole family was happy to see the return of the derby. They entered three cars: The Minion; The Hulk, a green and purple 1977 Buick Station Wagon driven by Jeremiah Weber; and Captain America, a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado driven by Trevor Ballard. Captain America was the reigning champion when the derby was canceled, said Ballard. It was an all-original luxury car in 100 percent working order before its transformation into a derby car. "It's a solid car, and it's got front-wheel drive," said Ballard. "State of the art."
Before the start of the derby, drivers and their pit crews put final touches on their machines and sized up the competition. Derby veteran Kent Davis, who said he was happy the derby is back, entered a 1977 Impala honoring all military and law enforcement veterans. Will Hanney drove a lime green 1984 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a 403 engine, sponsored by APB Tree Service in Cedaredge. "She should be pretty peppy," said Hanney. A first-time derby driver, he entered at the urging of his boss and found several area businesses willing to sponsor him.
This year's derby also featured ATV and UTV barrel racing and pole bending events. Shortly after 9 p.m., during pole bending, a thunderstorm blew in and the grandstands were cleared as a safety precaution. "In its history, rain has never canceled the derby," said Carson. With more than $3,500 in prizes at stake, organizers insisted the derby finals be held and waited for the storm to pass while the 10 remaining drivers and pit crews made repairs in the rain.
Just before 10 p.m., the 10 finalists entered the arena. One by one, cars and drivers were eliminated. "Good as Gold," a 1994 Cadillac driven by Audie Woods, Nick Johnson's 1969 Olds, Kent Davis's 1981 Chevy Impala, Shane Anderson's '78 Buick, Matt St. Clair's 1980 Ford LTD, and Cory Trolin's '74 LTD were all knocked from competition, left hissing and steaming in the mud.
Captain America took second place and a $1,000 prize. A red 1975 Cadillac DeVille driven by Ryan Wells and sponsored by Ol' Red's Towing won third place and $500. Each of the top three placers also received a $50 share of ticket sales.
An Olds Delta 88 that took some big hits in the preliminary round and was spewing steam hung on long enough to inflict damage on other cars. As his 1967 Plymouth hissed, Tanner Ellenberger shot bottle rockets from his flame-throwing exhaust pipes into the night air. The baddest of all the entries, Ellenberger defiantly spun donuts during the rain delay, earning him the MAD (Most Aggressive Driver) award of $500.
With near standing room only crowds and long ticket lines, "It was a big success," said Carson, who ran the Delta County Fair derby for 17 years and was among this year's judges. He was happy to see so many people returning to the stands after the rain delay ended. "It's a sport that the crowd really gets into," he said.
The event will be back next year, said Carson, who amid all the excitement agreed to organize next year's derby.
The family will again enter three cars, said Cody Houseweart. Milner said that while "It held up pretty good," the little Minion is also "pretty messed up" and has likely seen its last derby. Next year, she said, "I'm getting a better car."
After the derby she found that car, a 1968 AMC Rebel. 2017 Delta County
Demolition Derby Results
1. Madison Milner/1997 Subaru Outback
2. Trevor Ballard/1976 Chevy Impala
3. Ryan Wells/1975 Cadillac Deville
1. John Zouette hot/Can Am 1000 (23.43 seconds)
2. Trent Spaedt gateway/Can Am 1000 (23.53)
3. Kirk Huff/Polaris 1000 (25.46 seconds)
1. Luke Anderson/Kawasaki 400 (20.65)
2. Jeff Roop/Honda 450 (20.82 seconds)
3. Larry Anderson/Kawasaki 400 (21.36)
1. Jeff Roop/Can Am 800 (21.29)
2. Kirk Huff/Yamaha 660 (22.15)
3. Pete Milner/Polaris 850 (23.27)