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Smash, bang, boom!

Demolition derby enterprise is a business opportunity for Washington County farmer
Story and photos by: Glen Liford 8/7/2019


The action and excitement of a demolition derby is a much-anticipated yearly event at fairs across East Tennessee, like this one at the Appalachian Fair in Gray. Staging these crashfests is a passion for Washington Farmers Cooperative Director John Brown through his side enterprise, Tennessee Slammers Bangers.
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Visit most any fair in East Tennessee on a hot summer night and follow the crowd. If there’s a demolition derby, that’s usually where they are headed.

Participants will drive from miles away for the chance to take a vehicle they have worked on for months and smash it to smithereens. If the event had subtitles, it would look like an old Batman episode with colorful “Smash!” “Bang!” and “Boom!” tags appearing repeatedly, punctuated by the revving engines, spinning tires, and steaming, punctured radiators.

There’s just something about all-out destruction that appeals to these folks and, like a car crash on the highway, draws those who can’t resist a look.

At several East Tennessee fairs, including the Appalachian Fair at Gray, the demolition derby is staged by Tennessee Slammers Bangers, an enterprise run by Washington Farmers Cooperative Director John Brown.

Like many farmers, John understands the value of diversification as a strategy to reduce the uncertainty and risk common to agriculture. He and his dad, also named John (the father and son are known as Big John and Little John) had a 50-cow dairy and raised 25 acres of tobacco at their Fall Branch property until 2011. They now have some 150 head of beef cattle and grow hay and straw on 600 owned-and-leased acres. Little John supplements his farming activities with an off-the-farm job as a school bus driver and the business staging demolition derbies at local fairs during the summer and early fall.

Little John began his interest in the unconventional motorsport as a driver in 1989. Crashing into the sport in a 1976 Pontiac LeMans, he won his first competition in a fluke, he says.

“Everyone else had V-8 powered cars, while I had a V-6,” he says with a laugh. “We had a flood, and nobody could move that far. They all overheated, while my little six-cylinder stayed cool.”

After that experience, Little John was bitten by the demolition derby bug. He sought out and built a number of memorable cars with the help of dad over the next several years. Back then, the old Chevy Impalas were popular as were station wagons, and long, heavy cars like Chrysler Imperials and New Yorkers, he says.

He recalls buying one particular Plymouth Fury from a gray-haired lady who had meticulously cared for the vintage car as long as she had owned it. Sensing Little John’s keen interest in the car, she remarked how relieved she was that it was going to a good home.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell her what I was going to do with it,” he says.

Decent cars can be picked up for as little as $400 to $500, but some may spend as much as $2,500 to get a good car and have it prepped for the derby.

Preparing the cars for competition is not that difficult, he explains. First, all the glass and lights are taken off. The fuel tank is removed and replaced with a boat tank in the backseat area. The battery is often relocated, too. Some structural modifications are permitted, but those are restricted.

“We don’t allow any added bracing except in the driver’s door area,” he explains. 

Drivers must wear their seat belts and proper helmets with a full-face shield or safety glasses.

Today’s competitors are required to use 1980-and-up model cars, with classes for four-cylinder, six-cylinder and V-8 powered vehicles. The vehicles in the four- and six-cylinder classes must be front-wheel drive, while participants in the V-8 class have their choice of front- or rear-wheel drive.

Modifications and rules are all made with safety foremost in mind, says Little John. And before the cars ever enter the ring, the area is thoroughly watered down to make it more difficult for cars to build up to dangerous speeds. Drivers are prohibited from striking another vehicle in the driver’s door.

“The last vehicle running is the winner,” he says. “Competitors are eliminated when they haven’t made a hit within 45 seconds to a minute.”

The purse for the events is $2,000, with the winning entry receiving $1,000 of that amount. Cost to enter is $25 per car, plus the purchase of a pit pass.

Those wanting to check out a Tennessee Slammers Bangers Demolition Derby can see the action at the Appalachian Fair in Gray on Aug. 23-24 and at the Tennessee Valley Fair in Knoxville Sept 9-11. Check the fair schedules for times and details. Visit the “Tennessee Slammers Bangers” Facebook page for more details.

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