ZUMBROTA, Minn. People like to see stuff get wrecked. Which is why demolition derbies are popular attractions at county fairs.
A county fair in the Midwest is offering a new twist on this staple of Americana. Instead of a demo derby featuring old cars, one county fair in Minnesota is sponsoring a smash-up derby featuring riding lawn mowers.
Danger At 5 MPH
If you’ve ever pushed a lawnmower or ridden one, you need to meet these people.
Welcome to the Lawnmower Demolition Derby at the Goodhue County Fair in Zumbrota, Minn.
Folks here strap on motorcycle helmets and ride retrofitted mowers on a dirt infield in hopes of destroying their neighbors’ tractors. It’s been going on four summers now.
“Some of them get around pretty fast out there,” says Will Erickson who organizes the event. “We had one guy that was popping wheelies, and I bet he was popping three-foot wheelies. The front end would go off on it. Yeah, that was kind of entertaining.”
Before getting in the ring, drivers must remove the mower’s blade. They’re also required to add metal safety guards on the side and the rear of the tractor. The guards, which are usually welded into place, are supposed to protect a driver’s legs and back.
That’s a good idea because, even with a top speed of 5 mph, things happen.
“We had a couple tip over a couple of times,” Erickson says. “We stop the race and we go out there and make sure the driver’s OK, and we tip it back up.”
“And the driver usually continues?” I ask.
“The driver usually continues, yup,” Erickson says.
‘Yes, I Like To Be Violent’
At lot of drivers are like Jason Bauer. They’re young, do-it-yourselfers who can’t afford to buy and retrofit a derby car. That costs at least $500. So they find an old mower, fix it up, pull her on a trailer to the county fair and get ready to rumble.
“I bought it for cheap and just cobbled something together,” Bauer says. “I welded some bumpers unto it. Put a leg cage onto it.”
Bauer has competed in other lawnmower demos but never won anything.
Nearby, a first-timer named Rachel Ecker eyes a machine she and a few friends Frankensteined together.
“I got roped into it,” Ecker says, “I told them if they put a comfortable seat on it, I’d do it. And then they did. So I got to do it.”
“I don’t have one because I don’t know what to do,” she says. “That’s why I’m nervous mostly. Apparently I’m supposed to hit people in the tires and not get hit in the tires.”
Just then a really loud mower rumbles by.
“I’d watch out for this guy,” I say.
“Yeah, he’s got bras on the back of his,” Ecker says.
“Do you like to hit things or like what’s your deal?” I ask.
“Yes, I like to be violent,” she says. “Who doesn’t?”
Hitting Back Harder
Then I’m off to find the guy with bras hanging from the back of his mower. Turns out Bryan McCoy is easy to spot in his machine.
“It’s painted bright pink for breast cancer awareness,” McCoy explains. “I got my kids names on there. A couple of bras to save the second bases. Breast cancer is a big thing that I like to donate and help with the cause. And pink’s pretty. So go for it.”
McCoy has added a noise-enhancing muffler, a pair of galvanized pipes to the hood and a bad-ass metal rod where the front bumper should be.
The strategy, McCoy says, is simple: “Whoever hits me gets hit back harder.”
Which is fine by Erickson. Before the demo begins, the organizer huddles with the drivers in the dirt infield to remind them of a few things.
“All righty, what we’re going to do: the top three from each heat will advance,” he says to the drivers. “And once we get down to three, we’ll stop it. Hit hard and have fun. Watch out for legs and stuff like that. Keep your hands inside your vehicle. Last year we had someone that kept pulling their recoil and someone got mad at him and was reaching for that recoil.”
“The person who had that recoil, we talked to him already, he’s got the same mower,” Erickson continues. “He’s not going to be as obnoxious with that recoil this year as he was last year. No whiny attitudes.”
A few minutes later, a pair of kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance
And then the fun begins.
The Silver Bullet Goes Down
Admission to the fair is $3, and you can see the derby at no extra cost. So the bleachers are packed as lawnmowers begin clanging into each other. Lots of people are sipping beer in koozies.
“Never thought I’d see something like this,” one spectator says.
“And what do you mean by that?” I ask.
“Lawnmowers. Them smashing together, I guess.”
“We want to see stuff get wrecked,” another fan adds. “It wouldn’t be no fun if everybody just drove off the track like nothing happened. You want to see people have to get [dragged] off the track, right?”
As expected, a mower gets tipped. A lanky guy in a white mower gets hit, begins to fall, then lunges out of harm’s way before it hits the ground. A driver on an orange mower pops a wheelie and gets his front end stuck on the top of his opponent’s machine.
Several drivers, including a guy who has spray painted his mower silver and dubbed it “The Silver Bullet,” suffer from popped tires, but most keep on puttering in hopes of nailing an opponent.
At the end of the night, I watch a radiant Ecker ride off the track. The first-time rider smiles and gives me a thumbs up.
“I got third place in the final round ‘cause I got stuck under a guy and they told me to quit ‘cause I’d already got third place, but I coulda got first,” she says.
“I saw that tire fall off,” I say.
“Yeah, than the other one popped,” she says. “So two tires and a skee.”
“Did you learn anything tonight?” I ask.
“Redneck innovation is the best innovation,” she says. “That’s all I got to say. I mean, look at us go!”
As she drives off the track, a female friend jumps onto the back of Ecker’s mower, hangs on with one hand and balances a beer with the other.