First year lessons: A rookie takes the wheel in the Demolition Derby

BRISTOL — After witnessing the action at last year’s demolition derby at the Addison County Fair and Field Days, Ethan Heffernan decided it was time he entered a demolition derby car of his own.
“I thought it was pretty entertaining and a good time, so I wanted to get in on it this year,” the 22-year-old Bristol resident said. “I got myself a car for 200 bucks and said, ‘What the hell, why not?’”
The Pontiac Bonneville was a mid-sized V6 sedan produced by General Motors. Heffernan isn’t sure of the year of the Bonneville he bought for $200, but said the price was right.
With the car in hand, Heffernan found himself with a long to-do list. Preparing a car for a demolition derby doesn’t require improving or reinforcing it, more so reducing it to an engine, four tires and a steering wheel. The seats and upholstery had to be removed, the muffler had to be cut out, the antifreeze in the radiator had to be drained and replaced with water. The airbags had to be removed and windows had to be smashed out (the front windshield is optional).
Then there were the tires. Demo derby cars run with standard tires — no mud or studded snow tires allowed. When combined with the wet conditions of the dirt pit, the lack of traction cuts down on the speed the cars can carry. Heffernan’s car had three tires and a donut. In order to run, he needed to find a fourth.
But reducing the car to its most basic elements took longer than expected. In addition to working full days at an excavation company he owns with his brother, Heffernan had to balance work with preparing the Bonneville and a pickup truck for the pulling competition at the fair.
“I figured you strip down the car and then run it,” he said before the derby, when he had already spent about a week preparing the car. “But it’s a lot of small, tedious things that take longer than I expected.”
Being an older model, the Bonneville featured a heavy steel frame that he planned to use to his advantage. The goal: get himself into a corner and use the heavy rear end as a battering ram.
“It’s runs strong and it’s got a lot of car there,” he said before the derby. “Do I feel like I’ll come in first, second or third? It’s really hit or miss. It’s going to be intense and I’m looking forward to it.”
On the second evening of the demolition derby, Heffernan stood in the drivers’ staging area and showed off the fruits of his labor with a note of pride in his voice. After several late nights, the Bonneville was finally ready. He had been up until 11 p.m. the night before, adding the final touches to the car, now covered in wildly applied paint with a number 71 on the driver’s door. After taking stock of the competition, he was feeling confident.
“I’m looking around at some of the cars that were running last night and I’ve still got all four tires and nothing’s bent,” he said.
After a week of work, the Bonneville was complete with a smiling clown’s face on the rear bumper. The hood and trunk were wired shut and chains held the doors in place.
“You just slide in through the window like in ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’” he said, describing entering the driver’s seat.
All the seats had been removed, as was the upholstery. The gas tank in the back of the car held just three gallons. A small flap of carpet covered the battery strapped to where the passenger seat used to be. The night before the event he got and replaced the final tire he needed. On the exposed metal floor sat a snowmobile helmet and a neck brace that Heffernan would wear.
“I’ve never experienced whiplash before, so I’m wondering what that’ll be like,” he said, leaning on the roof. Just the day before, he was diagnosed with a hernia. His doctor had said he could still drive.   
Heffernan entered the track in the second bout of the night, parking in the middle of the pack in front of the cheering grandstands. The audience counted them down:
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!”
Heffernan threw the car in reverse and found himself T-boned almost immediately, shutting his car off and leaving him rattled. 
“The second I got hit everything got blurry for a second,” he said afterwards. “Then when I came back I got mad and just wanted to hit something.”
But Heffernan found his corner as planned and began using it to launch a couple of long-range hits into competitors. After his first hit, the trunk sprang free, obscuring his view. But he kept driving until he began leaking gas, prompting a spray from a fire hose. His drive was over and he left the track pushed by a John Deere tractor. Heffernan sat in the Bonneville, steering the car back to the lot, an unsatisfying conclusion to the evening.
The Bonneville was destined for the junkyard crusher, but Heffernan said he’d be back again next year.
“If I’d stayed in the corner and let them come to me, I might’ve stood a better chance,” he said. “But I just wanted to hit something and that’s what I did.”

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