'There was just some hard hittin' going on'

  • Gladiatrix: Karlee Miller, the demolition derby's sole female driver (at right), goes after Brian Finch and his 1967 John Deere

    Emma Brown
  • Matt Jenkins

    Emma Brown
 

LIND, Washington — In New Mexico, people tend to sort themselves by red and green, based on the kind of chile they prefer to eat. On the wheat farms of eastern Washington, folks divide into red and green camps, too. But here, they do it according to the kinds of combines — the giant machines that lumber through the fields cutting wheat — that they drive.

The International Harvesters come from the factory painted red; the John Deeres are green. Ask a local farmer why he drives the brand he does, and you’ll get an earful. But during the second weekend in June each year, at a dusty rodeo arena on the edge of Lind, the distinction between red and green fades as combines of all sorts go head-to-head in an equal-opportunity smashfest called the Combine Demolition Derby.

Lind, population 500, sits amid undulating fields of dryland wheat, and old combines are parked just about anywhere they’ll fit. Bill Loomis, who runs the International dealership across the main drag from the Lind arena, conceived of the combine derby as a one-time event for the town’s centennial celebration in 1988, but it proved so popular that it’s been happening every year since.

Loomis — who’s 74 years old, has a hook arm and one glass eye (from an accidental shooting in 1973), and broke his back in several places in a car accident in 1954 — himself combine derbied for many years. "They tell me I used to be grinnin’ from ear to ear out there," he says.

Then, a month before his 1995 derby, the engine in Loomis’ helicopter failed and he plummeted to the ground, breaking his back a second time. "I’d been in the hospital for 29 days and I talked them into lettin’ me come out, and they propped me up on a truck in a recliner, and instead of being in it, I watched it," he says, laughing. "I’d love to be out there again, but as many times as I broke my back, everybody kinda thinks maybe I need to take it a little easy."

Loomis says that there’s never been a serious injury, then quickly amends that statement: "I take that back: In the grand parade a few years ago, (a local man) fell over and his son ran over him with a big combine. It was kind of a father-son deal, which was unusual. But anyway, he managed to survive."

This year, the grand parade goes off without a hitch under sunny skies. Afterward, the crowd progresses down the street to the park for $5 pulled-pork sandwiches barbecued by the Lions Club, and slowly saunters on out to the pits behind the arena, where crews are readying the contenders.

Combines must be at least 25 years old to be in the derby. A few look like they might belong in antique farm-equipment exhibits, but the drivers here are not known for sentimentality. On one edge of the pit, last year’s champion, Josh Knodel, helps his friend Matt Miller work on a hulking blue John Deere called Jaws, which has a shark’s fin bolted to the top and a row of sharp teeth protruding from the wheat-cutting header. "Those years on the farm, you respect them. You drive ’em easy and take care of them," says Josh. "Shoot," — his grin suddenly turns loopy — "out here, it’s the complete opposite: Rip ’em up, drive ’em as fast as you can, and tear ’em apart."

The game book in the light-beer-fueled world of combine derbying is simple: "Just go out there," says Matt, "and hit hard." Getting in "good hits" is the measure of a combine derbyer’s joy: Dennis Starring, the driver of a dark-blue John Deere called Shocker, says 2004 was his favorite derby. When pressed to explain why, he sighs and says, "There was just some hard hittin’ going on."

At three o’clock in the afternoon, the sun is still beaming down relentlessly, but a storm is brewing off on the horizon. The derby’s organizers added another 900 spectators’ worth of stadium seating this year and still couldn’t match demand: An estimated 5,000 people have turned out to watch 16 combines battle to the finish.

Dana Knight, a spectator spontaneously pulled from the crowd, kicks things off by singing the national anthem over the P.A. system. Then six combines roar into the ring with a throaty growl of their diesel engines. They pair off, and the flag drops on the first heat.

An eight-ton combine in attack mode sounds like a cross between a mountain lion tearing the flesh off a person’s leg and a bulldozer that’s about to explode. After just a few minutes of action, the entire arena smells of diesel exhaust and spray paint, and the combines hit each other hard enough to launch their rear wheels off the ground. Matt Miller quickly gets cornered by two other combines, but manages to fend them off until another machine knocks off one of his rear wheels and puts him out of commission. Travis Willson, driving a silver-and-red combine called The Silver Bullet (with "Get Bent" painted on the side), is set upon by another John Deere called The Runnin’ Elephant, which punctures his right front tire. Dennis Starring’s combine, Shocker, loses both its front and rear ends in battle and is unceremoniously towed back to the pits.

And so the battles go, for three heats. Each ends with a scene of destruction: rear ends ripped off, shredded tires, detached wheels, headers that look like sardine cans someone tried to open with a rock. Back in the pits, crews with acetylene torches, Hi-Lift jacks and sledgehammers race to get the combines back in action in time for the semifinal round. On one side of the pit, the pink-garland-festooned combine driven by Karlee Miller — the derby’s only female driver — looks as if it fell out of the sky and squashed the entire Miller clan, whose Wrangler-clad legs now stick out from beneath the machine as they frantically try to fix a busted hydrostat.

By 4:30, a volatile, electrified atmosphere pervades the pits: The wind is gusting, a wicked-looking line of lightning is moving in from the east, and the tang of acetylene cuts through the air. A half-hour later, the storm is just about to break, and it’s time for the semifinal round.

Shocker makes an inauspicious return to the ring: As it roars into the arena, one of its rear wheels falls off and a sympathetic groan goes up from the crowd. Still, Starring manages to plow his combine into position.

When the starter’s flag drops once more, the thunderclaps come as quick as the lightning. One by one, five combines get knocked out of the action, leaving Shocker — now with no rear wheels, dragging its rear end around in the dirt like a dog with a problem — and three other battered combines to face off against the winners of the afternoon’s heats.

Fat globs of rain and grit blow through the arena, and from the announcer’s booth, Bill Wills, a transplanted Kentuckian who’s been narrating the afternoon’s slugfests, gleefully intones, "Now’s your chance to cuddle with the one you love while you watch combines destroy each other." The flag drops again.

In a moment of inspired attack, Travis Willson gets his revenge on The Runnin’ Elephant by popping its front tire, and the crowd goes wild. Shocker gamely stays in the fight, dragging itself through the thickening mud, and hangs on long enough to win third place. Finally, after almost three hours of battle, it’s down to the last two combines: Mike Jensen, driving a primer-gray John Deere 6602 with a racing spoiler whimsically bolted to the back, and Travis Willson and his Silver Bullet.

Lightning crackles overhead, and the two combines continue obliviously bashing each other in the thickening mire until it becomes clear that atmospheric electricity now poses a greater threat to either driver than his opponent: A judge finally relents, declaring a tie and splitting $2,100 in prize money between the two.

As if on cue, the diesel exhaust blows out of the ring, the dust clears, the sun breaks through the clouds, and a double rainbow appears over Lind. The arena is strewn with wreckage and the mud now stands a half-foot deep. And while the scene of carnage is enough to send an Antiques Roadshow-goer into a fit of apoplexy, the show is far from over for these combines.

Across the street, at the combine dealership, Bill Loomis still keeps the trusty International 453 he drove in seven derbies. "I ran mine for a lot of years," he says, "and just welded her back up and got back in the next year."

The author is HCN’s West Coast correspondent.