Building to destroy
That’s the craft of demo derby veteran
“It’s a different kind of feeling when you know you are going to be in a crash.”
That’s how Jason Hamm describes his career as a demolition derby competitor. He was 16 years old, when he competed for the first time in 1993.
Hamm is continuing a tradition that began with his father 40 years ago. Lonnie Hamm was a top competitor. He won the 1982 Marion County Fair derby and finished in the top three wherever he competed.
Several of Hamm’s other relatives, including brother Jesse, have been derby drivers.
His children, 12-year-old Jasee and 11-year-old Carter, are as excited as he is about the demolition derby at the county fair later this month. The bright-eyed youngsters hung around their father and jumped into the conversation as he answered questions.
Hamm said he and other derby drivers spent time every year driving along country roads and through small towns, looking for old cars and car parts.
He prepares demolition cars in an air-conditioned shop in his backyard in Hillsboro.
“A driver used to have a personal connection to the car,” he said. “It had belonged to a relative or a friend. Now, there is a website for cars and car parts.”
The car Hamm is working on this year has the body of a 1972 Cadillac that a friend spotted in a Peabody backyard. With its engine removed, the owner agreed to sell the car for $50. It has a McPherson County license plate.
The first thing Hamm did was strip the car inside and out, removing all chrome and glass.
“It’s a lot of work,” Jasee said.
Then he removed the body from the chassis and rebuilt the drive train.
He replaced the body, positioning a welded steel frame inside and out to keep him safe. Batteries and a gas tank were placed inside the car, and doors were welded shut.
It’s all about safety.
“We all have families and jobs,” Hamm said. “It wouldn’t be worth it if you got hurt.”
He installed an eight-cylinder, 350cc Chevrolet pickup motor bought from a friend, giving it a thorough tune-up and repositioning the exhaust pipes from horizontal to vertical.
“There are a lot of tricks to being a derby driver,” Hamm said, “but the main goal is to have a good running engine. You spend a lot of hours building the car, but if the engine doesn’t run, you’re done.”
The car will be equipped with over-sized tires and will be painted charcoal gray.
Hamm praised his wife, Carla, for allowing him to pursue his hobby.
“The only way this happens is with a very understanding wife and loving mother,” he said. “Otherwise, I probably couldn’t do it.”
Friends often come by to help Hamm, and sometimes they bring their wives and children. Carla cooks for all of them. She also puts lettering on the car after it is finished.
One year, when Carla was almost nine months pregnant, a transmission blew up during a derby, and the car was engulfed in flames. Hamm jumped out and, seeing his pants on fire, quickly put out the flames. The same thing happened a week later, and another week later, Jacee was born.
“It was a summer to remember,” Carla said.
Hamm and a partner, Scott Schultz of Lehigh, will compete as a team this year. If one goes out, the other can continue, and if one wins and the other is out, it will be considered a win for both.
“The fun part of this is doing something one more time with a car that is headed for the crusher,” Hamm said.
He has won at least eight championships in the 50 or more derbies he has participated in, including the one at Kansas State Fair.
It takes skill but it also takes a lot of luck, he said.
He might not continue much longer, however. Preparing cars has taken a toll on his body.
“I just turned 40, and it hurts more than it used to,” he said. “The adrenaline is still there, but it’s not so much about driving anymore. It’s something that has brought families and friends together.”
Carter plans to continue the family tradition when he’s old enough. He and his sister competed in a new lawn mower derby last year and are planning to do so again this year. Their riding mowers are ready to go.