By James Russell - Auto Thrill Show Historian and Nation-wide Demolition Derby Announcer
When I think back in 1991 we marked our 25th anniversary for the Nation-wide Demolition Derby. Demolition derbies themselves are over 45 years old. The idea for demolition derbies was conceived in the mind of a 28-year old stock car driver named Larry Mendelsohn. He staged the first demo derby at Islip (Long Island) Speedway in 1958. He had noticed how spectators were attracted by the crashes and smashes of stock car racing. Many of the fans were stuck to the edge of their seats not as anxious to witness skilled racing but to see the trauma and violence of the WRECKS! Why not create an automobile sport that would be ALL crashes? Hence, the now popular demolition derby was born.
His first derby was such a tremendous success that Mendelsohn not only made them a regular feature at the Islip Speedway, but he began promoting this sporting contest at race tracks all over the country. The first championship was held at the Langhorne (Pennsylvania) Speedway in September of 1963. Don McTavish of Dover, Massachusetts, was crowned the first "World Champion" of the demo derby. McTavish met his untimely death during a stock car race at the Daytona International Speedway in February of 1970.
While Mendelsohn was promoting demo derbies at speedways around the country, Dick Wortman, the jovial manager of the Hardin County fair in Kenton, Ohio, introduced his fair-goers to this "blue ribbon" attraction in 1965.
In the summer of 1967, Wortman teamed with George Moffett, President of Variety Attractions, to stage the first World-Wide Demolition Derby at the Champaign County Fair in Urbana, Ohio on August 5th. It was Moffett who got the idea of staging demolition derbies at state and county fairs around the country. In 1969 the name was changed to Nation-Wide Demolition Derby, and it has the largest attraction of its kind in the United States. During the past quarter of a century, Nation-Wide Demolition Derby has staged over 2,000 contests from coast to coast and border to border. In the process well over 18 million fans have been entertained and 200,000 cars have been destroyed.
In the early days George Moffett and his assistant, Nick Dorr (who is now General Manager of Nation-Wide Demolition derby), thought the derbies were a fad and like the "Super Ball" and "Hula Hoop" would fade within a few years; the rest is history-demolition derbies are the top crowd drawing attraction at countless state and country fairs and expositions across the county.
Moffett contends, "The demolition derby has maintained it popularity because it has not been saturated on television. It doesn't involve nationally-known drivers in expensive racing equipment, rather the derbies involve local drivers in their own automobiles. The fans come out in droves to see their favorite mechanic, neighbor, relative, or friend behind the wheel of those crazy cars in the wreck'em rodeo.
Drivers are paying more and more each year to get crash-worthy automobiles, they are spending additional time preparing them, and the competition is getting better. Hopefully we will all be around for the Golden Anniversary- 50 years of Nation-Wide Demo Derby!