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Carnival carnage: Demolition derbies are a shattering spectacle at the O.C. Fair

Destroyed motorhomes lie wrecked following the Motorhome Madness demolition derby.
Destroyed motorhomes lie wrecked following the Motorhome Madness demolition derby at the Orange County Fair on Wednesday in Costa Mesa.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The crowd rises to its feet as dirt and debris fly through a pit at the center of the Action Sports Arena.

In nearly a dozen years of working the demolition derby events at the Orange County Fair, public address announcer Larry Huffman has witnessed such responses from the masses on a regular basis.

“We have a full house every year,” Huffman said. “We did a race a couple of years ago on a Saturday afternoon, and the crowd was down 10 or 15 percent, but everything else, every night, it’s totally sold out.”

Huffman is far removed from his first rodeo, but the excitement he brings to the show is transmitted to the crowd, which feeds off the catch phrases and collisions.

Tony Axton, left, and Scott Loughner battle it out during the Motorhome Madness demolition derby.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Listen carefully and one might hear signature lines like, “He’s fighting them through the mud, the blood and the beer,” which could not have rung truer in the two-act play that was the Figure-8 race and the Motorhome Madness demolition derby Wednesday night.

Chalk lines lay out the race course for the six-car, 12-lap undercard event. Within moments, they vanish beneath the clumps of dirt as chaos ensues. The sprint is on — one not well suited for the faint of heart.

An air of lawlessness presides over the pit, as the cars go four-wide into a turn, threatening to put one into the wall. And if you think that sounds dangerous, one sure does not want to fall off the pace, setting themselves up for disaster when cars meet at the intersecting point of the once-pristine infinity symbol.

Greg Fisher, with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, in the #18 car, competes during the figure-8 race.
Greg Fisher, with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, in the #18 car, competes against Rich Sanchez, with the Huntington Beach Fire Department, right, and other competitors during the figure-8 race at the Orange County Fair.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I was talking to one of the drivers after [Thursday] night’s event,” Huffman said. “He says, ‘You know, we can hear every word you say in our helmets while we’re competing,’ and I thought that was interesting because they can react to what I’m reacting to.”

After several laps of spinning out and trading paint, the race comes to an end, crowning Greg Fisher of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Then it’s time for the main event.

One by one, RVs roll out into what will soon resemble a junkyard. Grand entrances delight close to 5,700 people in attendance, who look on at the vehicles outfitted with traffic and police lights.

Oscar Yomamato, left, Joe Jimenez, center, and Tony Axton, right, battle during the Motorhome Madness demolition derby.
Oscar Yomamato, left, Joe Jimenez, center, and Tony Axton, right, battle it out during the Motorhome Madness demolition derby.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Already one RV short of the scheduled five, one of them experiences radiator issues, steam billowing from under the hood. It did not stop Fountain Valley resident Tony Axton, 44, from staying in the fight and coming out on top.

“I’ve been a Fountain Valley resident for going on 45 years now,” said Axton, who also won demolition derby events at the fair in 2016 and 2017. “I love the place, everything about it, and I love doing this redneck stuff. It’s the ultimate adventure, and I have fun doing it. I’ve been here the last 18 years. I’ve been racing the last 12.”

Axton, who said he served in the Marine Corps, showed his support for the armed forces with banners he hung from his vehicle, including one that displayed an American flag with the words, “These colors don’t run.”

Driver Tony Axton raises his hands in victory following the Motorhome Madness demolition derby.
Driver Tony Axton, from Fountain Valley, raises his hands in victory following the Motorhome Madness demolition derby.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Reckless reversals defined Motorhome Madness, as the drivers looked to use the rear of their vehicles to inflict heavy damage. With less traffic in the arena, the RVs could use the length of the straightaway to pick up speed, looking to take their competitors out of commission.

“The less vehicles that are out there, the better I can run and get a good hit,” Axton said. “I want to be able to get as much damage as I can on these other vehicles, and then watch out for the ending so that I can get that last hit in.”

The fair now features several demolition derby events, including Orange Crush and Damsels of Destruction. Dan Gaines, the entertainment director for the fair, said the motorhome events are a hot ticket.

A crowd of roughly 5,700 watches the Motorhome Madness demolition derby at the fair.
A crowd of roughly 5,700 watches the Motorhome Madness demolition derby at the Orange County Fair on Wednesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“From the very first time we tried it, it just went nuts,” Gaines said. “As popular as the standard demolition derby events are, the popularity of the motorhomes just dwarfs them. I think it has something to do with the construction of these vehicles — there’s not really a lot to them.

“If you were a friend of mine and you were talking about going to buy one, I would say, ‘You might want to find the one that’s the sturdiest,’ because when these things collide, they fall apart. If it was on the highway, it wouldn’t be pretty, so I think that it goes beyond just the cars hitting each other. It’s hitting each other and then just sort of shattering.”

Oscar Yomamato, left, and Scott Loughner, right, collide during the Motorhome Madness demolition derby.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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