GREENFIELD — Andrew Heller remembers his first demolition derby in keen detail. As a kid growing up in Hancock County, the now 19-year-old nearly tumbled out of the grandstands with elation.
Every head-on collision, blown radiator, revved engine and crumpled front end pried eyes wide open.
“My parents took me to my first one when I was a little kid,” Heller said. “I saw it, and I loved it. Ever since then, I always wanted to build a derby car and run it.”
Flash forward more than a decade, and Heller is right where he envisioned he would be so many years ago: In the pits, making final modifications to his battle-scarred 1991 Mercury Capri for the final Night of Thrills at the Hancock County 4-H Fair.
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“My first one was a 1980 Pontiac Safari station wagon,” the Greenfield-native said with a smirk. “I found it on the side of the road for sale. I paid $500 for it. It was an old man’s car.”
Gutting cars for sport, the Mt. Vernon High School graduate has been “putting it to the floor and giving it hell,” for six years as a demolition derby driver.
Maneuvering from the larger “standard” class to the more economical Gut N Go series throughout the years, he’s satisfied his craving for controlled destruction and spinning dirt-caked wheels as a single event driver.
Shelling out a few hundred dollars to strip the interior of the car and get it in race shape, Heller dedicates his time away from work (at Superior Mowers & More) for one showcase a year — in his own backyard.
Through the years, Heller’s highest placement has been fourth. Last year, his time inside the dirt oval was cut short because his battery unexpectedly gave out.
“It’s the same car as last year,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have better luck this time. I look forward to this every year. I have fun with it.”
For anyone daring to strap on the helmet and get behind the wheel, entertainment is what fuels their dedication. A costly commitment for some, competitiveness can be a pricey endeavor.
In the bigger class where rear-wheel drive isn’t vintage, it’s customary, victory doesn’t come cheap.
Will Rogers, a Martinsville native, can count in the thousands when itemizing the overhauls and time spent swinging wrenches to perfect his 1991 Ford Crown Victoria.
As the defending series champion, Rogers wrecked enough cars to drive away with the points titles last season despite zero victories in 15 county fairs stretching across east central Indiana.
“You have to have the stuff to compete anymore,” Rogers said. “All these guys have new motors. That’s all you see anymore is Fords and small Chevy block motors.
“There’s nothing stock on (my car) but the body and frame.”
The 23-year-old understands the game. Even after winning his first career event last week in Rushville and taking second to Hancock County’s Chad Wilson in Greenfield the year prior, the five-year derby veteran knows what matters most. Winning is nice, but it rides shotgun.
“It’s a brotherhood, man. You can hate a guy one week, come back and the next week we’re friends,” Rogers said. “If a guy ever needs something, I’ll help him out and these guys will do the same.”
Yet, no one can avoid the obvious, which the packed grandstands at the fair grounds echoed loudly with every crash.
“I love tearing it up,” said Shane Williams, 35, who has 10 derby races under his belt in Hancock County. “You get hooked. It’s hard to quit. I always say I’m not going to do it, and then I’m back out here.”
True to form, Heller is traveling down the same road, but unlike most, his inspiration runs deeper.
With the death of his father nearly two years ago, Andrew admits he’s racing for him. Painting his dad’s name on the side of his car, it reminds him of the past and where his love for the sport began.
“He was my best friend, by my side every day,” he said. “It was one of the hardest things I ever experienced in my life. … he always wanted to do (the derby), but he couldn’t because of health problems. He’s with me.”