Every year before the Ozaukee County Fair, Jim and Sue Pipkorn’s farm in rural Cedarburg looks like a salvage yard full of old vehicles, tires and spare parts.
This weekend, 12 of those cars will smash into other cars during the Ozaukee County Fair’s demolition derby.
“It’s fun to go out there and hit something without getting caught,” said Pipkorn, who promotes the derby under Grand Motor Crash, Inc.
His sons Tyler, 18, and Christopher, 22, along with Christopher’s girlfriend and their friends have been prepping the vehicles.
On Saturday and Sunday, they get a chance to see how they stack up with other drivers from throughout the state.
“You’re nervous when you go out there, but once the first hit is done, you don’t even know what is going on,” Tyler said. “You kind of feel like you need to relax when you’re done.”
Jim Pipkorn made his debut at the derby in 1968 when fair organizers needed more drivers. He competed for 17 years, going out in style with a first-place finish in 1985. Since then, he’s promoted the derby with his wife Sue.
Pipkorn said there are about 100 entries each day of the derby this year, including mini vans and school buses.
“The mini vans are always a hit,” he said. “They’re pretty exciting.”
Tyler’s car this year is a 1980 Buick he bought from a salvage yard in Adell. He has run a Lincoln Town Car and Cadillac Coupe Deville in previous derbies.
Everything that is flammable is removed from the vehicles, including the windshields. A seat, floorboard and the engine is practically all that remains.
There are two tires on each rim, making it harder for the vehicles to be wrecked. Chains hold up the bumpers so they don’t drag on the track.
There are also other secret tricks of the trade that the Pipkorns hope will lead to successful entries this year.
At the fair, each car is inspected by one of eight technicians who goes through a nine-page list to make sure each vehicle is legal.
“A lot of guys read between the lines,” Jim said. “When they get to the line, they either have to remove it or they can’t race.”
Vehicles are split into three categories: full-size vehicles with more than a 110-inch wheel base, mid-size with between a 100 and 110-inch base and compact vehicles under 100 inches.
They are then placed in heats with between 10 and 15 other vehicles and run until four or five remain. The heats generally take between 15 and 30 minutes, Pipkorn said.
Heat winners get $50 and a chance to compete for the grand prize, which varies depending on the number of entries.
Several years ago, the fair started an amateur division that allows 14 and 15-year-olds to participate in the derby, even though they aren’t allowed to drive the vehicle to the fair.
“You’d be surprised at how much work those kids do to those cars,” Jim said. “They used to help their parents build them, but now they can do it themselves.”
Tyler won the amateur division two years ago and “puts in a lot of effort every year,” his father said.
“I know my kids are always full of grease and mud, but that’s OK,” Jim said.
Tyler was injured last year at a derby in Suring over Labor Day weekend when another vehicle hit his radiator hose, but otherwise hasn’t suffered a serious injury.
Technicians use air horns to alert drivers of safety issues. If the drivers keep going after the horn sounds, they’re disqualified.
There are fire crews on site and the dirt track is watered to make sure it stays slippery.
Drivers sometimes try to “sandbag,” staying off to the side or lightly tapping other vehicles just to get a shot at winning a heat.
“We have the techs tie a balloon on those cars and the guy that puts that vehicle out gets money,” Jim said. “It eliminates it a little bit, but guys still do it.”
There’s no way to practice for the derby, although the Pipkorns’ 70-acre farm provides an opportunity to test the vehicles before they head to the fair.
Even though Pipkorn is almost 70 years old, he doesn’t plan to give up running the derby any time soon.
“I guess it’s just in my blood,” he said. “Derby people are people that like automobiles and enjoy doing stuff that’s illegal anywhere else but the track.”
The 156th annual Ozaukee County Fair runs from Wednesday, July 29, to Sunday, Aug. 2, at the county fairgrounds in Cedarburg.
The demolition derby begins at 6 p.m. Saturday and continues at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children age 12 and younger.
Image information: JIM PIPKORN (right), his son Christopher (second from left) and friends have spent many hours getting cars ready for the demolition derby at the Ozaukee County Fair this weekend. The event promises to be as thrilling as last year’s derby (below). Photos by Sam Arendt