Nothing ruins like a Deere

September 16, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Bethel students crash tractors for sport

Sports | Isaac Barden

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This summer, Isaac Barden slams into other participants as he competes for a trophy in a tractor demolition derby. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Isaac Barden

My sport doesn’t have a team. My sport doesn’t have a coach. My sport really isn’t a sport. This summer, I participated in what may very well be Minnesota’s oddest hobby. In my spare time, I crash tractors for fun.

It’s not quite clear where lawnmower demolition derbies come from, but it appears that the unusual pastime is growing in popularity. The first lawnmower derby to take place in Minnesota happened three years ago in Cannon Falls. There is no official documentation of the first-ever lawnmower derby, but it is speculated that the sport comes from the southern United States, eventually working its way to Minnesota.

The goal of the derby is simple - wreck tractors. Tractor derbies are not exactly the same as car derbies. In car demolition derbies, the goal is to attack the other cars’ radiators and cause them to overheat. In lawnmower derbies, the goal is to attack tires, disabling traction or steering. In car demolition derbies, drivers are not allowed to strike another car on the driver’s side. That rule is in place to protect the driver by always having half of one car’s distance between them and their opponents as a safety zone. However, tractors do not have driver’s sides, meaning that we only have, at most, one half of a tractor’s length as a safety zone.

 Another thing that sets lawnmower derbies apart from other derbies is that lawnmowers flip easier than cars. Lawnmowers have an extremely high center of gravity. A stock lawn tractor weighs approximately 400 pounds, and it is not uncommon for a driver to weigh 200 pounds. Having one third of the total weight of the driver and machine sitting on the seat leads to a high number of flip overs.

I got pulled into lawnmower derbies by my grandfather, Jim Kaczmarek. He owns a garden tractor repair shop in Hastings. Although Grandpa Jim has never driven in a demolition derby, he sponsored a driver for the original Cannon Falls Lawnmower Derby. After the Cannon Falls Derby, he began contacting other county fair boards, pitching the idea of including lawnmower derbies as grandstand events. The following year, Dakota and Goodhue County both had lawnmower derbies.

Last summer, Grandpa Jim became the head official of Dakota County’s Lawnmower Derby. On the week of the event, Jim realized that there weren’t enough drivers registered for a good show. It was then that he asked me if I would be willing to drive a tractor in the derby. In just two days, I transformed my modest lawn tractor into a derby-worthy tractor. From the start, I became addicted, and I was proud to claim a second place trophy from my very first competition.

This year, I drove in three derbies. With no more than just two days’ notice and after hours of hard work in the shop preparing, I had a professional quality tractor. I was also overjoyed that my girlfriend and fellow Bethel student Kayla Colianni expressed interest in joining me as a driver. I cannot think of anything more romantic than ripping lawnmowers to shreds as a couple. For those that think demolition derbies are reserved for men, Kayla not only flipped the first tractor of the season, but she also flipped more lawnmowers than any other driver. Kayla had the audience screaming in Goodhue County’s derby as her pink tractor smashed its way to third place.

As a driver in this unique pastime, I come away with a new sense of adventure. My summer was one of the best in my life. Thanks to the thousands of fans who watched the derbies and my Grandpa Jim, there are now annual lawnmower demolition derbies in Dakota, Goodhue and Wright Counties, with rumors of possible ones in Washington and Olmsted Counties.

In one short article, I can’t begin to describe the rush and the feeling of power that comes from driving in a demolition derby. If you want to learn more, feel free to ask. The only way to really know, however, is to grab a tractor and experience it for yourself.

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