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Longtime demolition derby promoter puts on the brakes

July 24, 2018

KASSON — Kasson promoter Mark Houston has alway enjoyed the gladiatorial simplicity of demolition derbies.

Cars growling around in a mud pit smashing into each other. Crowds roaring their approval for the big crunching hit, for the driver exhibiting reckless abandon.

“They want to see a car wrecked as bad as it can be and still move,” Houston said. “They’re cheering for the guy that’s putting on a show.”

But after more than two decades promoting demolition derbies at the Dodge County Fair and other area venues, Houston is retiring from the sport. Three more derbies and he will be done.

The sport has changed. In Houston’s heyday, there might be 100 cars in a pit, wheeling and spinning around with one goal in mind: To smash and wreck each other’s car. Nowadays, a derby might have as many as 15 classes with only four or five cars in each class.

“To me, that’s not enjoyable, because there’s not enough action,” Houston said. “There’s not enough stuff getting wrecked.”

Demolition derby has been the biggest draw at the Dodge County Fair year in and year out for the past two decades.

“It’s a full house usually,” said Mike Bathke, a demolition derby official and Houston’s partner. “The biggest crowd of the fair by far.”

Houston’s life has been steeped in the car culture. He grew up within earshot of the Dodge County track and the sound of burping derby cars and crashing metal.

“When we were kids back in the ’60s and ’70s, we’d go down to the pits, and that was when there would be over a 100 cars,” Houston said. “We’d go down and play in them. Try to see if they’d start, and we could drive them.”

in his first year as a promoter, Houston and other officials traveled to “every county fair possible” handing out fliers promoting the Dodge County derby. Eighty-five cars showed up for their inaugural derby, four times more than the previous year.

Houston has organized and promoted derbies in Owatonna, Waseca, Le Center and Sibley. And in all those years, no one got carted away in an ambulance. Which is not to say there weren’t some injuries.

But the sport has evolved, and Houston hasn’t always been keen on some of those changes.

A kind of creeping professionalism has gotten into the sport, making it more expensive and raising the barriers to entry.

Cars have gotten pricer, even those ready for the salvage yard. Houston began participating in demolition derbies in the late 1970s, when cars were easier to come by and cheaper to buy. Sometimes people would give you a car just so you would smash it up. Where Houston once paid $100 for a full-size car to demo, people now are paying up to $2,500 for some bigger cars.

“Salvage yards are paying more for cars, whereas years ago they picked them up for nothing,” Bathke said.

But through the years, Houston and Bathke have kept to their philosophy of keeping cars “stock,” of keeping them stripped down to their essential assets. In that way, it keeps the sport democratic, open to anybody interested in participating without having to worry about being priced out of it.

During an inspection prior to the derby, officials disqualified a driver for having protectors on his vehicle. The man complained that the rules were’t clear. Houston disagrees.

“It says, ’no pro-tec-tors,” Houston said. Only a tiny percentage are disqualified, he adds later.

Houston said he’s now in the mood for less noisy pastimes.

“Mainly, it’s more I want to do other things,” Houston said. “I want to go hiking. I want to do more Boundary Waters trips. I’ve got more vacation time. I got more time to do stuff.”

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