Whether it’s racing them, fixing them, or simply taking them out for Sunday drives through the country, cars have been an American past time since their invention. So when cars are ready to be put to rest, we came up with a uniquely American way of doing so: smashing them into oblivion gladiator-style in front of a cheering crowd. These “demolition derbies” were quite the events at their peak in the 1970s and 1980s. As practically guaranteed entertainment at July 4th or “Miner’s Day” (Labor Day) celebrations, Park City residents were not hard-pressed to find derbies to attend throughout the years.
The most popular venue for Summit County’s derbies was Ernie’s Arena, located near Kimball Junction and Interstate 80. The arena was owned by Ernie Scow, who hosted popular rodeos and potluck luaus in addition to derbies. Demolition derbies usually operated by localized rules, though there were standard procedures for any derby throughout the country: removing all glass from the car; removing or cutting holes in the hoods to allow for easy access to the carburetor; draining gas tanks and instead connecting the fuel lines to a gas can in the back seat so that the rear of the car could be hit without exploding. Drivers were usually required to sign liability releases and emergency crews were present on site. And though they didn’t always follow the rules, Summit County also required that drivers wear helmets and seat belts.
Locals showed up by the hundreds for the promised “thrills, spills and danger” the derbies provided. Derbies at Ernie’s were popular events throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but one near-tragedy in 1985 almost caused their demise. A car driven by Ron Welch caught fire as he tried to restart it after a collision. Stuck inside as the flames grew, Welch sustained minor burns before spectators managed to pull him from the wreckage.
A cascade of events followed in the subsequent days: fire chief Jim Berry decried a lack of safety laws and ordered the fire department to withdraw its protection in upcoming derbies; some city officials blasted the Board of Commissioners for granting Ernie’s Arena a beer license or approving the event in the first place; and the future of local derbies was called into question.
Public outcry in letters to the Park Record editor objected to Berry’s and similar initial responses. Dennis Dale extolled Ernie Scow as a community leader and derbies as an opportunity for entertainment for locals in slow off-season months. Jeffrey Wright urged the fire department to educate drivers rather than turn their backs on them. And Ron Welch himself, noting that “if anyone should be complaining it should be me,” praised the derbies and wrote that he hoped “this small incident does not cause the prevention of further events out at Ernie’s.” But demolition derbies were already declining in popularity and though they’re still a mainstay at the county fair, Parkites eventually found new entertainment and other places to gather in July and September.
Park Record, July 19, 1979; August 30, 1979; July 11, 18, 25, 1985.