I mentioned last month that my husband and a few neighbors fixed up an old combine to compete in our fair’s combine demolition derby. This was the guys’ second year competing and it turned out a lot better. I’ll share more about this year’s derby later this week. Here’s what happened last year:
Like many people in rural Kansas, my husband Jeremiah and a couple of good neighbors spent much of the summer getting their combine fixed up. They worked for hours welding, cutting and fixing gears. But unlike most Kansans, they weren’t getting their machine ready to cut wheat or corn – they were getting it ready to crash.
In 2009, Jeremiah and I were 2 of the nearly 8,000 fans packed into the Ellis County fairground bleachers in Hays, Kansas to enjoy the 1st annual combine demolition derby. Something about watching big equipment crash was really entertaining. I knew that my mechanical, he-can-fix-anything husband would be a great competitor. Little did I know, that by the time the 2010 derby came around, I would have a new appreciation for the time and effort it takes to make a demolition derby combine.
Early this summer, my husband and our friends Justin and Matt – all newcomers to combine demolition derbies – got serious about their plans for the derby. The men’s first challenge was finding an inexpensive combine to fix up. The top derby prize was $1000, so they didn’t want to spend too much more – and preferably less – to buy one. After a few weeks of searching, Matt found an old Belarus Don 1500 a few hours north of Hays. The owner wanted $2000, but the guys figured that it would be worth it if they could use it for a few derbies. The machine hadn’t run for 15 years, so the men spent 2 Sunday afternoons loosening the gears and working on the clutch to get it to release. The next weekend, when they drove up to get the combine, the farmer raised the price to $15,000. They didn’t come home with the Belarus.
Though they were discouraged, they continued to look for another combine. It took nearly a month, but they found a gear-driven Massey 760 near Hays. Many combine demolition derby competitors in the area use Massey combines because of their structural integrity and their wide availability. Though this Massey wasn’t hydrostatic, they decided it would still work. They fixed the variable speed pulley system on the combine’s transmission the day they found it, and drove it home that night.
The work on the combine started the next weekend. The guys began by taking off all the unnecessary parts – auger, hoses, chains, drive belts, pulleys, ladder and straw spreader. Then they took the reel and cutter bar off and used a cutting torch to shorten the header down to less than 18 feet as required in the derby rules. The glass from the cab came out next and a seatbelt went inside – mounted to the frame.
The men were allowed to use 10 pieces of metal to reinforce the header and any vulnerable areas of the machine. They welded 2 ½ inch diameter oil field pipe from the feeder house to both ends of the header. Additionally, they used 2 pieces to brace the hydraulic cylinders where the header was held rigid 18 inches from the ground. Using metal not included in the 10 piece limit, they added additional structural support to the cab to ensure the driver’s safety. They welded the rear axle solid so that if a tire blew they could still steer.
Their biggest project was rebuilding the drive linkage between the main shaft and the transmission. The combine came with a variable 2 speed belt drive, but the guys thought a chain drive would work better because they wouldn’t run the risk of belt slippage during the derby. They took a gear from the feeder house and fabricated it on the transmission clutch housing and put a chain gear on the main shaft, allowing a double 60 chain to drive the machine.
The combine needed new brake pads, but when they looked into the cost – $70 apiece – they decided not to buy any. However, a local implement dealer stepped in and offered to sponsor the team by letting them remove the brake pads off a junk combine for free. Before the derby the guys got 2 more sponsors – a local restaurant and a water company. They donated money for the $25 entry fee and $20 pit passes.
The final work on the combine a few weeks before the derby included changing oil, replacing the antifreeze with water, installing a chrome exhaust pipe and mounting a 10 gallon fuel tank in the grain bin.
The men estimate that they spent a combined 50 hours or more working on the combine – though they are reluctant to think too much about all the hours, electricity, acetylene, welding rod and various other things they used (or wasted) building something they were going to crash.
While the men spent hours working on the combine, the wives spent as many cooking for them and brainstorming combine decorating ideas. We came up with a lot of good ones, but the decision ultimately came down to cost. All our ideas were too expensive and time consuming. After we looked at the cost of a few gallons of automotive paint, we almost gave up the idea of decorating all together. I finally realized why some of the derby combines didn’t have any paint or decorations at all last year. Fortunately for us, Matt found a few gallons of old automotive paint in the back of his shop. The men mixed the single gallons of black, silver and blue paint together in different proportions to make the paint blend from light blue to navy blue from top to bottom. After the paint dried, the added a white square on each side for their derby number, 2 lightning bolts, sponsor names, and their theme “Thunder Threshers”. The decorating cost $3 for stencils and $4 for a can of yellow spray paint. For the amount of money spent, the combine looked great. We thought it would win the best of show prize for sure.
The morning of the derby was cloudy and nearly threatened to rain, but by noon the clouds were replaced by 100 degree temperatures and a hot, humid breeze. The guys loaded up a pickup bed with steering cylinders, welder, torch and tools. They brought a flatbed trailer full of extra tires too. Since no one had access to a combine trailer, a few days before the derby Matt drove the combine the 12 miles to the fairgrounds. I was nervous most of the derby day. I had become attached to the combine and I knew it would be hard to see it, and all their hours of hard work, crushed.
By derby time, my neighbors and I had quite a cheering crowd complete with an air horn and a cowbell. We were determined to win the best in show – an honor given to the combine that received the most cheers during the entry parade. There were 17 combines, 12 in the large division and 5 in the small division. We cheered as loud as we could, but ultimately, the prize went to a group of men who spent a lot more than the $7 we spent on paint and decorations.
The rules for the derby were simple; a combine stayed in competition until either it couldn’t move or it was pushed out of the ring. The derby rules required drivers to be aggressive. They had to make contact with another combine at least once every 3 minutes or be disqualified. When a combine was out of commission the driver broke a lath stick with flag to signal he was finished. The top 2 combines in each heat advanced to the final round. The remaining combines in each heat got one more chance at the final by competing in a slop heat – if they could fix their combine in the limited time before the round.
The Thunder Threshers elected Matt to drive and were in the first heat of the large combines. They all made one loop around the ring and then the demolition began. Before Matt could drive even a few feet, 2 large combines hit him on either side, making the right front tire fall off. Unable to move the combine, he was forced to break his lath stick and watch the rest of the run from the cab. When only 2 combines in the heat were still running, a front end loader hauled Matt, the combine and the tire to the sidelines along with the other broken machines. The guys quickly looked over the combine and tried to fix it. The 5 inch final drive was sheared off, and without another final drive assembly to replace it, the guys were finished. The 30 minute interval before the slop heat wasn’t enough time to get a new part and install it. Disappointed, they watched the rest of the derby from the sidelines.
The day after the derby the guys bought a final drive off a junk combine at an implement dealer and then spent most of the afternoon repairing the combine. They drove it out to Matt’s farm and parked it on a hill – where it sits, completely ready for next year’s derby.
Though the guys would say that their derby finish was disappointing, I call it a success. That paint job and body work that I was so worried about – it doesn’t have a scratch on it.