Tabitha Armstrong frantically tightened valve bolts while oil splattered from the exposed parts. Smoke billowed from the bay as oil burned off on hot headers.
Smash, a small gray kitten, and Derby, an adult cat tormentor, barely flinched each time Brett Atkinson turned over the engine in his new derby car. The cats are used to the commotion.
Even a thunderstorm outside paled in comparison to the growl of the new 327. Atkinson hopes the fast motor helps improve his second place finish in the 2017 derby.
The revving monster echoed within the small shop on South Fair Street in Powell. Atkinson, friend Matt Hollenbeck and Armstrong worked in a fevered pitch to get the engine running smoothly.
The friends all attended Powell High School, but it was derby that brought them together. Brothers and sisters in arms — covered in grease.
It’s not an unusual day in the shop during derby season. But this isn’t just another year for the trio. There’s an extra car to prepare this year — for the first time, Armstrong will be joining the two derby junkies on the track.
“I’ve always loved cars. Not to the point that I know a whole [lot] about them. But I love when they smash into each other,” said Armstrong. “It gets the adrenaline flowing just watching a derby. I love it. I get worked up.”
The 90-pound mother-of-one has worked the pits prior to this season, but she’s never been behind the wheel. Not a lot of women have competed in the male-dominated sport.
She’s tough, but not crazy. The closer the Park County Fair’s Demolition Derby gets, the more she thinks about what could happen.
“It may be a dumb fear to have, but my biggest fear is death,” she said.
Breaking her neck was next on the list.
“When you do something like this you have to accept that something bad could happen,” she said.
While some brush off fears as jokes, Armstrong wasn’t laughing.
“This is the first time I’ve put myself in a situation where it’s like, yeah, let’s wreck!” she said.
All of Armstrong’s experience comes from the arena or in the shop. Most of her technical experience comes from Atkinson and Hollenbeck. She’s just one of the guys during the season.
During a break from working on their cars, the three discussed the scenario that each made it to the finals.
“If we meet in the finals I’m going to run away from her,” Atkinson said.
There’s cash prizes for top drivers. But all the money goes back into more cars, Atkinson said.
“If you take them apart and build them right, you’re going to have some hours in your car, I guarantee you,” Hollenbeck said.
From the second-place cash Atkinson won last year, he bought Hollenbeck a new car for last year’s Smashtoberfest. Then, in an attempt to bring new participants to the sport, Hollenbeck gave the car to Lyle Lamb and started a new 1970 Monte Carlo derby project.
The more people in the sport, the more fun there is to be had, Hollenbeck said.
Some get involved through being a sponsor. Atkinson, Hollenbeck and Armstrong have several great sponsors, including 307 Glass, Cross Diesel Performance, Production Machine, Body and Paint by Tait, H&R Block and Olsen Welding, to name a few.
If last month’s Lovell derby is any indication of participation, the sport is trending up. There were but a handful of entries in the 2017 event, but this year there were more than 20 participants.
Several area drivers have been involved for years, but age is catching up with them. The survival of the sport depends on young people catching the derby fever, Atkinson said.
“I think it’s important to get them away from their phones and get them out to do something different,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong’s son Silas, 5, has never been to a derby. At his age, the midway has been more important in years past. But this season his mom will be in a beat-up Impala competing for the cash prizes. Armstrong hopes Silas loves the derby as much as she does, and that he someday wants to get involved. Hollenbeck has two daughters who love the derby scene.
“My girls get fired up when we start the derby cars,” Hollenbeck said.
The 2018 event is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, July 28 in the grandstands.