Combines will crash for fun and charity in ... A Harvest of Demolition

By MICHELLE SCHMIDT for Inland360.com

NEZPERCE — What do you get when you mix a couple of old combines, an open arena and a little testosterone? The question sounds like the start of a good redneck joke — except the answer isn’t a joke, it’s reality.

Combine demolition derbies are nothing new. But as the only derby of its kind in the state, the Combine Derby in Nezperce, sponsored by the local Lions Club, is an unusual place to participate in authentic Idaho redneck culture.

The derby is organized into heats. Several combines participate in each heat, slamming into each other in attempt to disable the opposing machine. Tires and drive belts are common targets and a good hit can roll the entire machine. Once a combine is immobile, an orange flag halts arena movement until a loader removes the crippled machine. The last combine wins.

And no, these combines didn’t just come off the harvest field. Abandoned machines in old barns are reincarnated for the derby. Fixing them up is no small task and only winners have a chance at recouping costs. Once the combine can run, peripheral parts are removed and what’s left is reinforced.

“The build of the machine is part of it, but the skill of a driver means an awful lot,” said John Schlader, a founding event organizer and announcer.

Experienced drivers know the weaknesses in various models, what hits are likely to disable other combines, and how to maneuver the bulky mass.

But the technicalities of the derby are only half of it.

“There’s quite a bit of socializing going on,” said Dave Branson, Lions Club vice president and event promoter. That’s the polite way of describing the amount of alcohol consumed at the event. But then, what would a redneck gathering be without it? Proceeds from beer sales go to the Lions Club, though attendees are permitted to bring their own.

As expected, a thick vein of humor runs through the event. Announcers and programs elicit laughter, and teams get creative with nicknames, fancy paint jobs and slogans. This year’s spectators will notice two distinctive combines: one black and gold, the other blue and orange. The friendly rivalry is classic derby banter.

The event packs in a solid three hours of entertainment. Between heats, when the combines are in the pit for repairs, this year’s audience will enjoy lawn-mower races, old-farm-truck races and the music of young Moscow native, Shiloh Sharrard.

It’s hard to tell who enjoys the event most. Drivers get an adrenaline rush, but pay for it in bruises the next day. Pit crews are known to get feisty during competition. Those putting on the show enjoy the fan enthusiasm. But it’s the people in the stands who may have it the best.

“According to a regular visitor from Pennsylvania, this is by far the best combine derby he’s been to,” said Schlader. “The arena is big enough, which allows for more speed and harder hitting.”

Now in its 12th season, the derby began when organizers from the Lewis County Fair approached the Lions Club about doing a Sunday event that would draw more visitors. About the same time, a couple of Lions Club members attended the combine derby in Lind, Wash. It was a perfect match. The Lind Lions Club helped start the event and typically sends one or more of its competitors to the derby.

Not only does the derby bring visitors to the fair — the event draws more than six times the town’s population – but event proceeds go to the Lions Club, and in turn, local communities.

That’s right. Colliding metal turns into college scholarships, high school sports equipment and utilities at the local library. The event’s success depends on community involvement, both financial and volunteer, from the Lions Club and the more than 50 corporate sponsors. In the end, though, it’s all about the show.

“It’s just redneck fun,” said Branson.

Which is just the kind of thing Idaho does well.

if you go: What: Nezperce Combine Derby When: 1 p.m. Sunday. Where: Lewis County Fairgrounds, Nezperce Cost: general admission $10, children under 12 are free

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