Tractor Pulls and Demolition Derbies: “Off the Radar” Arenas for Innovation and Creative Confidence

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At the Sullivan County Fair in Pennsylvania, a high school boy wore a sleeveless sweatshirt showing off arms developed through farm labor rather than workouts at the gym. His billed hat featured the logo of a chain saw company. His hand held a Pepsi. He was standing beside a several ton sculpture with the exposed metal bones of a tractor.

In a museum, this construction could be placed near the work of Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain and Lee Bontecou. However, in rural Pennsylvania, machines are designed to work. With a turn of this key and a pull on the choke, there was black smoke and a sound of a roar as the engine tuned to a steady and powerful CHUG CHUG chug chug chug chug.

The story of this tractor began with the boy’s father. After competing in tractor pulls when he was a teenager, his father parked his machine in a meadow behind a barn where it sat there for 30 years.  Three weeks before my encounter, this boy and a friend decided they would haul the old tractor out of the field and fix it up to enter the tractor pull at the Sullivan County Fair. He described how the bolts on the old tractor were so rusty that he had to use a blowtorch to make new holes in the metal to stabilize the frame. With his friend, he rebuilt the engine, mounted ‘newer’ old tires, and, generally, re-crafted the entire machine. The result was a post-apocalyptic sculptural wonder.

He didn’t expect to win the tractor pull. He just wanted to see if he could make the tractor run strong enough to enter.  He and his friend were just having fun.

This tractor was a stunning demonstration of a rare breed of hands-on mechanical skill, innovation and creative confidence.

Where does a kid like this appear on the radar of high stakes academic testing? Nowhere. Did his high school even know about his ability to set an ambitious goal, work collaboratively, demonstrate mechanical skills, overcome engineering challenges, meet his deadline within budget and, ultimately, sit on the ragged tractor seat, turn the key and ignite the engine without blowing up?

Rural county fairs also feature demolition derbies. In this arena of carnage, I encountered more princes of innovation and “can do” confidence.

I am an environmentalist, so attending a demolition derby wasn’t high or, for that matter, anywhere on my wish list. I am the mother of sons, however, and the wife of a Pennsylvania motor head who bought his first car at age 14 for $20. Too young to drive, he took the car totally apart and rebuilt it, teaching himself mechanics. So, we all set off to the ‘demo derby,’ but “once, just once!”

Every car in a demolition derby is a unique construction. The make and age of the car provide a blank canvas for its true personality shaped by wrecks and the car team’s adept employment of cannibalized auto parts, chrome pipes, wire, electrical-tape, foam, and auto and spray paints. The result is a vehicle that is battle ready.

Demolition derby cars are graphic wonders, decorated with symbols and messages. Cars are paraded as testimonials to love and memorials to loved ones, freedom and passion for competition. While the names of sponsors might be crudely painted, there are no NASCAR or Indy 500-style decals.  Special effects are revealed when the engines ignite. Flames charge from custom exhaust pipes that protrude above the hood directly from the engine. There are no mufflers, so the sound….the sound!

With pageantry, girlfriends often drive the cars to the arena gate for the start of each heat. The demolition derby is medieval jousting, just with significantly more horsepower.

Chug, chug, chug as cars pull into the dirt and sand arena to park front forward. There is a count down, a roar of revved engines and then the battle begins. On the signal, cars accelerate backwards into each other. The crunch and scraping of metal announce the first of many impacts. During the carnage that follows, mud is sprayed into the stands, engines roar, flames leap, and the screaming crowd takes to its feet. Emergency vehicles are standing by, ready to contribute their own lights and sirens to the party when engines catch fire. The volume of the crowd rises with every direct, cathartic impact. Transported by the energy around me to ancient Coliseums, I survey the crowd to see if thumbs are up or down. Why does this destruction excite rather than appall me? Why was I screaming, too?

The cars that are too wrecked to move remain like bodies on the field while other cars, in various stages of wreckage, continue to spin and crash, pushing ahead with flat, smoking tires and metal pieces dragging. The winner of the heat is the last car running. The driver hauls himself out of the car window (Car doors are wired shut.) to stand on the car hood, victory fists held high. Aided by tow trucks and bulldozers, the carcasses of the defeated cars limp out of the arena.

For the winning car, the final heat is still ahead and the support team leaps into action to repair the damage. Silhouetted by arc lights, they pound metal away from the tires, fortify the engine, and reconnect stray parts with wire.

The demolition derby is a culture of country kids, mostly guys, who share a passion for fixing ‘junk’ cars and competition.

They are so confident in their ability to make and to fix that destroying their work, even when they are sitting in the driver’s seat, is just part of the process. There is nothing precious in their creative process. Theirs is a high risk, high stakes competition backed by mechanical skill and hands-on creative confidence.

Why aren’t we pegging these kids as future stars of innovation and invention? Why aren’t they on the radar of engineering and design schools?

As long as tests rather than teachers and experiential learning are in the driver’s seat of our educational system, we will fail to value the hands-on intelligence and creative confidence that is demonstrated in county fair arenas where smart and capable kids are just having fun.

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Tractor Pulls and Demolition Derbies: “Off the Radar” Arenas for Innovation and Creative Confidence