Demolition dueling duo: Father, son compete to smash their way to the top

Demolition dueling duo: Father, son compete to smash their way to the top Josh and Fred Balleweg enjoy the view from the sunroof in Fred's brightly-painted Olds Vista Cruiser. The father and son competed at Clay County's Demolition Derby Friday. by David Lias For years now, one of the traditional events of the Clay County Fair has been the demolition derby.

And that, in turn, has spawned another tradition � a yearly rivalry between father and son.

Josh Balleweg, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, traveled from his base in South Carolina to not only spend a few days of leave with his family.

He came back to Vermillion to also participate in the demolition derby.

It was easy to sense Thursday that Fred and Josh were relishing the opportunity they would soon have to compete against one another. The two were part of a field of 40 entries in Friday's event.

Josh's entry in the demolition derby was a 1973 Oldsmobile Country Squire that his dad drove in the event last year. Fred placed second in 1999, falling short of the championship, he said, in part because of two flat tires.

The car showed numerous dents and bruises from last year's competition � a true sign that it was ready to take on all competitors last Friday.

"That just means it's ready," Josh said of the dents and scratches in his vehicle. "It's been through the paces. You can look at it and tell that it's mad."

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A Balleweg car is easy to spot, despite the mud, smoke, dust and steam that hangs over the derby ring during each round of competition.

For all but one year, the Ballewegs' primary sponsor at the derby has been Taco John's. Each year, Fred paints his car, or, this year at least, cars, an appropriate shade of yellow.

"I mix it myself," he said. " I use John Deere yellow and add white and yellow base to it until I'm happy with it."

Fred's wife, Cheri, uses her artistic talent to add the final touches to each car's appearance. In bright red, she painted Vermillion's Clay County Fair Demolition Derby 2000 on the yellow hood of her husband's car.

In past years, her work has been even more elaborate. The hoods of Fred's car have included full colored drawings of the Taco John cartoon figure. One year, when Dairy Queen was a sponsor of a Balleweg car, she painted Dennis the Menace on the hood.

Ironically, it's Cheri's work with a paintbrush, not necessarily Fred's efforts with wrenches and a blowtorch, that help the Ballewegs garner awards each year.

In both the 1999 derby, and in last Friday's event, Fred's car won best looking car honors.

Fred's first experience in a demolition derby was in 1977. "I was a junior in high school, and I drove a 1960 Chevy BelAir. I remember it had fins on the back fenders. It was a neat old car. And I've only missed being in the derby three times since then."

He doesn't really know what drove him to begin annually participating in the derby. He remembers, though, that the event traditionally was, and perhaps still is, one of the most popular events of the Clay County Fair.

"It was just something to do," he said. "I think at one time, the derby was one of the biggest crowd gatherers at the fair. There always used to be a lot of people there."

That tradition of attracting large audiences appears to be continuing. The demolition derby held last Friday was viewed by a capacity crowd that stayed until the very end of the event to see whose car would survive to win first place.

It appears that Josh shares his father's yearning for bone jarring action on the derby grounds each year.

"He's a good kid. He's always wanted to drive and when he first did, it was really fun," Fred said.

Josh was only 15 and a sophomore in high school when he first got behind the wheel of a demolition derby car � a car that didn't survive long.

"The front and back got hit at the same time," Fred said. "The motor turned over on its side, and that was it."

There are a long list of requirements and mechanical modifications that must be made to all demolition derby cars to prepare them for competition.

All glass and chrome must be removed. The gas tank and battery in each car must be moved for safety reasons. Doors must be chained or welded shut, and holes must be cut in each car's hood.

Drivers also secure motors and transmissions with chains.

"Everything after that can be your own personal touch," Fred said.

It takes more than just skill behind the wheel to be a success at a demolition derby. Successful cars compete in several heats, meaning a talented pit crew must be on hand to help put an automobile back together again after each round.

"You have to have a decent pit crew," Fred said. He feels fortunate to be able to count on the talents of his uncle, Larry Gray, his brothers, John and Joe, his friends, and especially his dad, Paul.

"My dad is the torch man," he said. "And my friends and brothers know to change tires and run a torch and keep a car running."

"I've been home since Tuesday," Josh said last Thursday, a day before the derby. "I came home for the derby. I can't miss that, you know."

When the dust settled after Friday's event, a final tally showed Josh outperforming his dad at the derby.

Derby results are: Clark Danielson, Hawarden, IA, first, $500; Danny Preheim, Parker, second, $250; Clint Schroedermeier, Davis, third, $125; Brad Harms, Viborg, fourth, $75; Ryan Rucktaeshel, Avon, fifth, $50; Josh Balleweg, sixth; Eddie Williams, Hawarden, seventh and Walter Taggart, Ayer, MA, eighth.

Consolation winners were Craig Reikofski, Brainerd, MN and Allan Taggart, Gayville. They each received $75.

Fred Balleweg received $25 for the best looking car.

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