By Brad Hundt
Anyone who rode a bus to school can probably recall those frost-bitten, sleep-deprived mornings waiting for that yellow contraption to lumber up the road.
You saw its red, blinking lights advancing closer and closer, wishing all the while you still could be tucked in the warmth of your bed.
The arrival of the bus meant you had to brave the intricate politics of where and with whom to sit on the way to school. And, just over the horizon, there was the algebra test for which you barely studied, and the English class reading that you just skimmed.
For everyone still haunted by these memories, a school bus demolition derby can be the tastiest type of revenge.
“I’m sure there’s some sense of that,” according to Wayne Hunnell, the secretary of the board of the Washington County Agricultural Fair.
For a couple of sweet hours, folks in the stands can watch decommissioned school buses be dented, pummeled, pounded, battered, clobbered and walloped. The school bus demolition derby has become a mainstay of Washington County’s fair, and it’s scheduled this year for Wednesday, Aug. 14, at 8 p.m. Hunnell said it’s one of the fair’s most popular events, with spectators satisfied at the end of the night that those vehicles will never again be journeying down any road as the morning sun creeps into the sky.
The school bus demolition derby is part of other events involving motor vehicles at the fair. The night before the school bus demolition derby, for instance, a motocross event is planned, and then, two days later, a standard demolition derby is scheduled.
Demolition derbies have been around almost as long as automobiles themselves. Though there is no hard-and-fast evidence of when the first demolition derby took place, some observers believe they date back at least to the Depression era, when legions of Model Ts were sputtering into obsolescence. By the 1960s, demolition derbies were centerpieces of speedways and fairs.
It’s a noisy, raucous occasion. The exhaust pipes are cut off the buses, Hunnell said, increasing the decibel level and making the buses sound meaner than they did when they were ferrying students to their classrooms. All of the glass is taken out of the vehicles, with the exception of their windshields, and drivers are strapped in their seats. Washington County’s fair uses buses that have a “nose,” with the motor in front. While drivers don’t necessarily have to undergo a strenuous training regime, they do have to sign a waiver absolving the fair of any responsibility if they are injured.
Demolition derbies are one of the ways school buses gain a second life after they are retired. They usually are on the road for about a decade, and they are frequently turned over to businesses like 422 Sales, a Butler County-based auction company, when school districts finish with them. Washington County’s fair regularly gets its buses from 422 Sales, and they cost about $1,500 to $2,500, according to Brandi Hutton, 422’s assistant in auction operations.
Demolition derbies aside, some old school buses are repurposed as motor homes. The San Francisco-area online newspaper “The Bay Citizen” reported earlier this decade that old American school buses were being used for mass transit in Mexico and Central American countries, or as “chicken buses.”
The fair spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 on this year’s buses, which will represent 12 of the 15 districts in Washington County. Students from each district paint the buses before they are sent to their end. Once they are demolished, the fair sells the buses and the engines for scrap.
When all the dust settles, and the sound and fury subsides, what is it that spectators enjoy so much about the school bus demolition derby?
“They like that sound,” Hunnell explained. “They like the buses hitting each other.”