1923 demo derby ‘Auto Polo’ ended in mock fisticuffs

By Linda Emley

Two years ago, I wrote a story about the demolition derbies of Ray County. On Saturday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m., this year’s derby will take place at Ray County Fairgrounds, so I thought this would be a good time to share this story again as well as some new details.

I spent many hours trying to find out when the first derby was held in Richmond. I asked many people and everyone had an opinion but no hard, cold facts. Then one day Scott and Leslyn Farmer brought their son Farrell and his two daughters to the museum for a visit. While they were here, Scott told me his story about the first derby in Richmond.

He got a 1956 two-door Cadillac hardtop for $20. He and Leslyn hand-painted it green with paint donated by his sponsor, Benny Tippins. After they got it all ready, Scott’s dad didn’t want him to drive it, so Jim Evert got the honors of driving the “Caddy.”

The track wasn’t watered down, so the cars were flying fast around the dirt track. The spiked bummer wasn’t enough to save his car from a smashed radiator and Scott’s “Caddy” got taken out.

I went to the old Richmond News files to find the rest of this story. According to the 1970 newspaper, the 1970 Ray County Fair opened July 29 that year. It lasted four days, but there was no derby on the schedule. They did have a tractor pull on Saturday night at the fairgrounds on Royle Street.

I hit pay dirt when I looked up the July 1971 Richmond News. There was a big ad that said, “WANTED 100 MEN AND WOMEN $500 Purse and Trophies for the World’s Newest Auto Thrill Event!!! The Spectacular Demolition Derby. 20th Century Gladiators Battling to the Death for cash! Rodeo on Wheels! Crashes-Laughs-Thrills! RAY COUNTY FAIR. Richmond, Mo. Friday July 23, 8 P.M. Entry blanks available and Trophies on Display at the Following Sponsors: Winner’s Trophy at Williams Mobil Service, 307 West Main, Runner-up Trophy at Holloway’s Body Shop. Heat Trophies at Hill Construction, Jay’s Auto Parts, Ross Tractor, D and R Liquors, Exchange Bank of Richmond, Van’s Furniture, Neal Rogers Chevy and the Pink Poodle Beauty Salon.”

On Friday, July 23, 1971, the first demo derby was held in Ray County. Richmond News had an article that told all about it. “Demolition Derby at Fair Tonight. An event which should generate plenty of excitement for both spectators and contestants, the auto Demolition Derby, will be held at the Ray County Fair this evening. Scheduled to commence at 8 o’clock, contestants may turn in their entrance applications as late as 7 o’clock.

“Co-chairmen for the event are Jim Williams and Gary Holloway. Other members the committee are Sam Clemens, Joe Hiser, Harold Strobel, Wayne Vanbebber and Larry Proffitt.

“Fifty to 100 cars are expected to compete in this smashing event. Plenty of this is going on around the nation, on expressways, turnpikes, country roads, etc., but now the fair – going public can witness motor mayhem put on as an entertainment contest with the drivers winning cash prizes and trophies for their skill in ripping fenders and grills.

“The sponsors say this is probably a blessing in disguise, as the cars will undoubtedly be jalopies that deserve to be retired to the junkyard for highway safety.

“There are ground rules for the safety of the drivers, but none at all for the preservation of the cars. The whole idea is to keep your car from being disabled while putting all other cars out of business. Admission for this event is $2 for everyone.

“Saturday is the closing day of the fair and the program will open at 9 o’clock with the 4-H rabbit and poultry shows, a dog show at 10 a.m. And a rabbit display at 12 noon.

“There will be two tractor pulling contests, all for local residents. The garden tractor pull will be held at 6:30 p.m., And the tractor pull at 8 p.m. Admission is $1.00.”

I couldn’t wait to turn the pages of the Richmond News and find out who had the last car standing after the dust settled on July 23, 1971. By the time I got the July 29 edition of the newspaper, I realized I was never going to find the answer to this question in a newspaper. There were results to all the 4-H shows, but no Derby details were found. If anyone out there has details, pictures or trophies, please let me know.

After researching this story, I realized there was a reason why I didn’t remember anything about the Derby in 1971. I wasn’t there because I was in Alaska for the summer. My family was on a Winnebago Caravan. It was a trip of a lifetime, but I was 14 and whined all summer because I wanted to be back in Richmond with my friends. Looking back now, I did have a good summer because I did something I will never do again. How many people can say they drove a mini-bike down an Alaskan Pipeline trail?

Why is it we always look back and miss the way things were in the good-ol’ days? Someday, someone will be looking over an old Richmond News and say “Oh my, look at this story about the first Demolition Derby in Ray County.” And then someone else will say, “What was a Demolition Derby?”

Now for the rest of this story. Last Saturday, Carol Proffitt and I were at the museum enjoying a quiet afternoon reading over some old newspapers. Carol pulled the 1938 Richmond Missourian off the shelf and a story caught her eye. She asked if I was looking for some information about Hamilton Park. Carol had remembered this from one of my previous stories, so she read me some of the details and it was better than I could ever hope for.

Hamilton Park was the home of the 1922 and 1923 Ray County Fair. The story told about cars, horses and motorcycles racing around a track, but there was another sport that we all would have enjoyed. It was called “Auto Polo.” It was a cross between a demolition derby and a Donkey basketball game.

“Auto polo was featured at the fair, as rough and tumble affair as Sunday driving on a modern highway. ‘Ponies’ were rattle-trap Fords stripped to the bare essentials and surrounded by a hoop that would prevent injury to the driver and player if the car should turn over.

“The driver devoted his attention to the twin problem of avoiding both his opponents and teammates and pulling his player in a position to hit the ball. The ball was of leather and was shaped similar to our present day football. Mallets were used to strike the ball.

“Participating cars, little as there was to them, came in for more injuries than the players. Wheels would frequently be torn off when two cars ‘locked horns’ and failure to make a short turn would send the car crashing into the strong fence that surrounded the field. Little damage resulted from the collisions with fence, however, as the cars bounced back on the field. Spectators never expected the fence to hold.

“Oh a few players got knocked out once in a while, Milo Shores said when discussing the danger of the game, ‘But none of them was badly hurt.’

“Milo and Sheriff Rube Burnett planned a stunt for the entertainment of the crowd during an auto polo game in 1923. The stunt turned out to be spectacular as the sheriff forgot to inform the deputy of the plans.

“Shores and the sheriff planned a fight to start between the drivers on the field. The sheriff was to rush out on the field and the drivers were to get him down and pretend to beat him up.

“The fight started and the sheriff rushed out on the field. Players did an apparently realistic job of beating up the sheriff and then the deputy went into action. He hit one driver over the head with his black jack, knocking him out and started for another when he was stopped by the sheriff and Shores, who explained it was all a big joke. It wasn’t a joke to the victim of the black jack as he was brought to Richmond for medical treatment.”

Now I have to search the 1923 newspaper to find out who was the “black-jack victim.”

I will share more fun facts about Hamilton Park in a later story. Please come out on May 2 and watch our modern day demo derby cars “lock horns,” but please don’t expect to see our sheriff getting into a stunt show with the drivers.

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