Western Wanderings

Start your combines!
Peter Fish

The Runnin' Elephant is on a rampage. Aaron Reimer steers his John Deere 7700 turbo diesel ― CRUNCH ― into its prey, a smaller, frog green John Deere. The Elephant's header ― for you combine novices, the toothy front part that scoops up the grain ― guts the smaller machine like a T. rex finishing off a hadrosaur.

We are at the Combine Demolition Derby in tiny Lind, Washington. Here, each June, thousands of people converge to view big pieces of farm equipment smashing into each other.

America has always loved its internal-combustion vehicles. In 2005 that love is especially passionate, ubiquitous, and loud. Flip through your cable channels and here they come: Trucks! Monster Garage! American Chopper! Pimp My Ride! But these are nothing compared to the live, in-your-face spectacle that is Lind, which might be called Pimp My Combine or Mad Max Meets Old MacDonald.

"I think every farmer has wanted to drive some piece of junk machinery off a cliff," says Bill Loomis, the farm-equipment dealer who is the derby's founding father. "This is their chance."

If you're going to hold a combine demolition derby, it helps to have a lot of combines around. Lind does. It sits in Adams County, in eastern Washington's wheat country. There's a place on Main Street called the Golden Grain Cafe; its bar is the Wheat Room. And often, when a combine gets old, it just sits out in those rolling wheat fields. "It's the farmer mentality," demolition competitor Aaron Reimer tells me. "You don't throw anything away."

To enter the derby, you find one of those unused combines ― it has to be more than 25 years old ― and then begin rebuilding. You and your crew add bracing and armor, and move the gas tank to a higher, safer position. You decorate. Some combines go for scary animal themes: a turquoise Jaws with shark fins. Others go for gangsta flash, like favored driver Travis McKay's combine, painted shiny black with gold lettering.

Then the derby starts. "We're all here to have a good time," says derby president Mike Doyle to Reimer and McKay and the other assembled drivers. "None of us wants to end up in the hospital. Make sure you got your seat belt on, and your fire extinguisher where you can get to it."

The combines rumble onto the dirt track five or six at a time, noisy, smoking, circling each other, looking for weaknesses. "The idea is," Reimer has told me, "you're gunning for the rear axle. That's what you're going to take out." And what's it like when two combines hit? "Ever been in a car wreck?" McKay asked me. "It's like that, but with a little more mass to it."

As for the crowd, the thing about Lind is that you're up really close to the spectacle, with hardly any space between you and the clashing machines. Men and women and kids eating snow cones cheer and groan as the combines smash into each other.

Reimer and McKay both do well in their first matches and rumble onto the field for the final heat. By now the long June day is nearly over, the sky has gone from cerulean blue to sunset orange to ink, and floodlights cast the combines in a lurid and primitive glow.

But neither McKay nor Reimer wins. The Runnin' Elephant is vanquished, and McKay's machine sits with its giant wheels spinning in the dust. Two other combines share the $2,400 prize money: the machine painted to look like Jaws, and a school-bus-yellow combine, the Bee, that seems to have triumphed thanks to sheer size.

And yet nobody, not even the losers, seems unhappy. Drivers and combines have done their best, nobody has ended up in the hospital. And as for us spectators ― well, it was $10 and a few hours well spent. We file out to the parking lot, peering toward the dark wheat fields outside of town, thinking that somewhere out there is another old machine, waiting for next June and its moment of glory.

INFO: The Lind, Washington, Combine Demolition Derby is Jun 10 ($10; www.lindwa.com or 509/677-8846). "I think every farmer has wanted to drive some piece of junk machinery off a cliff. This is their chance"