These cars go bump in the night

GHENT–Danny Snow was born in 1973, the year of the great oil crisis. The OPEC embargo resulted in the national average price rising from 38.5 cents to 55.1 cents per gallon. Gas rationing led to long lines at gas stations. Worse yet, the event signaled a downturn in the economy.
That year saw the end of the great muscle cars known to car savvy people by letters–GTX, GTO, SS, R/T–and numbers, like 4-4-2, signifying a four-speed manual transmission, a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust, and most importantly by cubic inch displacement. Detroit metal was not measured in liters.

Veteran Demolition Derby driver Danny Snow of Ghent works on his car ahead of this week's contest at the Columbia County Fair. Photo by David Lee

Veteran Demolition Derby driver Danny Snow of Ghent works on his car ahead of this week’s contest at the Columbia County Fair. Photo by David Lee

Danny Snow is a man of great energy and enthusiasm, and few things fire him up more than a good demolition derby. This year he will enter a 1976 Mercury Grand Marquis, the same model with which he won two years ago. It’s a big car, one of the luxury holdovers, with heavier gauge metal and a big V-8 engine. He likes the big, old cars and has been known to spend the better part of the winter looking for good candidates.

“Since I started in ’99, I racked up 21 wins, including one state win. I’ve derby-ed at the New York State
Fair, the Dutchess County Fair, Lebanon Valley,” he said. But the Columbia County Fair Demolition Derby is home turf.
This year a measure of the fun is gone for Danny with the passing of his father, Louis Snow, who died on February 13. Danny is determined this will be his last derby.
Louis Snow worked at Speed’s Garage in Mellenville and loved participating in the derby. He was the Columbia County Fair champion in 1986. “I was born in ’73 so I was just a little kid then,” said Danny, “but I remember it.” So when Danny was a bit older he started building cars of his own. “I came to see
it as something my dad and I did together. In other years my dad would be out here getting me going, double checking everything–making sure that everything was done,” he said. “It’s hard to build a car.”
“My dad would not go to my derbies. He thought he was bad luck. But he would call me afterwards and
ask how it went. Yeah, I’ll miss it. This will be a kind of hang-up-the-helmet deal,” he said. And he acknowledges the physical demands: “It’s hard on a person, I’m not young any more, and you’re kind of
sore after a few heats.”
But the gleam returns to his eye as Danny points to the stripped Mercury. “Look at this! I build junk and I
make it win.” The conversation turned to the inherent satisfaction of the work at hand. “Won’t be long and you won’t see these 8-cylinder cars any more. All the fix-it people are gone. Everything now is throwaway,” he said. But he can imagine a demolition derby contested with battery powered cars. “I’d be out there with my lead cord,” he said, referring to an extension cord.
People who know Danny don’t really believe him when he says this will be his last demolition derby. He says he’s serious, although he admits this doesn’t mean he won’t build cars, both for demolition and restoration. He has two early ’70s vintage roadrunners, one lime green and one a hot orange 440 4-speed classic. “That’ll pass anything but a gas station!” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, three days before derby day, Danny is in his garage in Ghent with his stepson
Derek Seiger, friend and fellow driver Shelby Shannon, Derek’s wife, Kayln, and the two children, Savannah, who will start second grade at Ichabod Crane, and Brylin who will be in kindergarten. Kayln
monitors the scene from a safe distance, but everybody else has a job. The kids pull plastic parts, clip wires, fetch tools and police the trash around the garage. “I’d say it takes about 30 hours of work to
make a car,” says Danny.
According to regulations, all glass, plastic, chrome and hood insulation must be removed from the car.
Wheel weights must be removed so they don’t become projectiles. If the gas tank is moved, the rear seat or a fire wall must be in place. If the battery is moved from the engine to the driver’s compartment, (which is advisable) it must be secure and covered.
All doors must be welded or securely tied. A 12″ x 15″ hole must be cut into the hood. The list of prohibitions is equally long: no 4-wheel drive, no snow or truck tires, no exhaust headers, no
reinforcements except the driver’s door. And no Chrysler Imperials.
“All the drivers have their little tricks and secrets to make their car last a little bit longer,” Danny said, “but generally speaking, it should be stock.”
His two biggest concerns are fuel and radiator. He takes out the belt-driven fan and installs an electric one; he moves the gas tank, covering it with metal to comply with regulations.
In addition to Danny’s ’76 Mercury, which he has dedicated to the memory of his father, the group is working on two ’99 Crown Victorias, also V-8s.
On Monday evening, two days before the derby, Danny, Derek and Shelby are working hard with the
assistance of Danny’s cousin, Lonnie Hoyt. His daughter Kacie and her two children, Cody, 10, and
Nicholas, 4, are there. Kayln and the girls arrive and the area in and around the garage becomes very
busy. “It’s a family tradition, my dad made demo cars and then my brother,” said Kacie. “I work a lot,
so I can’t get over as much, but when I can, I bring the boys.” It has been 2-1/2 years since her brother
Lonnie Hoyt, III, was killed in a motorcycle accident. “We are here together with our recent losses. We
all get close.”
“It is a thrill to win, and go up on the stage and get the trophy,” said Lonnie. But generally they agree
that the construction of the cars is the best part. It’s a family tradition. “We all contribute a little bit of something,” Kacie said.
The Columbia County Fair Demolition Derby is presented by Lebanon Valley Auto Racing. There are 4-, 6-and 8-cylinder categories both Wednesday and Thursday night. Heats begin at 6:30 p.m.

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