Ford School's Chris Myers smashes, fixes combines

July 24, 2023

Chris Myers spent many summers working on a vegetable farm growing up in northwest Ohio, so he’s familiar with large farming equipment.

But even he was perplexed when he heard about a combine demolition derby at the Erie County Fair in Sandusky, Ohio.

“I didn’t know what they were when I saw it advertised,” said Myers, assistant director of digital strategy, communications and outreach at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “It’s like a slow-motion train wreck.

“When you have two 12,000-pound machines hitting each other, there’s some kinetic energy that’s added to the event that you don’t get when you see cars or other things, so I was hooked and started trying to find and watch them.”

What started as a bystander’s curiosity in 2007 soon led to Myers acquiring his own machine and jumping into the combine demolition derby world as a competitor. Combine harvesters, or combines, are large machines designed to harvest a variety of crops.

On July 30, Myers will pilot two machines in his seventh derby at the Monroe County Fair. He takes part in the events as part of a team of fellow combine derby enthusiasts from around the Hillsdale area who share a passion for repairing machines long past their useful agricultural life and the thrill that comes with bashing those machines into each other.

“I don’t necessarily like smashing them as much as I like fixing them,” Myers said. “I just love fixing things. It’s very relaxing, and I know it sounds weird. Probably in the same way that people play golf, I fix these combines as a way to relax and take my mind off things.”

If investing funds to fix a machine just to subject it to other machines’ destructive tendencies sounds like a waste of money, Myers said it actually can be a profitable — or at least break-even — venture.

Since the machines can no longer harvest crops and occupy a fair amount of space to just sit there, they hold little value to farmers outside of being sold for scrap. Depending on the size and condition of the combines, they can be found at auctions or online for as little as a few hundred dollars or as much as around $2,000. Parts to keep — or get — the combines in working order are readily available and inexpensive.

Myers said the Monroe County Fair actually pays participants $300 per combine that is entered, so his team with six combines will already pocket $1,800 regardless of how they do.

“We pool money to buy the machines, pool money to fix them and buy parts, we work together fixing them, and we’re always looking for new machines,” he said.

By “new,” Myers means machines roughly three or four decades old. He bought his first in 2015 from someone who had competed in the Monroe demolition derby with it. The machine was 19,000 pounds, brutish compared to many others in the first derbies he entered.

The machine provided Myers his most memorable experience in derby competition in 2017. Before the competition set divisions based on weight, Myers operated the heaviest one and was poised to win. He just needed to survive against one final, much smaller competitor — and then his machine’s battery disconnected.

“I didn’t win, but I was part of a story that ended up being a really cool story,” he said. “If you were watching as an audience member, you see this big machine pushing everyone out and then at the last minute it dies and this little machine pulls it out. The story that was told that night was just phenomenal.”

The video of that final is included among more than 30 videos Myers has posted to his YouTube page: Combine Chris’ Hoot Owl Ranch. Since that final, the Monroe event has split its competition into divisions based on machine weight, and Myers will drive two machines in the small division this year.

Like demolition derbies with cars or buses, the goal of the combine demolition derby is to disable opponents’ machines while keeping yours operational. Drivers whose machines are no longer viable signal they are out of the competition by removing a flag from atop the cab.

While the competition is violent in nature, it is relatively safe for the participants. Myers’ only injury during competition occurred when hydraulic fluid was forced back through the steering column, causing the wheel to spin uncontrollably and injuring his thumb.

“The operator sits up so all the hitting is happening feet below you,” he said. “Some of these machines can get up to 16 mph and that’s a lot of energy, but all of the force is being hit down below you. During the event, it’s difficult to get hurt unless you’re knowingly doing something wrong.”

Transporting the machines to a demolition derby is costly and inefficient, so the event organizer in Monroe allows competitors to store machines on his property year-round only a few miles from the fairgrounds. Myers and his teammates visit the property when the weather allows to work on the machines and get them derby ready.

Having the machines near the competition site is a luxury few other venues offer, which Myers said has helped the Monroe event flourish. Not having this benefit results in many derbies featuring only a handful of entries or drying up entirely.

Because of their age and condition, the machines are prone to breaking down. Myers learned that could happen even during the short drive to the fairgrounds in 2017 for that memorable competition when his machine malfunctioned and fellow competitors came to his rescue mere hours before the derby started.

“All the guys were there helping me get it off the road, get it fixed and get it started,” he said. “When you’re in the event, you’re trying to win. But at the end of the day, everyone understands how difficult these things are to move around.”

Myers has also learned that it’s easy to become attached to — or detached from, depending on their temperament — the machines. The largest of the six machines his team will enter in Monroe was acquired only recently, but Myers already feels a bond to it after driving it 90 miles from Tiffin, Ohio, to Monroe. The eight-hour trip had to be divided over three days thanks to the slow speed and a pair of breakdowns along the way.

“There’s definitely an attachment to them,” he said. “Sometimes I see myself in the machine. That’s not with every machine. Some are nightmares and you’re just happy that they’re destroyed and can’t run anymore. But with others there’s definitely affinity, and that’s why I don’t like destroying them. On the other hand, more damage means more repairs!”

This article was written by Jeff Bleiler, University Record