Combine Demolition Derby - Hillsdale, Michigan

"The most popular fair in the world," reads the blocky hand-painted slogan stretching across the towering, white grandstand at Hillsdale’s fairgrounds in rural Michigan. The Hillsdale fair might not be the world’s most popular, but it certainly draws people in from the country, and boasts a Combine Demolition Derby on Saturday night.

I walked around the perimeter of the fair’s racetrack before the derby began and took portraits of each of the competitors. Most of the guys were in their late 20's and early 30's, and all of them were farmers. From what I gathered, there is a real community between these drivers.

Next, I turned to the machines. Each combine was painted with a solid color and had various slogans written on the sides. Things like, "Me thinks combines are sexy" and "Born to die." To the untrained eye, they look like giant heaps of rusted and smashed metal. But to the trained eye, these machines are outfitted to seek and destroy. Heavy and useless parts are cut off. Additional bars and chains are welded on for reinforcement.

The actual derby was intense. Grinding steel, sparking engines, shooting clouds of diesel exhaust. As an announcer shouted through a microphone, three to four combines would line up within the arena. Then there was a countdown from five, in which the whole crowd joined in. The engines roared and the combines charged from opposite ends of the arena. The first hit was always the best!  

I followed the winner that night back through the fair parking lot to his still-intact combine. He was whooping and hollerin' the whole way, jumping over fences and shoving his friends as they teased him about the big trophy. For him, winning the Hillsdale fair combine demolition derby was about the greatest thing any man could achieve. And for that brief moment, I think I might have believed him.