Building and racing demolition derby cars is more than a hobby for one Florence family; it is a legacy.
Dustin Looney has been building demolition cars with his dad, Terry Looney, since he was 16. Now at the age of 23 he can practically put a whole car together by himself, but he still enjoys working with his dad.
“It makes it fun,” he said. “My dad and uncle did it as kids. They passed it to my brother, Matt Druse, who passed it to me.”
Several nephews and Druses son are now interested in the family hobby. Looney said his dad builds the engine and front end, family friend Keith Ottensmeier welds, and Looney does everything else.
“It’s something we like to pass down,” he said. “I have friends I build them with, it’s fun.”
The Looneys build their cars from scratch, starting with a frame, usually from some type of Ford or Lincoln. First they tilt the front end down, to better absorb impacts from hits.
“Most Ford models are built with their front end at a slight upward angle,” he said.
After reinforcing the frame and axles, they gut the car’s body, take out the seats, gas tank, and all the glass, and add safety bars so the car will not crush the driver when rammed during competitions.
“Roll bars aren’t required, but they’re highly encouraged,” Looney said. “We install them in all our cars.”
Apart from the roll cage, there are bars welded over where the windshield would go to protect the driver, as well as a halo bar that goes across the top in case the car gets flipped on its top. The engine is placed inside a steel cage to protect it from hits. A small gas tank is mounted inside the car inside a protected cage to keep it from being hit.
“Rules say you also have to mount your battery inside the car and there must be a hole in the hood in case of fire,” he said.
All the vehicles doors are welded shut, so Looney has to crawl in and out of the driver side window.
Looney has competed in eight races this year with his current car, he said most cars only last one or two derbies.
“Most people think the old iron cars are the way to go, but I think the cars we run can be built to be just as tough and last as long as an iron one,” he said. “I’ve been in the finals in every race except two with my current car.
“It’s a lot of work and money to build these cars,” he said. “We probably put at least $5,000 in the engine alone.”
The engine and transmission have to be rebuilt every year. Looney has rebuilt the engine in his current car three times this year.
“Demolition derbies are not easy on any part of the car,” he said. “We push them way past where a normal car can go. That’s why they need to be rebuilt, so they’re tougher.”
He has never been injured in a demolition derby, but has had a couple cars catch fire.
“I broke a guys nose in the Hillsboro derby a couple years ago, and I’ve been hit so hard this year it shoved my metal frame and dented my gas tank,” he said. “That’s all a part of the derby. You take some pretty big hits.”
Looney is currently rebuilding a new demolition car from scratch to compete in Amarillo, Texas in a month with some friends.
“I usually try to only race in state, but they asked me to join their team and, well, I’m going,” Looney said.
Looney said he was lucky to find a car to build for the race. With metal prices so high, prices for cars to build have skyrocketed.
“You used to be able to pick one up for a couple hundred, now if you can find one for that it’s a steal,” he said. “A lot of cars sell for $400 or $600 today.”
For this reason, Looney tries to recycle everything he can out of his old demolition car.
“I’ll basically gut my current one and use all the working parts, motor, tires and everything I can in the new one,” he said. “The body on my old one is still good so I’ll probably reuse it next year.”
Looney is a mechanic at Cardie Oil Co. He enjoys spending his days working on cars, he said.
“People ask if I get burnt out, I really don’t. It’s something I like and it keeps me out of trouble. I get off work and come home and work late on my own cars,” he said.