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Funsters help celebrate 50th year of demo derby

Funster members Jeff Farris (left), Paul Johnson, Bob Van Guilder and Kurt Girdeen observe where the action will go down on Aug. 12. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
The 50th anniversary of the demo derby will also honor Jim Klaas, an active member for over 30 years who recently passed away. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
Local businesses support the derby by donating money to advertise companies on the derby barricades. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
The Funsters "clown car" is a recognizable site in the community, fitting over a dozen members in the old-school van for parades. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

"It's all about the kids."

That motto has propelled the Ellsworth Funsters for decades, and will be on display when the Funsters host the 50th anniversary of the demo derby at the Pierce County Fair on Friday, Aug. 12.

Paul Johnson, a five-year member of the Funsters, makes it clear that the kids are always at the center of attention for the Funsters, even at an entertainment event focused on adults like the demo derby.

"We have a power wheels demo for kids at 6 p.m., so we include entertainment for the kids beforehand. We've also kept the price for kids 6 and under the same at $5 for years," Johnson said.

The group of 25-30 active members plays a huge role in putting on the annual demo derby. They've been putting on the event for the majority of the 50 years of operation, and it hasn't shown much of a decline.

"The derby's always been popular and we usually can sell the place out at 2,500 to 3,000 tickets," Johnson said.

Jeff Farris, a 16-year member, added that the event has practically sold out in past years even when there was heavy rain.

But as longtime member Bob Van Guilder was also quick to add, "There's just some people who wanna see cars crash."

The derby has four classes: compact, mid-size, chain class and the 40 and over class. The 40 and over class has regulations of a car that's over 40 years old and a driver over 40 years old.

It's a large task to handle all of the applications and drivers for the event, but the Funsters have received some important help in recent years.

"This our third year of having someone to do the rules and car checking for us, otherwise we used to do everything," Johnson said.

Chad Boyd now handles these duties; he also handles demo promotions and has been judging demos for quite some time. Sixteen-year Funsters member Kurt Girdeen has enjoyed the change, believing "It takes a lot of stress off of us."

Johnson added that having someone not from the area is important, because a lot of derby participants are community members. This allows there to be no unnecessary claims of favoritism by Funster members pulling for hometown competitors.

With dozens of derbies under their belts, the members each have some pretty memorable derbies of years past.

One important note was that the first ever winner was Perry Melstrom, a local community member. But other memories are more recent.

"Just last year I remember a guy getting his foot stuck. He got hit on the side in the front of the car, the floor crinkled up and it took about an hour to extract him. The doctor told him he should never run a derby again," Girdeen said.

Johnson added that the driver couldn't move because he had rods in his back from surgery. Van Guilder noted that the driver probably shouldn't have even run the last one.

Memories like this prove the dedication and passion people have for the event. Besides the cars that go over the barricades and the fires, one of the most interesting derbies was from an event that wasn't even scheduled.

"There was one derby that people brought in the big cars that weren't scheduled to run but we let them and they bent one of the cars in half," Van Guilder said.

"That was an unscheduled heat, where some guys from another derby showed up and they wanted to finish their cars off. They put their money together and went for winner take all, and that might have been one of the best shows ever," Girdeen said.

The derby is one of the biggest highlights of the year for the Ellsworth Funsters, with all the proceeds from the ticket sales going back into the Funsters to support other community events.

The Funsters organize a fishing contest for kids 12 and under in February, stuff over 2,000 eggs around Easter for an egg hunt on the fairgrounds, and participate in at least four to six parades a year. Some of the older members remember times when they would do close to 20 events a year.

"It just depends how many people we can get to clown with us in our clown bus," Johnson said.

Clowns are sometimes deemed as scary, but the Funsters have made a name for themselves for being family and kid-friendly. With events to support the community in every season of the year, it's not hard to see the impact.

"The Ellsworth Funsters do a lot of things for the community. If there are catastrophes we give a donation to the family. It could be a small donation for people that have children struggling for their lives, and that's all funded from what we make at the derby," said Johnson.

The derby barricades also have 30 local businesses painted on them to sponsor those who have donated money to the Funsters to have their names displayed. They also work with local youth groups to help paint the barricades before the derby.

But one of the most important parts of the 50th anniversary is the celebration of the life of Jim Klaas, an active member of 30 plus years. The raffle derby car that is given to the winner to drive in one of the heats will be in memory of Klaas.

The Funsters also are thankful for their announcer of all 50 years of the derby, Jack Hines. He's expecting to retire after his final appearance in the booth for the anniversary of the 1967 derby.

The event also wouldn't be possible without companies that pull loose parts and broken cars off the track, including Nelson Plumbing and many more.

The derby takes place on at 7 p.m. Aug. 12 at the Pierce County Fair Grandstands. Tickets for adults are $12, while children six and under are $5. Tickets go on sale at 3 p.m. on the east side of the Seyforth building on Saturday, or you can buy pre-sale tickets online at " target="_blank">