Stacey Haniszewski drove – and won – her first demolition derby 10 years ago at age 16. Her grandfather Ed, sick with throat cancer and unable to speak, couldn’t tell her how proud he was, but gave her a thumbs up and a smile. About a year later, he died.
“I have a picture of him shaking my hand in front of one of my cars that he helped me paint red, white and blue, and he had tears in his eyes,” she said. “I love that picture.”
It was her grandfather, Ed Haniszewski, owner of Ed’s Auto Parts in Lancaster, who started the family tradition of driving demo. Using cars from his junkyard, he got the whole family hooked. In 1963, he won the Erie County Fair’s first-ever demolition derby.
Sunday, which would have been Ed’s birthday, Stacey and 15 of her cousins, uncles and friends, carried on the tradition and drove the demo in Ed Haniszewski’s honor. Even Stacey’s father, Paul, came out of retirement for one last round at the crowd-pleasing event that caps off the last day of the Erie County Fair.
The object of the sport is an easy one for any spectator to grasp. Drivers crash old beat-up cars into one another until just three are left running. Those three qualify for the “feature” derby and compete for the grand prize of $1,200 and the championship trophy. It’s a high-octane thrill that attracts thousands of fairgoers each year.
Paul Haniszewski doesn’t enjoy the derby like he did back in the old-school, “heavy-metal” days, when drivers brought giant, old cars to smash instead of the newer, more compact models you tend to see today. He hasn’t driven in a race for about five years.
Stacey’s cousin, R. J. Froebel, had an idea of how to bring back the glory days. Offer a bigger purse – say, $3,000, and let drivers keep their cars once they’re done instead of requiring them to be handed over at the race’s end.
“People like to watch the old cars better, but you see the newer cars because they’re cheaper,” Froebel said. “Even a rusty older car costs $1,000.”
Paul, who took over Ed’s salvage yard, taught Stacey how to drive when she was about 10 years old. She used to watch her dad from the stands and couldn’t wait to try it herself. He put her behind the wheel and let her practice on scrapped cars in the junkyard.
“She’s a natural,” he said. “It’s in her blood.”
Paul picked out the Chevy Lumina Stacey would drive Sunday, and they worked together, stripping the car of its molding, windows and headlights. Paul did all the under-the-hood work that gives the car a better chance of running longer, like looping the transmission line, replacing the tires with less-likely-to-puncture compact spare tubes, and moving things around to where they’re less likely to get hit. Stacey painted the outside Bondo grey and decorated it with pictures of cupcakes, ice cream cones and lollipops, along with the words, “Happy birthday, grandpa. We miss you.”
Sunday morning, the whole family drove to the cemetery where Ed is buried and filed past his grave in a line to show him their cars.
Once trackside, Stacey’s nerves went into overdrive. She’d had trouble sleeping the night before.
“It’s the adrenaline, you know? But once it’s time to go, I go and get my aggravations out,” she said.
Paul’s heat was first. With decades of experience and knowledge about cars, he knew just what to aim for, but a broken axle put him out of commission just two spots away from qualifying for the feature. He complained about drivers he said hid out in the corners to preserve their cars from damage, driving around just enough to prevent being disqualified.
“They get away with that,” he said. “But, hey, that’s just part of racing.”
Then it was Stacey’s turn to enter the track. Her heat ended with what the announcer dubbed a “battle royale of the Haniszewski clan,” a tangled, revving heap of smoke and spinning tires. Of 16 cars, only five remained, and four of them were driven by family members. In the end, it was Stacey, her cousin Timmy Haniszewski Jr. and family friend Joey Halleck left standing.
Moments later, as she drove off the track a victor, her engine cut out. Stacey emerged from her car sore and shaking, and pulled off her pink and white helmet. Something was wrong with the car’s fan, and she and her dad pushed it to the side to try to get it running again. But they couldn’t get it going in time for the final heat and she missed her chance at the big purse. Timmy Jr. won instead.
Going over the race in her head, Stacey listed her mistakes. Racers try to ram with their back ends as much as possible, to avoid front-end damage that can make the car conk out.
But Stacey’s trunk was so crumpled by the end of the race, she couldn’t see through her rear window and had to start slamming people from the front.
Once it was all over, she thought about her grandfather and what he would have said if he were there to meet her in the pits.
“He would have said, ‘Why did you use your front end?!’ ” she said. “But he’s looking down. He’s proud.”
Sunday was the conclusion of the fair’s 12-day run, which saw 1,172,635 pass through the turnstiles – shy of the record set in 2014 of 1,220,101.