FAIR HILL — Stemming from Keith “Stoney” Roberts’ lifelong passion for cars, the Demolition Derby was once again at the Cecil County Fair. With all of the fun of the past week, it might be hard to remember the history of our county fair’s favorite derby. Roberts will never forget.
Raised from the tradition of stunt driving and crashes, Roberts was one of the best stunt drivers of his generation, despite the fact that in 1949, at the age of 28, an oncoming tractor trailer clipped his car and cost Roberts his arm. He was not one to lay down and take the loss passively; he worked his way back into stunt driving with only one arm and continued his career of precision tricks and crashes.
By 1960, Roberts was running his own stunt show, which met with moderate success, but his big breakthrough came in 1963 during a show in Kenton, Ohio where, due to a blown motor, Roberts was forced to replace the bus jump at the end of his show with a demolition derby. The change was a massive success and resulted in Roberts’ show transitioning from a wide range of stunts to a show consisting solely of demolition derbies by 1967-68.
With dozens of shows all across the Eastern United States, Stoney’s Demolition Derby had made its name as the best way for the common person to experience a day in the life of a daredevil.
In 1967, the Cecil County Fair, under the leadership of then-Fair Board President George Underwood, pursued starting their own demolition Derby.
“We went up to Harrisburg, PA,” Cecil County Councilman and Fair Board member Al Miller said, “And that’s where we hired a demolition derby by Stoney Roberts.”
Both Miller as well as Roberts’ son and current head of the Derby, Frank Roberts, recalled the beginning of the show in Cecil County quite fondly.
“Stoney came to Fair Hill with his wife, [the day before the show] and found an empty field,” said Roberts.
According to Miller, Roberts looked around at the field before turning to Underwood and saying: “George, I don’t know you very well, but I don’t know how in the world we will get a show here. I can give you your money back...”
Having nothing to draw in a crowd with just a field in the middle of nowhere, the Derby was almost cancelled before it could even begin.
Fortunately for Derby fans, Underwood was set on seeing Roberts hold his derby, so they prepared for the weekend demolition.
By the time of the first Derby, word had gotten around about the new event.
“Traffic got backed up all around the corner, with a crowd right there to view it,” Frank Roberts said. “It was the basis to get the Cecil County Fair really going.”
Despite being announced using a firetruck and a bullhorn, the Derby was an instant success and, over the years, has had its fair share of unique individuals behind the wheels of its vehicles. Roberts fondly recalls Bob Aiken, a 76-year-old veteran who loved to sky dive but had been told he was too old to continue sky diving, being about 76 at the time.
“He came, and asked me if he’d be safe,” Roberts said. “I looked at him and saw that he was decently fit. ‘You’ll be safe,’ I told him. I thought he was only going to enter with one car, but when he showed up he had not only 4 cars, one for each event, but a humongous station wagon. ‘Bob,’ I said, ‘You know that the station wagon will go with the big vehicles?’ He said his adrenaline was pumping and was completely stoked for the event. I told him that the first hit will be the worst, but you should be fine as both of you and the other car will be hitting each other at same speed. ‘If you need to stop, just turn off the ignition and take the key out.’ I told him.”
“It comes to [Aiken’s] event and they count down, you know a 3, 2, 1, go, and I see another car quickly pick up speed as Bob is just getting up to gear,” he said. “They collide and Bob’s car gets knocked out of the arena, over the railroad ties to keep the cars in. I run over to check on him and he just reaches over to turn the ignition off and take the key out. I thought he would be done after that, but he went every event, I don’t remember if he won anything, but he came back for more and he loved it.”
A theme common to the decades-long history of the Fair’s Derby are the fun, little stories that are the past of this grand event and the fuel for future adventures. Nostalgically, Miller noted the evolution of the Derby, from an empty field rapidly converted to an arena, to a centerpiece of the Fair.
“It’s just amazing how it’s developed,” said Miller. “How it’s changed, how it’s grown.”
And now, after a year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Derby is back. Beginning at 8 p.m. each night from July 29th-31st, Cecil County residents are invited to come make their own history at the Derby.