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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Mini Solar Car Derby Rivals Excitement Of The Real Deal

Picture this. You're in a field in central Wisconsin. You're one of hundreds of people squeezing as close as possible to a 16-by-12 foot elevated track as 12 handcrafted shoebox-sized wooden vehicles prepare to compete.

That's exactly what people were doing recently — including yours truly — at the 6th annual Green Mini Demo Derby. The derby is a highlight of the Energy Fair in Custer, Wis.

Just ask Peter Murphy from Milwaukee.

"This is by far my favorite part of the whole fair. It used to be way off in the distance and it … was like a cult thing and now it’s part of the beating heart," he says.


Credit Susan Bence
Kids get the best views of the derby.

Each car is sponsored, and uniquely painted and numbered. Most of the drivers — the people operating the car’s remote controls — wear costumes.

Murphy is rooting for a driver dressed like the sun. Another driver in a shark costume runs through the crowd.

Credit Susan Bence
Driver Jack O'Donohue from Illinois proclaimed himself King of Solar.

Jack O’Donohue, from Illinois, sports a crown and red cape juxtaposed by cargo shorts and tennies. “My name is Jack the King of Solar, and so you must bow at some point,” he laughs.

Things get serious — sort of — as the demo derby begins. The first four drivers have a couple minutes to warm up, maneuvering their cars around the track. The goal is to smash, not to be smashed out the competition.

Drivers also try to avoid obstacles, including a trap door and a metal poker that occasionally shoots straight up out of the track.

Credit Susan Bence
The mini derby cars during the 2019 demolition, which took place in June.

Although the solar-powered mini demo derby takes place in central Wisconsin, it actually got its start in Milwaukee. It was the brainchild of artist Colin Matthes, who describes himself as an individual who aims to make a positive impact environmentally.

When has was a kid, Matthes helped his dad — an electrician — set up power at their local county fair. Matthes became a fan of the full-size demo derby at the fair.

"We do all of the electrical work for the Jefferson County Fair, and Colin would always come with me and we’d watch the demo derbies because demo derby was the last day. Then we’d get ready to tear everything down and take everything apart, so we’d see it. He just loved it," says dad Neil Matthes.

Years later, Colin Matthes entered his solar mini derby in a juried artist competition coordinated by Polly Morris.

Credit Susan Bence
Neil Matthes (right) introduced his son Colin to demolition derbies. Now he helps Colin each year with the mini derby.

"He was chosen in 2012. It brought together his interest in ecology and environmentalism and also ... the fact that all the years he spent at the fairs, he was attracted to the demolition derby and that sort of human impulse to get excited by random violence,” Morris says.

She vividly recalls the solar mini derby’s art gallery debut.

“People were holding their kids on their shoulders so they could see,” Morris says. “It was one of the most highly attended public events we did over the years."


The next year Colin Matthes’ show moved to the energy fair. And he’s been tweaking it ever since.

Before the most recent competition, he spent months building the cars in his basement workshop. As they headed into the final round, Colin Matthes was tending to nearly terminally battered vehicles.

“It’s kind of like triage, have to figure out what’s worth saving and what isn’t,” he says.

Credit Susan Bence
Looks of wonder and disbelief as the mini derby cars whiz around the track.

After the winner's declared, Matthes picks up the pieces and takes them home. He rebuilds and reuses everything he can for the next derby. He's already thinking about next year.

“Seeing the engagement with kids, I’d really like to do extended workshops where they could potentially build something and participate," he says. "And I might change the track completely, but we’ll see.”

He thinks of the annual solar-powered derby as part performance art, part spectacle and part community party.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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