Don Neal couldn’t believe his eyes.
It had been over a decade since he last sat in the driver’s seat of his very own demolition derby car.
But suddenly he had one – a surprise from his friends.
It was just like Neal remembered his cars from the old days: royal blue on both ends, white in the center, and bold red lettering across the side.
“That was my old paint scheme,” Neal said. “It looked just like my last Figure 8 car. Even one of the sponsors is the same.”
Neal was tickled by all the details, right down to the TATER 26XX stamped to a metal plate on roof. Neal IS Tater – an old nickname given to him by his uncle when he was 7 years old thanks to his overzealous love of potato chips.
The 26 is for his wife, Tamara. They recently celebrated 30 years together.
“I was running derbies when me and my wife first got together,” Neal said. “The 26 was for the day we started dating. We had to add the ‘XX’ because when I started on the derby circuit, they wouldn’t allow two of the same number and there was another guy already running 26.”
Decades of memories all built into one car.
It was impossible for Neal to hide his enthusiasm as he anxiously waited to get behind the wheel. His first drive was short – he just pulled the car back into the garage – but it was a memory that would stick forever.
“It was so exciting to see the smile on his face,” said Jason Barabe, one of the masterminds behind the altruistic auto. “He really lit up. It was great to just see him excited for something.”
There has been little to get his engine revving recently.
“In the last few years, I haven’t done much because of my health,” he said. “I was just wore down. Just tired and sick.”
Both physically and mentally, Neal has struggled over the past few years. The once highly active Temperance resident had trouble adjusting to a life that forced him to hit the breaks.
He’s ready to start moving again.
With the help of his friends and with his health issues starting to ease, Neal will make his long-awaited return to the Monroe County Fair on Tuesday night for the 49th annual Demolition Derby.
‘A lot of good times’
Neal still remembers his first derby experience at the Fair in 1985.
Like all young teens, Neal had plenty of excess energy to spare, burning his days away on the football field for Monroe Junior High.
That was all about to change.
“I was 13 when I watched my first derby at the Monroe County Fair,” Neal recalled. “I don’t know. I just fell in love with the sport. I’ve wanted to do it ever since.”
He got his first chance three years later.
With the help of a friend, Neal built his own car at 16 years old and entered into the derby at the ’88 Fair. For the next decade, Neal never missed a summer on his local dirt track.
“We had a lot of good times,” he said. “A lot of work, but good friends. It seemed like it rained every year, but just a lot of good fun. I’m still friends with a lot of the same guys. Some of the guys, their kids are running now and even some of the guys I ran with, their grandkids are running.
“There’s some generational drivers I’ll be up against Tuesday, which is cool, but it makes you feel old.”
Neal last ran the Monroe derby in 1998. He then hit the derby circuit – mostly around Michigan but with the occasional trip to Indiana and Ohio. He travelled and collected a few trophies running Figure 8 derbies and bump-and-runs around the Midwest with a group of guys from Monroe.
“They called us the Monroe Mafia,” Neal said. “We would always go at each other at Monroe, but whenever we’d go somewhere else, we were always together. It was a great group.”
Barabe was part of that group.
“We traveled together for probably 6, 7, 8 years doing derbies and Figure 8s together,” Barabe said. “I got into it all because him, my cousin, and my dad all built cars together.”
Neal retired from the sport for good in 2010 when time and money constraints became too much.
That didn’t mean he was slowing down. His sons, Dylan and Dalton, kept Neal and his wife on the go.
“Our kids started getting involved in sports,” Neal said. “Baseball, football, and my youngest wrestled for a lot of years. We’ve always been going somewhere with them.”
Neal never strayed too far from his roots.
The derby at the Monroe County Fair continued to be an annual pilgrimage.
“Even though I wasn’t running at Monroe anymore, I always went right up until a few years ago,” he said. “I always love watching. I love the Fair and I love the derby. This is my home.”
‘It was pretty scary’
Neal’s health took a turn for the worse at the end of 2018.
He stepped back from coaching his sons in baseball and football as his once youthful energy started to rapidly decline. Before long, Neal lost the vision in his right eye and his diabetes kicked into overdrive.
As the vision in his left eye also started to fade, Neal faced a barrage of tests and scans to determine the cause. He eventually was diagnosed with Cushing’s Syndrome.
“It was pretty scary,” Neal said. “If it goes untreated, you could have serious problems. It messed with my diabetes. Even though I was working out like an athlete and eating like a rabbit, my sugar wasn’t going down. It affected my heart and my blood pressure. So, my blood pressure was up because of the disease and my stress was up. It was hard.”
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem as hospitals shut down to nearly every issue that wasn’t an emergency.
While Neal waited, his insurance covered the $32,000 per month treatments and injections into his eyes to help slow an excess of blood build-up and restore partial vision.
“The treatments were hard,” he said. “I was in bed all the time. I had no energy. I couldn’t do anything.”
Doctors finally discovered the cause when a CAT scan revealed a tumor on Neal’s right adrenal gland. The non-cancerous tumor forced his glands to produce an excess of the hormone cortisol that was causing most of his problems.
The tumor was removed in the summer of 2021.
“To see somebody who was always on the go and into a bunch of things slow down like that, it takes you by surprise and sets you back,” Barabe said. “It really makes you think about things.”
‘I still have it in me’
Neal was doing plenty of thinking as he was on the mend.
He thought of the Tim McGraw song “Live Like You Were Dying.”
“Going through all of that, I felt very lonely. Even though I wasn’t, I felt it,” Neal said. “I thought of that song and said that I needed to start doing stuff. You never know when your time is up.”
He attended the Monroe County Fair last summer to catch the derby and started watching derby videos online. He started dreaming of a return to the track.
“You never want to believe you’re getting too old for something,” he said. “So with my pride, I said I wanted to do that again even though I’m going to be 50 this year. There’s a lot of young guys out there doing it now, but I think I still have it in me.”
Around his birthday in November, Neal made an offhand comment to his friend, Jason Goff, that he hoped to run the derby at the Fair one more time before he “kicked the bucket.”
In secret, Goff turned to Barabe with a plan.
“We’ve both know him for so long. He’s family,” Barabe said. “We wanted to do something for him. We wanted to do something to cheer him up and just make him feel good.”
The two pulled in more friends, Ryan Songalewski and Justin LaRoy, and Barabe’s son, Michael. Together they found an old car and picked up sponsors: Star Towing and Recovery, RS Recycling, Bitter Pill Customs, and LaRoy AG & Construction.
“Not a penny of it is coming out of Don’s pocket,” Barabe said. “It’s all gone toward the paint, the stickers, the gas, entry fee, and pit passes for him and his family on the day of the show. We didn’t want this to cost him anything.”
The surprise plans hit a snag.
Neal’s health battle had taken a toll on his joints and he scheduled shoulder surgery for June. He would need 3-6 months to recover.
“In all honesty, we were probably going to wait until this week to tell him about it all, but he threw a wrench into that plan,” Barabe said. “We decided we had to tell him. … We really wanted to see him run this car that we built.”
Neal had never suspected what his friends were planning.
“It was an emotional surprise,” he said. “I never expected it. Not that they’re not that type of people, they’re great guys, but I was just surprised they would do that for me. Especially at a time where I didn’t think I had anybody. I realize now I actually did, but sometimes our minds are our worst enemy.”
‘Make it a tradition’
Neal is anxious to get behind the wheel. He’s entered into the first derby show at 6 p.m. Tuesday. A second show for more modified cars starts at 9 p.m.
A lot has changed since Neal’s last demolition derby. He said he hasn’t run in a stock car of this type since at least 2007.
“Everything about it has changed,” he said. “From the type of car, to the rules, to the amount of cars that will be there. Thankfully, all the cars in the 6 p.m. show are built pretty much the same with the way the rules are. In the old days, some things may have snuck through, but now the cars are so equal that there won’t be a weak car on the track.”
Neal is ready for the challenge. He knows most of the competitors in the field and he has closely observed how the strategy has evolved over the years.
The cars these days are built stronger, he said, giving aggressive drivers more options to take out their competitors.
“In the old days, we tried not to use our front ends. Now you use both ends,” he said. “We used to junk cars where the back end was pushed all the way into the back seat but the front end was nice and straight because you never used it. That’s changed. Now you use the whole car.”
Barabe hopes his friend’s experience will give him an edge in his heat.
“I hope he’s not too rusty and hasn’t forgotten a lot,” Barabe said. “I’d like to see him make the feature, for sure. He has a lot of people behind him and lot of sponsors that have enjoyed hearing his story.”
Win or lose, Neal doesn’t view this year’s derby as a one-off experience.
“Well, my wife would probably like me to say it’s a one-off, but I think I’m going to get back into it,” he said. “There’s a good chance I’ll be in a car of some sort next year. I’ll probably make it a tradition to be back at Monroe.”
Neal’s youngest son has taken his dad’s lead. The two have started making plans to build a car for Dalton to race in the future.
But not at Monroe. Not yet.
“In two years my boy can come out for the first time at Monroe,” Neal said. “I’m not sure what the rules are, but I told him he had to be 16.
“Just like I was.”