10/04/10 — Battle in the dirt

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Battle in the dirt

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 4, 2010 1:46 PM

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John Earl Pope of Goldsboro, behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Malibu, battles it out with other drivers at the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair's Demolition Derby Sunday afternoon. Pope, driving in his first derby after years of helping other drivers prepare their cars, went on to win the competition. A second derby will be held Saturday.

For one driver, Sunday afternoon was about her 20 minutes of glory. For another, it was, in many ways, the crowning achievement of a 15-year demolition derby career.

Running in a derby for the first time after spending more than a decade helping others win, John Earl Pope finally, himself, got to hoist that first-place trophy after the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair's opening four-cylinder demolition derby.

Cheered on by a large contingent of nervous, but excited family and friends, many from the Winter Circle Inc. team, Pope survived a tough first heat in which he lost a tire at the outset, and then dominated in the final, where he clearly had the strongest car by far -- a 2005 Chevy Malibu.

"I was nervous. In church this morning, I was praying hard," said his daughter Maranda Radford, who spent much of the afternoon jumping up and down, yelling and motioning advice from the stands. "He did great, though. For his first time, he did great. Four-cylinder is tougher than the eight. It's smaller cars, a lot more beating and banging."

Also nervous, but excited, was Pope's grandson, 10-year-old Justin Radford, who was simply beaming with smiles as Pope clamored on top of his car, shouting victoriously.

"It's exciting. I was hoping he'd win first place," Justin said, adding that he hopes to run in a derby one day himself, enjoying the way "they get to hit other cars knock each other around."

But, Pope, 48, of Patetown, said, it was a day that almost didn't happen.

"I've been building and building, so finally I built one for me. Everybody's been trying to get me to run, and I really didn't want to, but I did. I didn't know how much fun it'd really be," he said, holding his trophies -- his ticket to the state fair -- and walking with his family from the track back to the pit area. "I'm definitely going to do this again."

For the winner of the powder puff derby, running cars headlong into each other is something she has done before. In fact, she said, after coming in third last year, she vowed to win it this year.

"It was tough out there. Those girls were tough," said Ashley Widener, 21, of Dudley.

Running with her mom, Marilyn Brown, also of Dudley, Mrs. Widener had hoped to have a bit of an easier time of it, but her mom's battery died, taking her out of contention early.

Afterward, though, when the last driver had pulled her flag off her car, the mother-daughter team shared a hug on top of her car.

"It's just fun. It's just so much fun. For those 20 minutes of glory, you feel on top of the world," said Mrs. Widener, whose husband also drives. "It's in our blood. I've got three young'uns ,and they're the next generation of derby drivers."

And, she, too, will be running in the state fair, which begins Oct. 14.

Runners-up in the men's four-cylinder were Chris Ward, second, and Gary Young, third.

Runners-up in the powder puff were Nita Jones, second, and Brandi McDonald, third.