Like father, like daughter
Emily Dillenburg lives out destiny in the demolition derby arena
It’s time for bed, but as usual, young Emily Dillenburg doesn’t want to go. She’s been in the garage with her father, Chuck Dillenburg, watching as he works on his demolition derby car. It’s Emily’s favorite thing to do. Eventually, she gives in and is taken inside. Shortly after her father comes in and says goodnight before returning to the garage for a few more hours of hard work. Chuck is one of many local demolition derby legends, currently maintaining a streak of 37-consecutive years of derby competition at the Chautauqua County Fair.
Emily, now 22, was born to run in the derby. From the early days of sitting at her father’s side in the garage during summer break, she knew she wanted to compete. But it wasn’t so easy back then. As a kid, she wasn’t even allowed to attend the Sunday feature in which her father nearly always qualified for a chance to be crowned that year’s champion.
The Sunday feature was one of the few times all year that her mother, Debbie Dillenburg, and Chuck got to spend alone, and they took advantage of it. Debbie, in the pits with her trusty video camera in hand and Chuck, out in the arena, reaping the fruits of hard year’s labor.
That’s how it went for many years. That is, until Emily decided she couldn’t stay home on Sunday feature night any longer.
“My mom never let us go to the feature on Sunday, so she got to go in the pits and relax without the kids and have a night every year where it was just her and my dad,” Emily said. “Once I got to be 12, I made her sign a contract — probably written in colored pencil — stating that when I turned 13, maybe she’d let me go watch the feature. She signed it, and come the next summer, she stuck to the contract and I got to go. It is one of my biggest memories and she probably still has the contract.”
After seeing the Sunday action live and in person, Emily knew her destiny. She was going to continue her father’s legacy and compete in the demolition derby. The only problem was she was 13 years old and a long way from being ready to drive a demo car.
Emily used sports to help bide time until she could compete in the derby. She grew up playing tee-ball and was an accomplished junior bowler and the eventual transition to varsity athletics was natural.
She excelled on the field and lanes. Emily starred on one of the best Forestville softball teams in recent history and was named to the 2012-13 ADPRO Sports/Section 6 Scholar-Athlete All-Western New York Girls Bowling Team. Despite her success in high school athletics, the fire to drive a derby car still burned deep inside.
Emily’s debut in the arena finally came at age 17, the summer after she got her license.
“I was freaking out. I didn’t eat or sleep for a week before the event,” Emily said. “I didn’t do much hitting. I hid in the corner and was told to stay out of the middle. It was fun and it felt awesome afterward, until I watched the video.
“My first time and a few times after it was nerve wracking the whole time.
“This year was first time I wasn’t in a fog the whole time. I get myself so worked up. I’m always freaking out trying not to get hit in the wrong spot and to hit in the right spots.”
This year’s Chautauqua County Fair marked the sixth year Emily has competed. This July, for the second consecutive summer, she won her heat and advanced to the Sunday feature, just like her father has many times before. Making it extra special this year was the fact that her brother, Brad, 19, also advanced to Sunday via being named “Best in Show.”
“To me, the derby represents a common thread between family members,” Emily said. “I have cousins that run, plus my dad and brother. We all talk derby and run together. We watch and support each other. Every family has their thing and this is ours. I don’t know a summer that doesn’t involve building derby cars. We couldn’t have graduation parties at certain times because of derby cars and can’t do a lot of other things because of it. It’s a part of us and it’s not an option.
“I don’t ever want to stop. I have bills now and stuff to buy before derby cars, but I don’t see it ever not being a part of my life. It’s one of the only things I do for enjoyment. I don’t go shopping for shoes and clothes. I just buy cars and smash them.”
Now a student at SUNY Fredonia and outside the world of her friends and family, Emily meets people who either haven’t heard of the demolition derby, think she is crazy for competing in it or find it extremely fascinating. But to her and her family, “it’s just like talking about the weather or the president.”
In recent years, Emily has gotten a lot of attention for her work in the arena. She’s looked up to by young girls for her courage to compete and her blonde hair hanging out of her helmet often catches the attention of the crowd who exclaims “there’s a girl in that car!” And while the attention may feel good, and the recognition may boost her confidence going forward, it always comes back to those early days in the garage with her father and the contract that was honored by her mother.
“I can’t take the credit because I wouldn’t be anywhere without my parents,” Emily said. “I’m just trying to finish school and I’m lucky to have so many people on my side. I don’t build the car. I don’t tow it to the fair or bring it home. I’m a driver and wouldn’t be one without them. I’m super lucky to have people willing to help me with something I love so much. I’m lucky to have a family that enjoys something together that we can bond with. And I’m happy for my brother because we can do it together and continue to spend time with dad.”