Updated: July 22, 2013 at 10:02 pm
For her 40th birthday last year, Shar Johnson got a 1970 Cadillac.
Within a year, she had destroyed the $500 gift: The front end was crumpled, pushed so far back from a head-on that it knocked the distributor cap off.
The rear end was smashed in, too.
It wasn't a car anymore. It was an accordion that had barely survived the demolition derby at the 2012 Colorado State Fair.
Johnson will be among drivers crunching other cars Saturdy, July 27 at the El Paso County Fair in Calhan.
The car was replaced this year by a 1972 Cadillac Sedan Deville that cost $700. No engine, no seats. On Friday night last week, it sat in the driveway of her Fountain home, vice grips holding the steering wheel on.
She couldn't be happier.
What would be a junker to some is the start of something special to Johnson and her husband, Jeff. It's the empty framework of a thing called demolition derby, where drivers like Johnson run into each other until they can't run into each other any more, because their cars are, well, broken.
Johnson will compete in the county fair's chain division, which features less experienced drivers. Most drivers are amateurs like Johnson, racing at county fairs where derbies can have from as few as five cars to double digits.
This is her third race, but her first was more than a decade ago.
As a female driver, Johnson is a rarity in the derby. While there are no statistics on the number of woman who compete in the sport, there are certainly other female drivers in the United States. Indeed, there are even all-women derbies.
Johnson is set apart because she drives against men.
And female drivers in derbies are targets, Johnson says.
She tried to hide her gender for the county fair, registering as S. Johnson. During roll call on the day of the race, her husband will answer, continuing the charade.
But the makeup and hair eventually will give her away once she gets on the track, she says.
Her fans make up for the attitude - a group of 16 shrill girlfriends who scream her on when she's on the track. They want to drive, too, Johnson says, but they can't get their husbands to go along with the idea.
"There are way more people doing this than me," she says, standing next to the Cadillac poised for destruction. "I just do it for fun."
She was nervous at the start of her first race, in 2003, and the nerves still come, but once the cars rev up and start rolling, "you do what you have to do," she says.
She placed 17 out of 100 cars in that race, barely missing the main event, the winners of which score cash awards. Prizes typically range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
Johnson was out of the game for a while, getting back into car crashing in 2012 at the state fair. Kids and family life, she says, got in between her and her sport. After the kids left, the hankering returned.
"It's the adrenaline," says Johnson. "You think of the idiots driving on the highways in the back of your head. I want to hit them."
It's also is a way for her to relieve the stress of her administrative job at a health care center in Colorado Springs.
About three and a half minutes into the 2012 race, she was done, and reaching up from her perch in the driver's seat to snap the flag that tells other drivers you are out of commission - and out of the competition. She still got hit by another car.
Johnson was injured. She hurt her finger when she snapped the flag.
On last Friday night, Johnson, her husband and Randy Burrows, a member of her crew, worked on the car bound to die.
It's not much more than a shell. The inside has been stripped down to metal. A cooler sits in the passenger seat - not for beer, but for the transmission.
Normally, the mechanism sits in the engine compartment, but for competition it's put inside to protect it. Just before the race, the cooler will be filled with ice to keep the transmission from overheating.
The battery sits on the floor of the car and a steel-encased bladder, which is placed where the back seat once was, holds 12 gallons of fuel. For the race, it will hold five gallons.
Ugly as it is, the car runs.
Jeff starts it up ("the neighbors love it"), and the engine roars, a deep, animal sound, all bite.
Final work is needed.
To prevent the distributor cap from being knocked off again, a metal guard will be installed and the distributor will be coated in duct tape, says Jeff, who installs windshields for a living.
He's got 100 hours in the car so far, with 20 left to go before it's ready.
This car bug is a family thing. Jeff races dirt track, surviving a plunge off a cliff during which his car rolled more than a dozen times.
He walked away.
"All I could think of as the car went down was, 'Take your hands off the wheel! Take your hands off the wheel!'" to keep from breaking his wrists, he says.
He never did, but he didn't suffer any broken bones, either.
Demolition derby has some similarities to real racing, Jeff Johnson says. You crash.
"You wreck in a real race car, but it's not intentional and it sucks," he says, and then points at the Cadillac.
"With this thing, you know it's going to get wrecked. That's its purpose."
The pair have a strategy for the El Paso County Fair. But they declined to reveal it.
In the meantime, the car still needs painting.
They used rollers and tractor paint for last year's car. Blue specks still live on their driveway.
Black doors and hood, says he. It will look like a police car.
Red, says she. "I have my heart set on red."
She will have the final say. He works on the cars innards. She gets to paint it. Then she gets to crash it.
It's a family thing.
EL PASO COUNTY FAIR
When: July 20-27
Where: El Paso County Fairgrounds, 366 10th St., Calhan
Info: 520-7880, elpasocountyfair.com
Something else: Demolition derby is at 6 p.m. July 27 in the rodeo arena.
One last thing: The annual fair features Crabtree Carnival, rodeo, 4-H events, petting zoo, auto racing, tractor pull and whole a lot more.
General Adult: $7
Seniors (55 and over): $5
Youth (ages 3 to 12): $3
Children (under 3): Free
Season Pass (8-day pass) Adult: $25
Season Pass (8-day pass) senior and youth: $15
Saturday: Military Day. All active duty military, veterans and dependents free with military ID
Tuesday: Youth Day. One dollar off general admission for kids under the age of 12
Wednesday: Dollar Day. General admission of $1
July 26: Senior Day. Those 55 and older $3 each
July 27: First Responders Heroes Day. All police, Emergency Medical Service personnel and firefighters receive $1 off each person in family