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School bus demolition derby a smashing success at Riverhead Raceway

Junkyard Dog and Cheesebox crash into each other

Junkyard Dog and Cheesebox crash into each other at the school bus demolition derby at Riverhead Raceway. Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz

Got the back-to-school blues? Perk up by watching school buses go head-to-head in a demolition derby at Riverhead Raceway.

“Kids get a kick out of seeing school buses they ride every day get destroyed,” says raceway co-owner Tom Gatz. “They find it neat to watch them get smashed up.”

On demo night, eight to 10 school buses line up around the quarter-mile track with the vehicles’ noses facing the retaining wall. The crowd counts down from 10 and then announcer Bob Finan shouts, “Let’s wreck some buses!”

Bus drivers go at each other at speeds of up to 20 miles an hour — often driving in reverse to protect their engines. As in a traditional demolition derby, the winner is the last one running.

“The strategy for a competitor is to take out somebody’s radiator — it will overheat, and the motor will cease,” says Finan. “Another strategy is to hit the bus repeatedly in suspension areas, making the bus immobile.”

For safety purposes, the buses are stripped of glass and metal. Two things are taboo: a hit near the driver’s area and driving around not hitting anybody.

Bus drivers wear gear like fire suits, heavy overalls, helmets and goggles. The winner takes home a trophy and a performance fee.

“It’s like the battle of the bus gladiators,” says general manager John Ellwood. “It’s competitive, but they also know they are putting on a show.”

Co-owner Eddie Partridge buys the old buses online through Craigslist or from Gershow Recycling of Medford. The vehicles are fixed up and used for the demolition before they are scrapped.

“The guys paint them up and have a lot of fun doing it,” says Partridge. “They use different colors and put their names on them. It’s a real crowd-pleaser.”

School Bus Demolition Derby

WHEN | WHERE 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at Riverhead Raceway, Route 58, Riverhead

INFO 631-842-7223, riverheadraceway.com

ADMISSION $30 ($10 ages 6-11)

School bus demolition derby drivers are like local celebrities at Riverhead Raceway, where they sign autographs and pose for pictures in the pit area after the twice-a-summer events. Here are some of the characters behind the wheel:

CHEESEBOX

NAME Mike Rommeney

AGE 39

HOMETOWN Bohemia

OCCUPATION Worker for New York City Housing Authority

Rommeney is the longest-running school bus demolition driver and easily the most popular.

“I deal with a lot of traffic in the city,” says Rommeney. “On the weekends when I do this, I can get a lot of frustrations out.”

He has won multiple demolitions off his natural instincts.

“I have no strategy,” says Rommeney. “Once I take the first hit, all the nerves go out and I start going to town.”

THE Z-MAN

NAME Ryan Zukowski

AGE 16

HOMETOWN Riverhead

OCCUPATION High school student

Growing up on the track, Zukowski won his first school bus demo in August 2015. His secret? No fear.

“I get psyched, not scared,” says Zukowski. “It’s crazy and really intense. But, you can’t be scared doing this.”

JUNKYARD DOG

NAME John Denniston

AGE 34

HOMETOWN Westbury

OCCUPATION Tow truck driver

With several wins under his seat belt, Denniston likes to give the crowd some pizzazz.

“I’m a big guy with a big belly who is not clean shaven,” says Denniston. “I wear an open-faced helmet and smoke a big cigar when I drive.”

Although he says the scene is friendly, his competitive edge remains.

“We are all buddies, but in racing, once you strap in, there are no friends,” says Denniston. “We all want to win that trophy.”

KEV-O

NAME Kevin Rommeney

AGE 29

HOMETOWN East Meadow

OCCUPATION MTA city bus driver

His job has played a major role in his success on the track.

“I learned how to get out of predicaments real quick,” says Rommeney. “I’ve very comfortable behind the wheel.”

Last month, he defeated his brother Mike (Cheesebox) in a 25-minute standoff.

“I finally beat him,” says Rommeney. “I got the last hit in and his bus turned off before mine. But, he still has more fans than I do.”

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