Participants show passion for Grand County’s Middle Park Fair and Rodeo

Leia Larsen
Bud Carpenter, left, works on a demolition derby car with friends Jamin Dulec, Devon School and Eric Bradley on Aug. 8, 2013. The derby is among the Middle Park Fair and Rodeo's most popular events.
Leia Larsen/ | Sky-Hi News

It’s Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 7, right in the middle of the Middle Park Fair and Rodeo week. Several teenaged girls sit on horseback, waiting for their turn at the pole bending race. Long ponytails and braids spill outside their riding helmets. They wear colorful button-up shirts, mostly in shades of pink. The brightest is worn by 17-year-old Anna Cunico, although she has it covered by a long jacket. The afternoon is overcast and chilly for early August.

Cunico’s horse, Raisin, has a banner across his saddle advertising his rider’s important status – 2013 MPFR Queen. As the fair’s top ambassador, Cunico has her hands full. In addition to her regular participation in animal shows, she hands out ribbons and trophies. She’ll be entertaining the Denver Broncos cheerleaders during the demolition derby and assisting with livestock shows. She also serves as a role model for her peers.

“It’s busy, I think people know how much I do, but it’s a lot of work,” she said. “It makes me really happy to see people appreciate what we work for.”

Still, the weeklong events are over in a flash, belying the immense effort and time participants dedicate to the fair, which marks its 97th year this summer.

“The kids work so hard raising their animals, from chickens all the way to sheep, goats, pigs and cows, I don’t think outside people really know about it … it’s their way of life.”
Anna Cunico
Middle Park Fair and Rodeo Queen

Many participants begin planning and preparation months in advance. Cunico began her work an entire year before the 2013 fair.

She appears cool under all the pressure, even as she queues up to race. Part of her calm might be attributable to her prior royalty experience. She served as High Country Stampede princess, as well as junior princess and lady in waiting at the Middle Park Fair and Rodeo. But serving as fair royalty isn’t just about pageant work.

“I think a lot of people think it’s just the glitz and glamor, that we just walk around and look pretty,” she said. “But really, we have to do a ton of work. With our horses, with the rodeos – we work for what we’re given a title for.”

Beyond that, royalty must demonstrate a healthy dose of 4-H experience and livestock knowledge. For her part, Cunico has participated in the county fair since she was 7 years old. She’s shown steer and heifers. She’s ridden in a variety of horse events. She’s exhibited leather craft and quilts.

Cunico’s family moved to Kremmling when she was just a toddler. Her parents got into ranching about six years ago. Growing up in Grand County, she said fairs remain important for the community.

“The kids work so hard raising their animals, from chickens all the way to sheep, goats, pigs and cows, I don’t think outside people really know about it,” she said. “They do it for a living, it’s important for fairs to show that … it’s their way of life.”

Delivering the Derby

Five miles from the fairgrounds down Highway 40, Bud Carpenter, 30, is working on his demolition derby entry. His car shop is located next to his home, set on a plateau with sweeping views of the Colorado River and Troublesome Creek. Carpenter works with three friends and Chuck Martinson, another derby participant. They laugh and crack jokes while casually sipping beers and listening to the classic rock station.

Although the point of demolition derbies is to deliberately ram and smash opposing cars until they’re rendered useless, Carpenter said derbies are safer than they seem.

“It’s not very dangerous,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of safety involved.”

Among those safety precautions are removing the factory fuel tank and installing a new one behind the driver’s seat. Competitors remove all glass, strip the interior and build a cage to protect the driver. They move the battery to the car’s interior and place it in a metal box.

“If you don’t put the work into it, it’s going to be a quick show,” Carpenter said. “Just to be competitive, it takes a long time.”

Derby hopefuls begin months in advance, scouring wreck yards for a decent car frame. Carpenter looks for cars built in the 1960s, when bodies were still built entirely out of metal. Large, heavy wagons are an added plus. He has traveled as far as Montana to find a good frame.

Competitors then go to work searching for good parts and often replace a vehicle’s entire engine.

“All the cars we run are usually Chryslers with Chevy motors,” Carpenter said. “Chryslers are tough and Chevys are easy to find parts for, they’re cheap.”

According to Carpenter and Martinson, locating all the parts needed for a successful derby car can cause some headaches.

“Finding all the parts, getting all the wrong parts, making things work,” Martinson said, “getting it all to match and work, that’s the tough part.”

Getting a car to work is often trial-by-error, he said. There’s no formula for building a successful derby car.

“It’s ideas, it’s not really concepts, nothing’s figured out,” Martinson said. “We just try it.”

This is the eighth year for the demolition derby at the Middle Park Fair and Rodeo. According to Rebecca Jones, who organizes the event with her husband Will, they began running the event to bring the fair more revenue. The demolition derby remains one of its most popular events.

Carpenter began participating in demolition derbies about 15 years ago, at competitions throughout Colorado and the region. He said the derby at Kremmling is the best. They’re well organized and pay well, he said. First-place winners for each heat can take between $2,000 and $2,750.

Still, winnings rarely cover competitors’ costs and time investments.

“If this were a business, we’d be way smarter to build them and sell them,” Martinson said.

‘Revolution of responsibility’

Back at the fairgrounds, the clouds have broken up and the sun has set low, casting long shadows over horses and participants at the rodeo arena. The Cameron siblings – Sean, 17, Meghan, 15, and Jake, 12 – along with their cousin Trace Lewis, 10, have finished their horse riding events. They wait by the family’s silver livestock trailer and Sean loads up the animals.

The kids are third generation 4-H members and fifth generation ranchers in Kremmling. While many kids spend their summers vacationing and sleeping in, the Camerons and their cousin stay local, waking early to feed their animals, clean stalls and keep them in good form. Apart from horses, they raise sheep, goats, rabbits and occasionally birds.

“It’s surprising how many people don’t realize I’m selling them so people can eat them,” Sean said.

During the fair, the kids will market their animals during the junior livestock sale. The kids said they’ve sold sheep for around $400 to $600 a head.

“The animals that are sold here are above market price, so it allows kids to get some more money than a regular sale,” Jake said.

Raising livestock for 4-H isn’t usually profitable, however. More importantly, it allows kids to gain valuable life skills. The Camerons said they’ve learned marketing and the value of hard work. The kids agree that most people also don’t understand the work involved in raising market animals.

When asked if fairs are still relevant in society, the kids offered thoughtful insights.

“I think people are still interested in the demolition derby and the junior rodeo,” Meghan said.

But they also said participation seems to be dwindling overall.

“There are a lot of visitors still, but there aren’t near as many showmen as there used to be,” Jake said.

The 4-H program plays an important role both in keeping younger generations interested in fair participation, while mentoring them to become active members of their local community. 4-H encourages young people to make positive local impacts, something the program calls “the revolution of responsibility.”

“It’s a fabulous program,” Sean said. “You get leadership roles, you get to know people.”

For the most part, the kids aren’t too focused on the future or how 4-H and their experience raising animals will help them once they become adults. They do the work because it’s fun, and they’re content enjoying their last few days of summer before school starts a week after the fair ends. They’re especially looking forward to the junior livestock sale on Saturday evening. To Trace, it’s the most important part of the fair.

“All the people get to see you show,” he said. “You get to show the people what you’ve put into it.”

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