With the end of summer comes the beginning of annual southern Illinois tradition.
A festival of sorts, this year’s Du Quoin state fair, running from Aug. 23 through Monday, has a plethora of events to attend — ranging from the mild (a petting zoo featuring African animals) to the wild (a demolition derby Saturday.)
With all of the events and vendors to see and people to meet, there is one show in particular that is not to be missed: Tonny Petersen’s Hell Drivers.
In an event seemingly makeshift, one may hope for unintentional wreckage, but when the drivers present their roles in “true precision,” one perceives a high-speed event of honest exhibition over execution and receives exactly the thrill sought after.
The stunts begin slow, at first with the drivers running bumper-to-bumper at high speeds, separating only slightly and whipping around, in 180 degree turns and head for the middle of the track before the audience where a small ramp is placed in which the drivers hit and turn onto two wheels one after another.
The drivers up the stakes consistently, hitting the ramps then at 50 mph with one hand on the door and one on the wheel. A man, merely holding to the front of a hood, is used as the human battering ram through a flaming barricade.
Cars hit single wheeled ramps designed to roll the vehicles, without roll-cage, again and again, end over end. Their dive-bomber finale comes from 40 foot in length jump in which a car propels itself with great speed off the ramp and into the windshield of another car.
Tonny Petersen even made a go of the event himself and drove his truck on 2 wheels around the half-mile track.
“This is our first time in Du Quoin and I really like it here, I hope we get invited back next year,” said Johnny Weiser, a stuntman since 1972.
Weiser has been crashing cars for more than 40 years and has owned the show for four, he said.
But Petersen’s car show isn’t the only high stakes event at the fair. One of this year’s most prolific events is the Xtreme FMX Thrill Show featuring dirt bike riders committing to heightened jumps while performing various tricks.
On the FMX, 20-year-old performer Jon Williams, from Chicago, has been racing for 16 years and performing freestyle tricks for the last four. Williams, who said this is his first Du Quoin fair, said he’d love to continue racing and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.
But for audiences seeking entertainment without death-defying near misses, there are several that are more family-friendly and child-oriented events. Noah’s Way Exotic Petting Zoo includes an intriguing range of animals; goats of all sizes, a tortoise, a hare and a kangaroo, among others. Adjacent them, there are incredible animals from Africa including a zebra, the large-horned watusi, a breed of cattle, as well as the eland, a species of large antelope.
The Zoo has not been to Du Quoin before, but has been all across the country, Craig Sniggs, animal handler, said.
“[The Zoo] travels most of the year, regularly within Texas, though also going through Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana,” he said.
A diverse group of venders are also present at the fair, including Pheasant Hollow Winery, which has been in business for 14 years with locations in Rend Lake and Whittington. Briget Black, a Pheasant Hollow employee, said the winery does not grow their own fruits but does receive produce from a vineyard on the premises.
Another vendor is Springfield’s friendly Organo Gold Coffee, owned by Jim and Susan Kent. The duo boasts a world-famous “Healthier Coffee” that is certified 100 percent organic, designed to boost the immune system and naturally detoxify the body. The two said they hope to capture a small fraction of the market and are doing well with products in 32 countries already.
Aside from the vendors, one enthusiastic attendee showed that it’s not only the grandstand events and flashy shows that bring visitors out to the fair. George Naumovski, owner of Kabinet House USA in Du Quoin, said he has been regularly attending the fair for the past five years.
“I love the gyros and beer,” he said.