There are times Ken Noel cringes at his son Damon’s new hobby. But all said and done, he couldn't be prouder.
Before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago, Noel was a chicken farmer with a passion for restoring antique cars. He was forced to give up the farm as the neurological condition progressively diminished his quality of life.
Noel still lives in a house at the entrance to the property in McIvers on the north shore of the Bay of Islands.
Deep in the recesses of one of the old barns – which the new owners still allow Noel to use – sits an antique 1926 Chevrolet Touring. It’s a family heirloom that had been bought new by his father’s uncle more than 90 years ago.
The old car was passed on to Noel’s father in the 1970s, who told him he could have it some day if he fixed it up.
Before he was diagnosed, Ken spent five years disassembling the entire car, cleaning every nut and bolt, then putting it all back together. He even forged a new front passenger-side fender for it that's difficult to tell from an original.
It was just one of many Ken restored and entered in antique car shows while he was healthier.
His son, Damon, helped during the process.
Damon, now, 37, found out about his father’s MS diagnosis on his 17th birthday. Ken eventually required mobility aids and house modifications to adapt to the continuing deterioration of his physical capabilities.
“It’s getting worse all the time,” said Ken.
A few years ago, Damon’s friend Gavin Butt was organizing a demolition derby in Gillams. Butt had been to several in Gander and Damon had also started attending after Butt had asked him to paint his car.
Butt told Damon the derby in Gillams would raise money for multiple sclerosis. Butt’s wife’s niece has MS.
For Damon, getting involved was a no-brainer.
“It was already a big part of my life with dad, so it added to the draw-in for me and my motivation to do whatever I could do to help the derby,” said Damon.
In 2016, Damon handled some of the public announcing and judging.
Before the 2017 derby, Butt offered Damon a 1977 Ford Thunderbird to fix up and enter as a driver. He dropped a 305 motor from a Chev Malibu into the Thunderbird body and began figuring out what else needed to be done to make it run.
He also used his talents to give the car a devilish motif, calling it “The Screaming Demon” – taking advantage of the nickname Demon he had since high school – and registering it as car No. 666.
While Butt has been a big help to Damon, offering up parts and assistance, it’s his father he often turns to when trying to resolve issues in preparation for the derby.
“He’s the brains,” said Damon. “He knows about these old cars and how the mechanics work. If I’m having a problem, he suggests trying different things.”
Damon has no issue taking a grinder – or a blowtorch or a sledgehammer – to his car to make something work, but it’s Ken whose advice helps with wiring solutions or fine-tuning the engine.
“Dad has been a lot of my drive for this,” said Damon. “He shakes his head sometimes at me, knowing I’m taking these old cars out and beating them up. But he knows I’m getting enjoyment out of it and knows the reason we’re doing it.”
Ken admires his son’s work ethic, even if Damon’s approaches go against the grain of how he went about fixing up his own cars years ago. And he sees the pure enjoyment Damon gets out of taking part in the derby.
“The ambition he puts into it,” said Ken. “The foresight and the unorthodox way of doing stuff … He does things in some ways that should never work, but it does – things no mechanic would ever do.”
Damon feels lucky to be entering his third Smash Up for MS derby, in Gillams this Saturday.
Usually, a derby car can't be fixed up enough to enter again. Damon’s Thunderbird broke down in the first round of his debut in 2017 before it could get too beat up. He was able to drive it out of the pit after finishing fourth last year.
He’s improved the car for this year but expects this will be its last derby. Even if he doesn’t win, Damon is hoping to at least defend his two-time title for having the best paint job.
“I’m just going to go down there to raise money and have some fun,” he said. “If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Ken will be there too, tackling whatever challenges multiple sclerosis throws his way on derby day and enjoying every smash, dent and crush dished out by his boy and the other drivers.
“I wouldn’t want to be in one,” he said of the derby cars. “That’s not my forte. But it’s nice watching those fellas do it. They has a lot of fun and they puts their whole all into it.”