Having cheated death once in his life, Mark Barzal figured heâ€™d spend his second chance doing what he loves: working on cars.
It started with his 2003 Geo Tracker, a project car from high school, and morphed into competing for the past four years at the Medina County Fair County Demolition Derby.
The 23-year-old University of Cincinnati student certainly lives his life to the fullest, but on a late August day in 2002 it was nearly taken away.
Less than a mile from his Sharon Township home, Barzal lost control of his car, causing it to flip and eject him from the vehicle.
He ended up with a compression fracture in his back and spent months recovering, but doctors told the â€™03 Highland graduate he certainly would have perished had he remained in the car.
Even though the machine that fuels Barzalâ€™s passion came close to ending his young life, less than a year later he was crashing automobiles again â€” this time for fun.
â€œMy dad (Chad) ran eight years in the late 1970s and early 1980s and me and him watched every year,â€ said Barzal, whose brother, Matt, also competed in the event. â€œI had some extra money and I did it.â€
Even after his brush with death, there was no doubt in Barzalâ€™s mind he was going to give the derby a try.
â€œItâ€™s a thrill thatâ€™s better than any amusement park ride you can be on,â€ Barzal said as he flashed a grin from ear to ear. â€œItâ€™s something you canâ€™t control and I love winning.
â€œItâ€™s a big family outing now and I enjoy that aspect as well.â€
Barzalâ€™s best showing was a second-place finish in last yearâ€™s consolation heat driving a 1979 Ford Thunderbird. He didnâ€™t have the funds or time this year to search for a specific vehicle, so when the opportunity arose to obtain a 1986 Buick Estate Wagon for $350 he jumped on it.
â€œI bought it in Dayton and spent $50 (in gas) driving it up here,â€ said Barzal, whose â€œGhostbusterâ€ paint scheme, the brain child of girlfriend Katie Massengale, earned him a best of show nomination. â€œI try to do the bare minimum, so I had to spend another $100 on it.â€
With his four-member pit crew all sporting orange â€œBarzal Racing: Hit Hard or Go Homeâ€ T-shirts, Barzal hit the wet rectangular track hoping to qualify for the feature.
â€œ(I was thinking) letâ€™s rock and roll,â€ Barzal said. â€œMy first year I was scared until the first hit. After that I enjoyed the (heck) out of it.â€
Barzal started off strong, but suffered a blown right-rear tire courtesy of a hard shot from veteran Dan Thomas.
He was still alive, but limping on three wheels. However, the same twist of fate that saved his life â€” pure luck â€” soon turned against him.
Wedged between two vehicles, Barzal emerged only to get caught on a stray bumper laying on the track. Ninety-nine times out of 100 drivers easily clear debris, so the unlucky break was extremely rare and frustrating.
â€œI punched a lot of my windshield out,â€ said Barzal, pointing to softball-sized crack on his Buick. â€œYouâ€™re really upset and angry because youâ€™re done. You canâ€™t keep going.â€
With his wagon still running strong, Barzal and his crew replaced the flat tire, fixed dents and entered the consolation, where the winner gets a spot in the feature.
Barzalâ€™s second opportunity to compete didnâ€™t go as planned, either, as the same rear tire gave way. He eventually bowed out when his engine backfield, causing the wagon to go up in flames.
Barzal, who said he was aware of the fire but wanted to continue, emerged safely and was visibly frustrated.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t starting and I overflooded the carburetor,â€ he said. â€œThen when (the firefighters) juiced it, I was all sorts of mad.â€
Barzal was disappointed, but in the grand scheme of things it wasnâ€™t a matter of life or death. After all, heâ€™s been there and done that.
â€œIâ€™m very grateful to be alive after (the accident) and do fun stuff,â€ Barzal said. â€œIâ€™m ready for next year.â€
As for the feature itself, 21-year-veteran Thomas took home his third career title â€” and first since 1996. The Medina resident caught a break when close friend Dan Orientâ€™s 1971 Chrysler Imperial lost power. All Thomas had to do was hit Orient once and he quickly finished the job with his 1976 Chevy Wagon.
As he left the track, an exhausted Thomas received a huge hug from his wife, Karen, and couldnâ€™t lose the smile on his face.
â€œ(The feeling) is just like the first time,â€ Thomas said holding the championship trophy. â€œIâ€™m so hot and tired I canâ€™t think straight. Iâ€™m just happy.â€