Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Derby. . . no, not that one.

It’s a pointless indulgence.
There is no logic behind it, no sweet story of youthful longing or unfulfilled ma
chismo. It started simply in 2006, our first summer in Hillsboro. The sign in front of the fairgrounds touted “Demolition Derby, Sun 7PM”.
It would be the closing spectacle for the Jefferson County Fair, an event none of us had any real interest in otherwise. Someone mentioned seeing the sign, and expressed interest, perhaps as a joke. The rest of us chimed in enthusiastically. Sure, we’d love to see a demolition derby!
So we went. We ponied up the cash to get into the fair, we got there early to walk the grounds. Same old county fair stuff, dubious loud flashy rides that we wouldn’t be riding, tents and booths designed to take your money in exchange for the chance at a cheap stuffed duck. The sickly yet familiar smell of fried dough and melting sugar traveled heavily with the slight breeze. Inside the pavilion were the crops; squash, pumpkins, tomatoes on steroids. Blue ribbons and trophies, 4H signs and seed ads. Outside politicians smiled and waved alongside mower, spa and siding salesmen, shiny tractors and enormous combines. The largest crowds assembled in front of small portable shacks selling funnel cakes, beer, hot dogs and cotton candy. The noise of diesel generators nearly drowned out the pathetically tinny carnival music. The goats in the petting zoo looked worn down, weary of being fondled by sticky kids.
It only took about fifteen minutes for us to grow tired of this. Fortunately rumbling V8’s could be heard in the distance.
We drifted towards the grandstand and found uncomfortable seating on
aluminum bleachers. Adam had his root beer, I had my overpriced water, Angel had something, I don’t recall exactly. The deep fried onion she’d bought was crispy and tasty at first but grew heavy and greasy about halfway in.
Towheaded kids jumped up and down on the springy bleachers, one of them eventually slipped, they always do. Mom and or dad to the rescue, a little beer’d up but still in control. Rural teen girls strutted in their too-short shorts and ridiculously tight tank tops,
young men wore the tightest jeans they had, topping themselves with a crisp cowboy hat. Pear-shaped middle age men and women dominated the crowd, from slightly heavy to industrially obese. Sweat stains detailed thinning, fading tee-shirts, sweat pants were stretched well beyond all manufacturer’s recommendations. And everywhere ball caps, advertising motorcycles, military service, beer brands, tractors, and just as often a colloquial obscene reference.
The center of the grandstand was nothing more than a field of dirt. No track, no stripes, just an open dirt field surrounded by large concrete blocks that looked like giant gray Lego blocks. On one side was a gap in the barrier blocks that aligned with a long cattl
e gate. Through this gate came the water truck. It methodically sprayed down the dirt, turning it into mud. Once enough water had been dispersed so that it appeared to be standing the truck exited.
The crowd grew anxious, the man in the public address booth sorted his papers and checked the microphone. He spoke into and then listened to his walkie-talkie, and finally welcomed
the crowd. The low quality sound system made him sound like an extremely loud gramophone recording, the lower frequencies of his voice completely attenuated by the cheapness of the weatherproof speakers, little more than bundled bullhorns.
Onto the field rolled three stripped down, crudely painted Crown Victorias. From each car waved a flag, the stars and stripes in one, the generic Missouri state flag from the next, followed by the car carrying the almost sacred white on black POW/MIA flag. Once settled in apparently random spots on the field the announcer instructed the audience to rise. He sang the National Anthem, yeah, he sang it, and no, he didn’t do a very good job of it. I didn’t notice so much, I was busy trying to figure out the nature vs. nurture conundrum of the driver of the American flag car, since on the top of his car he was also flying a just-as-large Confederate flag. These flags are popular in demo derby, I don’t know why. I had ancestors that fought on both sides of the war of northern aggression (as my younger brother still calls it). I don’t recall that crashing vehicles into each other for recreational purposes was considered either a strategy or an analog for victory in any particular battle, large or small. The Southern pride angle didn’t exactly make sense either, here in Missouri. But I’m all about freedom of expression, and if flying the flag of a soundly defeated rebellion gives you an ego boost then go ahead, show your colors.
Once the Star Spangled banner was tortured to a painful, off-key qu
ivering crescendo, the crowd cheered and engines rumbled and spat to life.
The gate was opened and five coverall clad men carrying flags of various solid colors took their places around the field. One guarded the gate the other four were positioned outside the concrete barrier blocks. These were the referees.
One at a time large Lincolns, Fords and Buicks entered the gate and took positions nosed into the barrier walls. The cars were all stripped down of all glass, doors welded shut,
gas tanks removed (replaced by a small fuel bladder in the cab containing just enough fuel to get through a few minute heat.) The radiators had all been flushed, now running on straight water. (Toxic antifreeze is not necessary or permitted in these events.) For the most part these are cars that were purchased for a couple hundred dollars or less from a junk lot. All they need to do is run and survive for a few minutes. Things like timing, compression, tuning and beauty are irrelevant. The tires would be considered illegal, if not deadly, anywhere else, no tread to be found on any of them. Rough and crude spray paint jobs are the norm, there’s no sense putting a silk scarf on a doomed creature.
Demolition derby is bottom dollar stuff. Purses seldom exceed a thousand dollars on the circuit. At smaller events such as this one at the fair, the winner takes home only about three hundred. This is pathetic considering that the best case scenario is that your car will be beaten, crushed, stomped and violently compressed to the point where the winner is merely the car that can still move around a little after all others cannot. No one’s driving these cars home, or anywhere else after the bout. Whatever work you put in and whatever expense you incurred will be for naught in just a few short minutes.
There were three qualifying heats, with the last five cars to survive each heat going on to the feature event, an all-out fight to the death. In the first heats there is strategy, survival. If you are one of the last five cars running, you either stop and snap off your stick, or just exit the field.

So what’s to keep a car from just sitting and hiding? Well there are only a few rules in this sport but sandbagging is simply not tolerated. Each car in the field must at least tap another car once every two minutes. True competitors despise sandbagging and will hunt down and torture a driver suspected of obvious timidity.
At the start of a heat all cars are parked idling in a rough circle around the inside of the barrier, taillights (or where they used to be) pointing toward the center of the field. Once the green flags fly, the drivers reverse toward the center, or each other. Though tough to control, backing into competitors is preferred as the rear of the car carries nothing important. The front can survive some hits, but not many. Driver’s side doors are off
limits and avoided for safety reasons.
Nowadays cars are not quite as durable as in the heyday of demo derby. The massive, heavy frames have all but disappeared. Contemporary Crown Vic’s and Town Cars crumple much easier than say a ’66 Chrysler Imperial, which were actually banned from most derbies due to their indestructibility.
The carnage is not immediate. The combination of bald tires and muddy field keep the speeds down considerably. The field is not large enough to build up a lot of momentum so each hit is occurring at about five – ten miles per hour maximum. Even a full head on collision is quite survivable. The drivers are protected only by stock seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Although injuries can and do occur, they are somewhat rare.
Within the first few minutes the field is crowded, and clusters form. Soon enough someone will blow an engine, snap an axle or otherwise just seize up. A wooden stick extends from the driver’s window, the driver snaps this off to i
ndicate he’s out of the race. A snapped stick car is off limits for the rest of the heat.
Usually one or more drivers will stand out in a heat, their aggression wins them the crowd’s favor. As does the underdog, the guy who’s taken a beating and is struggling to restart his steaming, crumpled pile of metal. When he finally gets it moving just at the two minute mark the crowd goes wild, as if Lazarus himself had awakened.
Soon enough two broken sticks, three, then four and five. Dead cars sitting in the middle of the field, still occupied by the driver and sometimes a rider. Occasionally they do get hit by a stray run, they simply ride it out.
The heats run about fifteen minutes, a few excellent smashes occasionally punctuating the atmosphere. There’s always a car or two shooting flames out its pipes, that’s a sure crowd pleaser. (No mufflers or fancy exhaust pipes on the cars, exhaust is routed directly to short stacks protruding though the hood.)
After the heats, tractors and skid loaders clear the field of the loser
s. The referees walk the field tossing out chunks of metal, plastic and rubber. The winners head back to a pit area and take hammers and crowbars to repurpose the damage. No precision engine work here, just do what’s necessary to prolong the life of the car for about twenty more minutes of violence.
Time now for the mini cars… which in demolition derby seems to mean cars with less than a V8 engine. No clear standouts, mostly American cars with the ubiquitous and venerable Taurus’ a slight favorite. Front wheel drive changes things a bit, but the small, lighter cars have more pep than the lumbering Crown Vic’s, and are in my mind much more fun to watch. As well, the smaller cars just can’t take the punishment as readily. The rears crumple so completely that
they end up looking like half-cars.
For now these smaller cars are a novelty. Eventually they will dominate more as the supply of hefty V8 cruisers dwindles. In other places there have been novelty competitions using SUV’s and minivans, this may be the next wave.
The final heat, the feature, is all about being the last man standing. That’s all that matters, last longer than everyone else. Since these cars have already survived one heat, they start this round already quite banged up, this heat doesn’t last long. Tires start peeling off wheels, axles break off, bumpers litter the field. Many of the finalists spend as much time trying to restart the ruptured engines as pursuing their foes. Almost all the radiators are split open, steam pours from several rapidly overheating engines. They’re all eventually sputtering in death throes, like wounded animals they jerk and scream, spit and swear, twitch and scratch till absolute and total death consumes them once and for all, forever.
Why we enjoy this so much we don’t know. We split into pairs or as singles for most of our entertainment. For demolition derby, it’s not even asked if any of us want to go, it’s assumed. None of us care a lick about professional sports, NASCAR, horse racing or ballroom dancing. We don’t raft or canoe or fish or hunt. We don’t like country music and there’s not a pickup truck in our driveway or Camaro on blocks in our yard. We’re educated, upper middle class and articulate. But this event intrigues us.
At a demolition derby there’s no fanfare, no marching bands, no floats with pretty girls. There are no Mint Juleps, large flowered hats or shiny alligator boots. There’s no corporate sponsorship to speak of, mostly just barber shops and feed stores. The trophy is mostly plastic and the purse is less than the price of participating. There are no stars, no celebrities, no big names at all, mostly just local boys with a knack for mechanics a yearning for action and perhaps a death wish.
The event is completely pointless, dirty, messy and violent. It is shameless in its unmitigated decadence. It’s a greasy middle finger thrust into the air toward all that is politically correct, tasteful, sophisticated and green. For a few minutes on sultry Saturday nights, in small fairgrounds around the country, it’s simply a yee-haw noisy good time, and never claims to be anything else.