Blood, Sweat and Gears
The carnage of an old-fashioned Demolition Derby continues to wow crowds
By Larry Woody
They roar and screech, hiss and squeal, and — spewing steam and belching smoke — onward they charge.
Like jousting knights (Sir Crash-a-lot) they spur their metallic mounts head-on into their foes with a mighty crash and clatter.
“There’s never been an adrenaline rush like it,” declares Carl Porter, 24, who was the last man standing in a 20-car pack of Demolition Derby crazies following a typical Saturday night crash-fest at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway.
Actually, Porter wasn’t standing. He wriggled out of the crumpled wad of sheet metal that once had been an automobile and slumped to the asphalt amid the oil and water and shrapnel. He wheezed to catch his breath after 45 minutes of head-on collisions and crushing broadsides.
“Now that,” he gasps, “was fun!”
Asked to recap his victory, Porter grins and says: “I was a little worried when my brakes went out.”
When a demo derby driver crunches the figures — no pun intended — it’s obvious that it’s not a lucrative sport.
Porter says he has about $2,000 invested in his junk yard jalopy, typical for most demo derby cars. He earned $1,300 for demolishing it during the Nashville competition.
“I might be able to salvage the steering wheel,” says Porter, who in addition to his first-place check was awarded a huge trophy and bragging rights as the ultimate survivor.
It’s a long way from the gold and glory of “normal” racing, but as Jason “Big Country” Vaughn says, “We don’t do it for the money.”
Vaughn oversees a demo derby circuit based in his hometown of Dickson, Tenn. The circuit competes at racetracks throughout the Southeast and sometimes draws as many as 60 drivers. “It’s all about the challenge, the thrill, the kicks,” Vaughn says.
Vaughn’s group is typical of countless other demo derby organizations scattered across the country. Some are well-organized with their own websites, schedules and regular troop of competitors. Others are more loose-knit, scheduling competitions whenever they can scrape up a field of cars.
Demolition derbies began in the 1940s, and their primal appeal transcends the millennium.
“The fans eat it up,” says Danny Denson, the Fairgrounds Speedway promoter who bowed to the will of the people and scheduled three demolition derbies during the 2009 season. “It’s a fairly basic premise: People like to see cars crashing into each other. Even in your big-time NASCAR, what’s the most exciting thing that happens during a race? A wreck. Well, a demolition derby is just one big, continuous wreck.”
Demolition derbies attract drivers from all walks of life — from doctors and lawyers to mechanics and plumbers — and some theorize that they are a release valve for pent-up aggression. A demolition derby driver gets to act out the fantasy of every rush-hour commuter.
Or, as Fairview, Tenn., tire dealer/demo gladiator Robert Hamilton puts it: “I just like to tear things up.”
Hamilton, 33, is a second-generation demo derby driver who has been destroying cars since he was 13. During his two decades of destruction he has sustained only one serious injury: a broken toe.
“I’ve had some bruises and scratches and once my radiator busted and I got burned a little, but nothing bad,” Hamilton says. He nods at the rusty, jagged sheet metal that enclosed the driver’s cockpit: “The most dangerous part is getting in and out of the car.”
All the glass is removed from the cars, and they contain only enough fuel to keep them grinding around for the 30-45 minutes of demo madness. Every driver must wear a helmet and seat harness. When the derby starts, the strategy is simple: At the wave of a flag everybody starts ramming into everybody else, trying to damage and disable competitors’ cars. Experienced drivers run in reverse as much as possible and aim for the vulnerable radiator and tires.
An official makes sure nobody lies back in the shadows to wait for attrition to thin the competition; a car that doesn’t pitch into the battle can be disqualified.
There are no timeouts. The action is interrupted only for some type of safety concern — a car catches fire, for example, or during the rare instance in which a driver is shaken up and requires assistance.
Eventually, there are only two cars still under power and banging away at each other. And eventually, one takes a crippling shot and gurgles to a stop.
“It’s not as dangerous as it looks,” Big Country shouts over the smoke-shrouded din of screeching tires, growling engines and crunching metal. “I feel safer out there than I do on the interstate.”
He grins and adds: “Admit it — wouldn’t you like to do this the next time somebody cuts you off in traffic?”