The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000


Seek. Destroy. Enjoy.

Sometimes there's a fine line between sport and sideshow. Exhibit one: Demolition derby

by Andrew Weiner

BACK THAT THANG UP: in demolition derby, hitting with the rear of the car is about as technical as it gets.

WEST LEBANON, NY -- Cindy Regimbald has a thing for her Elmo doll. "Elmo is my mascot," she happily informs me as she readjusts her hair scrunchie. "We go everywhere together."

Today, "everywhere" means onto a dirt-track speedway in eastern New York and directly into a series of other cars traveling at speeds ranging from five to 50 miles per hour. Cindy's adorable red plush toy is wired to a steel grate that has replaced the windshield on her LTD Crown Victoria. Cindy herself, an affable and soft-spoken 23-year old, is a demolition-derby driver with nine trophies on her wall back home in East Middlebury, Vermont.

Cuddly little Elmo has a front-row seat for the Eastern finals of the 2000 National Championship Demolition Derby Series. He doesn't know what's about to happen, and that's probably a good thing: during the next two hours he will sustain more high-impact collisions than the Volvo test lab sees in a year.

Ten minutes after I talk to her, Cindy and 56 of her fellow drivers are in a last-minute huddle with Todd Dubé, president of the Demolition Events National Tour, or DENT. "Cars that catch fire," he says, "will be allowed to continue at the officials' discretion. Rollovers are okay. Now go out there and make good hits. No love taps, and no sandbagging."

What Todd calls sandbagging, anyone else would call self-preservation. Braking before impact, waiting more than 20 seconds between hits, and generally staying out of harm's way -- these are all against the rules of today's derby, and will result in disqualification. In a sport that has about as many rules as kill-the-carrier, the ban on sandbagging is sacrosanct. The only other thing you can't do is drive directly into a driver's-side door.

To the assembled drivers, this speech is a mere formality. The three-year old DENT circuit is the closest thing demolition derby has to a major league, and most of today's entrants -- here to qualify for the national championship -- are veteran competitors. Some of them have traveled from as far as Texas for their shot at being crowned the least defensive driver in America.

FOR A first-time spectator, not even a complete viewing of the Mad Max trilogy would be adequate preparation for the sensory assault of a demolition derby. Within a minute of the opening gun, the track becomes carmageddon.

Collisions come fast and thick, about one per second. The smell of charred Buick hangs thickly over the stands. To protect their engines, most drivers crash backward into each other, which gives the track the look of a mall parking lot populated by psychotic elderly drivers. The roar of muffler-less engines is punctuated by thud after thud; it sounds like a dozen refrigerators landing on a busy airport runway. Unidentified car parts arc high into the air. Fans hoot lustily. One car does a complete rollover, only to drive on as though nothing had happened.

Halfway through the heat, a Chevy lines up a stalled Chrysler from across the track. As the Chrysler's driver flails with the ignition, the Chevy uses a hundred-foot head start to unleash a devastating hit. The whole passenger side of the Chrysler caves in; it looks like a dinghy struck by a cannonball. The crowd erupts in cheers, only to sober up when it appears that an ambulance might be needed. But just then a feeble wave from the Chrysler's driver lets us know he's okay, and the derby continues, growing uglier by the minute.

I want to want to stop watching, but I can't. It's kind of like a massive . . . er . . . car wreck.

What one might loosely call the genius of demolition derby lies in its simplicity. Stock-car racing is hugely popular in America, and many race fans will freely admit that they come for the chance of seeing a spectacular pile-up. Like a sports-highlight reel, demo (as it's known to its followers) takes the active ingredient of stock-car racing and isolates it to make a more concentrated form of entertainment.

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Andrew Weiner last wrote for the Phoenix about the death of pinball. His e-mail address is