The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000


Seek, continued

by Andrew Weiner

MISS MUPPET: Cindy Regimbald entered the Eastern finals with a Tickle Me Elmo doll wired to the front of her car. "The first hit is the scariest," she says, "but after that you calm right down and go out there and kick somebody's ass.

The spiritual forefather of the sport is generally taken to be "Head-On" Joe Connely, who earned his name staging collisions between locomotives for state fairs at the last turn of the century. Beyond that, demo resembles other sports in the patchiness of its official history: for some time conventional wisdom had it that Larry Mendelsohn, a stock-car driver, organized the first real demolition derby at Long Island's Islip Speedway in 1958. Until its closure, the track proudly billed itself as the birthplace of the sport. Todd Dubé, however, has researched the records of state fairs and racetracks and established that a derby was held eight years earlier, in Franklin, Wisconsin. As he tells it, the event was sponsored by "Crazy Jim" Groh, a local used-car dealer with a surplus of product. A third story, probably apocryphal, holds that demo originated on a street corner with a fender-bender that turned ugly.

Whatever the origin, demo in the 1960s and early '70s made a gradual transition from local curiosity to national sporting event. This unlikely debutante was finally presented to society in 1974, with a series of national broadcasts on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Demand held steady for the next two decades, with an average of more than 2000 derbies annually, most of them in the Great Lakes region and the Midwest. Over time, demo inspired a series of spinoff events: colliding school buses have long been a popular attraction, and other derbies have featured motorcycles, New York City taxicabs, and combines. (Combines!) One event in the '70s featured a game where two teams of cars tried to push a VW Beetle across a set of goal lines. But as the novelty of mainstream demo wore thin, it gradually lost its hold on the nation's attention. The sport also lacked cohesion. Multiple local events billed themselves as "national championships." (Not surprisingly, the US is the only country where demo exists as an organized event.)

In response to these problems, Todd Dubé decided to organize DENT. The new tour began by increasing purses and relaxing restrictions on modifications, allowing roll bars, high-performance gas, and beefy forklift tires. These changes appealed to drivers and fans alike, and seem to have succeeded in raising the profile of the sport. ABC Sports has contacted DENT about televising the national finals, and the Discovery Channel filmed this year's Southern regionals for a documentary that will air in August.

In coming years Dubé hopes to double the number of regional events and create a sanctioning body with the aim of obtaining better insurance coverage for drivers.

But participants have a more practical perspective on the future of the sport. When asked how he pictures demolition derbies in 10 years, Mike Denio gave this response: "It's going to be a lot harder to find mid- or full-size American cars to wreck."

AS STORM clouds mass on the horizon, Cindy and Elmo finish slugging their way to victory in their qualifying heat. The tail end of her Crown Vic is thoroughly bashed in, but the front is relatively untouched. This is a good sign: it means Cindy's done a good job of protecting her radiator, one of a derby car's weak spots. As far as demo strategy is concerned, hitting with the rear end is about as technical as it gets. That, and remembering where the gas pedal is.

The threatening rumbles begin to get louder as drivers joke about the tornado warning issued earlier that day. The forecast was so dire that a good number of ticket holders have stayed home. (This explains the event's disappointing attendance of 619 -- other DENT regionals have drawn crowds of more than 4000.) Earlier, officials had decided to cancel the consolation round in order to beat the bad weather. In the pit, Cindy's crew members are lighting their cutting torches, ready to make last-minute repairs to her car before the final heat.

Although a skilled driver and a good crew are essential for victory, many derbies are really won before they start. A viable, or "crash-worthy," demo car begins with an empty body -- a "shell" -- which typically costs around $500. The shells the pros use are almost exclusively American models from the early to mid '70s, the golden age of the overpowered land barge. The Chevy Caprice and Impala tend to be well represented, as are Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and the occasional Cadillac.

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