The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000


Seek, continued

by Andrew Weiner

The driver will then remove all windows, mirrors, and chrome from the car, and replace the gas tank with a reinforced fuel cell that sits in the back seat. DENT drivers are allowed to bore out their engines and equip them with headers, like a muscle car. They add roll cages, weld the bumpers to the body, and tweak the steering and suspension so that the car actually gets stronger as it deforms. Months of work can go into a car that will likely be totaled within minutes. Some cars finish derbies in such bad shape that a forklift is needed to remove them from the track.

But there's something perversely noble about giving a junked car one last joy ride. As one driver explains to me: "When you get to the end of a car's life expectancy, it's a fitting way to send it out. Sort of like a Viking burial. It's better to burn out than to fade away."

To hear derby drivers tell it, the sport is the most fun you can have on this side of the law. They don't make any money doing it, and when I ask them to explain their obsession, nearly all respond with phrases like "nonstop excitement" or "one hit and you're hooked." Mike Denio owns a tavern in Troy, New York. In the past 10 years he's competed in more than 50 derbies; once he ran seven demos in five days. His most vivid demo memory is of trying to extinguish his burning pants with a blanket while still ramming other cars.

Mike describes his first derby this way: "You've always been taught not to hit another car, and the first time you hit another car on the track you say to yourself, `I'm not supposed to do that.' Then you just start to laugh. That laughter never stops."

Cindy talks about how she often gets jitters at the start of an event: "The first hit is the scariest, but after that you calm right down and go out there and kick somebody's ass."

Other competitors speak of the massive adrenaline surge that comes with the opening gun, and describe the act of annihilating cars as a great stress reliever. Says "Crazy" Joe Severance, a long-haul trucker: "Since it's my job to avoid idiots on the highway, it's very nice to get out there for a little legalized road rage."

Later, as I'm driving home, I begin wondering how it would feel to override every healthy instinct and make that first hit. To unlearn two torturously dull months of drivers' ed, to unlearn the discipline of my entire lower nervous system, and to unlearn the mixture of laws, ethics, and manners that keeps me from using my car to whale on the asinine chucklehead in the sport-futility who blithely cuts me off while yammering on his cell phone.

All of a sudden I catch myself drifting out of my lane, and I figure I'd better unlearn this whole train of thought, and quick. But I can't help wondering: is that what freedom feels like? In a society that seeks its answers from high-tech gadgetry and holistic medicine, is real emancipation as simple as battering a Chrysler to pieces?

The skies open up just as the final round starts, and within minutes the track is a knee-deep slurry of mud, motor oil, and transmission fluid. Then lightning strikes the hillside opposite the speedway, forcing most, but not all, of the remaining fans out of the stands for shelter.

The whole spectacle is deeply, deeply wrong, but in a way that somehow feels right. I'm so soaked and slaphappy that I ditch any sense of professional objectivity and begin hollering out for Cindy and Elmo to win.

But, alas, after taking several punishing blows, Cindy's Crown Vic finally gives it up. By this time Elmo is almost unrecognizable under a thick coating of grime.

Between the mud and the cars' overworked engines, it grows steadily harder for drivers to deliver the necessary death blows. It takes a good half-hour to whittle the field down to the last two cars, piloted by Wayne Clemens and Aaron Bunce.

For five minutes the cars go at each other with the spent brutality of two heavyweights in the last round of a prizefight. When it becomes clear that this is going nowhere, the officials arrange a final showdown. Taking to opposite ends of the track, Clemens and Bunce rev up and come directly at each other in a kind of bizarre dystopian joust.

Sensing a kill, the remaining spectators crowd the fence, oblivious to the mud being churned up in their faces. Mercifully, the end is not long in coming, and Wayne Clemens climbs out of his wasted car to claim victory and a $5000 check. Soggy and sated, the derby fans and competitors slog off to their cars for what must be an anticlimactic drive home.

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