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
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
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.
Andrew Weiner last wrote for the Phoenix about the death of pinball.
His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.