Mud, Motors, and Mayhem
The adrenaline rush of demo derbies
Get in your car and drive in reverse. Try to hit every car around you.
Hit the other cars as hard and as many times as possible.
Make as much noise as possible. Don’t sit idle for more than two minutes.
Repeat this process until only one car is still drivable, preferably your own.
Welcome to the world of demolition derbies
This mixture of metal, mud, horsepower, smoke, and noise translates into a fun family night for many Kentuckians, and tonight is no exception at the Western Kentucky Fairgrounds in Hopkinsville. Overflow parking is filling up.
You can hear a demo derby before you see it, smell it before it begins. The sound of revving motors drowns out everything else. The whiff of engine exhaust mixes with the night air. The waft of meat cooking on an outdoor grill combines to create a distinctive aroma.
“It’s a thrill,” says Randall Gamble of Hopkinsville. “Think about it. You are driving a 4,000-pound car and hitting other cars. It is just like being in a wreck in a sense. You don’t know what the impact is going to be. It’s kind of indescribable.
“To be good you have to be patient and make smart hits and have good equipment. After you start hitting, it’s hard to keep your thoughts focused. You just want to get out there and hit everything in sight, but those are the drivers who are done first because they waste their own car.”
“It’s just fun doing it,” adds Randy Keeton, who has been participating in demolition derbies since 1989. A member of Pennyrile Electric cooperative, Keeton says the “butterflies” in his stomach disappear after the first hit.
“There’s nothing else like it,” says Jeremy Brown of Hopkinsville. “Nothing else in the world can compare. There is action from start to finish. It’s a show. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
Now 32, Brown started competing in demolition derbies when he was 16.
“My dad took me to two demolition derbies in Michigan every year,” he recalls. “I wanted to do it so bad. When I turned 16, I saw a chance and took it.” His dad even helped Brown build his first five cars.
Like many competitors, Brown has multiple cars. He chooses which one he is going to run in a particular race. Cars are usually only good for a few races, sometimes only one, and it requires about two months to get one ready to compete.
These days, Brown’s biggest fan is 3-year-old Keegan. “Win, win,” Keegan urges his daddy. Brown’s wife takes pictures of her son and husband on the hood of the car.
“He is just like me,” Brown says proudly. “He really enjoys watching me wreck those cars. It’s the same craze I had as a kid.”
Members of Pennyrile Electric cooperative, the Browns are typical of those here tonight. Demolition derbies are a family event—small children are flanked by parents; teenagers sit a few rows away with buddies by their side. They wave to each other, linger for a moment’s chat. They are remarkably quiet.
The growing crowd is situated on bleachers facing each other. Between them is a mud track encircled by a 5-foot-high mud wall and a chain-link fence. Overhead, music pumps up the excitement.
“How many of you are here for your first demolition derby?” the announcer asks, trying to be heard over the roar of engines. Only a few hands go up. This event is clearly back by popular demand.
A large steel door opens, and battered cars drive into the arena one by one like contestants in a beauty contest. As they enter, each car announces itself with its engine. Varoom. Varoom…r-o-o-o-m...r-o-o-o-m.
The cars are all makes and models, but sometimes it’s not entirely clear what they once were. Each has been hit before. Some have a wad of metal where a trunk or a door once was. Others have signs promoting their sponsor or numbers emblazoned on the side. They all have certain safety features—glassless windows, a flip bar on top, safety cages for the drivers. They are a colorful lot, a grown-up version of a child’s much-used toy car collection.
But these are no toys. They are warriors set to do battle. Smoke pours out pipes protruding from their hoods.
Inside the cars, helmeted drivers feel the rush of adrenaline as the cars feel the rush of fuel. Each driver pulls into a place facing the audience. Cars line both sides. This particular event is for mini cars—those with a 4-cylinder engine. The next event features full-size cars. There are 11 cars in this event, more or less in the others. The rules also vary from event to event since different promoters have slightly different rules.
3. 2. 1. Reverse.
You don’t necessarily hear the announcer signal the start, but there’s no doubt the event is on as the cars begin hitting the ones behind them. To the uneducated eye, it quickly looks like mayhem, but there is a method to this seeming madness.
Veteran spectators duck when they see two cars about to collide with the mud wall. They know wads of mud will fly over the fence and pelt them. The mud balls surprise me. They sting my arms, get tangled in my hair, and make brown circles on my pink sweatshirt. It’s all part of the experience.
On the track, cars race forward, jockeying for position for their next hit or to avoid being hit. You can hit another car in either forward or reverse, and you can hit it anywhere except on the driver’s side door. A few cars are already sidelined. Some are stuck in the mud, tires whirling. The mud is every bit as much of an opponent as the other cars. A few cars are jammed together, each trying to break free from the pack. The packs are sitting ducks as cars continue to back into them.
The action usually does not stop except for fire or large debris that creates a safety hazard. In one event, a car loses its front axle and a tire. The action pauses as a Bobcat scoops up the part. In another event, a car catches on fire. The fire is quickly extinguished, the event back on. EMTs (emergency medical technicians) stand by, but tonight they are not needed.
In fewer than 10 minutes, most of the cars are immobile. The few still able to run will square off in the main event or finale feature; the others will compete in a consolation category. Vehicles with forks pick up the immobile cars and haul them off the track.
In the bleachers, I meet Chris Bounds and his girlfriend Marci Reed from Leitchfield. Bounds explains that the events are not called races. “The objective is not to go fast,” he instructs. “The objective is to go hard.”
Bounds says it’s not about anger or frustration, either. “You are trying to take your friend out. At the end, everyone gets out and shakes hands and congratulates each other. There are no hard feelings.”
Back in the day, competitors found an old car, donned a helmet, and started smashing cars in the next derby. Today there are fewer competitors and more rules and regulations.
“The sport has shrunk in the past 10-15 years,” he says. “There is a lot more work that goes into the cars to be competitive, and a lot fewer people willing to do that work.”
Cars are now heavily modified for the sport, according to Bounds, a Warren RECC member.
“Now you need a car that was made in 1978 or later,” he says. “A 1992-97 Crown Victoria is the best.”
It takes knowledge, wisdom, and time to be competitive.
It also requires money. The car itself is likely to cost $700 or so, and then there are all the modifications to satisfy safety rules. You have to have a way to haul the car to events, as well. And this is a never-ending process since most cars are only good for a few events.
Between heats, I talk to spectators. Turns out they are not all from Kentucky. The first five groups I say hello to are from Indiana. Events draw people from several hundred miles, I discover.
Everyone I talk with comes for the action and excitement, and there is certainly nothing dull about these events. As soon as one heat ends, another begins with a new group of cars. Smash. Boom. Bang.
“A good heat is one in which there are a lot of hits,” says Kermit Shrull from Waverly. Shrull works in the auto recycling business. When a car is no longer usable in a derby, Shrull does the final crush and recycles the metal.
Unfolding in front of us is what I call the battle of the blue cars. The two blue cars seem to be the leaders. One of them hits a car hard, then pushes and swings it around. The motion almost looks like a dance.
“You are not supposed to double team,” explains Shrull as he wonders out loud if the two blue cars are in cahoots. “It’s supposed to be every person for himself.” It’s hard to tell, but there are judges looking for just that sort of thing. They haven’t disqualified these cars.
About then a woman walks by. Her sweatshirt says it all: Find. Hit. Junk. Repeat.
DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME
Instead, attend one of the demolition derby events held around the state. Many are held at county fairs and other festivals. Catch the annual demo derby featured in this story at the Western Kentucky State Fair on July 6 at 7 p.m. For more info, go online to www.westernkystatefair.org. Find other events online at www.wecrash.com or www.derbypro.com.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: ANATOMY OF A DEMO DERBY CAR
How do you build a demo derby car, which you might get one hour out of, then destroy on purpose? Randall Gamble tells you how at Anatomy of a demo derby car.