Crunch Time

The demolition derby is still a gas in the nooks and crannies of mid-America

Going "nose-to-nose" is demolition-derby-speak for what's known to Sunday drivers as the head-on collision, and it's not much fun when experienced sitting shotgun. But from the stands it's pretty cool, and that's what the crowd at the Washington County Fair in Illinois has come to see. They've paid five bucks to witness serious metal-on-metal action. This crowd won't tolerate sandbaggers or pansies. They've come to watch grown men get their necks jerked as LTDs, Bonnevilles and Cadillacs ram into the rear ends of unaware novices.

In a demolition derby, nose-to-nose is the proverbial money shot.

This recent night in Nashville, Illinois, 50 miles southeast of St. Louis, the crowd is watching me run shotgun with Randy Schwartzkopf, one of the area's most respected -- and despised -- drivers. He wins too much, and that makes him a target. I sit staring at the grill of a four-cylinder 1984 Chevy Cavalier as it revs its engine 30 yards in front of us. Its driver has a bead on our car. He's trying to collapse our front end, which is probably going to hurt. The harder he hits us, the better his chances are of beating us, because the goal here is to crush the opponent's engine. Schwartzkopf is gearing up to do the same.

Jennifer Silverberg
Randy Schwartzkopf (foreground) with his father, 
Richard. In the 18 years that the son has been racing, 
he's won 77 feature events. He's only 34.
Jennifer Silverberg
Randy Schwartzkopf (foreground) with his father, Richard. In the 18 years that the son has been racing, he's won 77 feature events. He's only 34.

This is the final weekend of the Washington County Fair, and the grandstands are teeming with locals slurping Budweisers, chomping hot dogs and stealing away to spin circles on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Twenty minutes ago there were nine cars. Two remain. George Sims' raspy voice echoes over the intercom: "We're going nose-to-nose, folks."

"You should probably get out now," advises Schwartzkopf. Foolishly, I decline. Something about pride, and the fear of looking like a sissified city boy in front of a capacity crowd of derby fans, has kept me planted in the passenger side. I'm figuring the helmet and seat belt will spare me. Schwartzkopf looks at me, then at my seat belt. "When we hit," he screams over the ear-splitting rumble of the engine and the crowd, "hold your arms in front of you." I nod. Seven dead cars litter the track.

Amid the motorized mayhem, I've forgotten what Randy's father, Richard Schwartzkopf, had to say about riding in the mini-car heat -- six cylinders or less -- as opposed to the standard big cars. "The mini cars are worse because you don't have as much steel protecting you," he cautions. "You fly all over the place in there."

He was right. For the past fifteen minutes, my neck and head have been twisted and contorted. I've got blood running down my shin and my cheek hurts from getting pelted with hard mud. I've watched an Escort swerve around other cars to specifically target mine and spied eight-year-olds giggle as I felt the sting of whiplash run down my spine. Grandmas applaud my misfortune.

From out of nowhere some dude makes a direct hit on our door, and I'm pushed nearly into Schwartzkopf's lap. In George Sims' derby, door-hits are forbidden, so that was a violation -- if it was intentional, that is. And apparently this one wasn't; the driver of the other car smiles and waves a sarcastic apology before reversing and hitting us again.

Sims, president of Auto Race Promotions, Inc., is the no-bullshit kingpin of this derby. When he's not sitting in the back of the trailer/headquarters/merchandise stand overseeing the check-in process, he zips around the pits, shooting the breeze with drivers he's gotten to know well in the 30 years he's been in the wrecking business. Perched off-track in his golf cart, a microphone in hand, Sims is narrating the race.

Sims sells shirts that read: "Dual Demolition Derby: Where Redneck Games Are Played." He wants to keep his derby on the county-fair circuit -- unlike Leonard Pease, who, under the auspices of his National Demolition Derby Association (based in Pease's hometown of Tower Hill, Illinois), has been trying since 1992 to nationalize and legitimize the sport.

Over in the pit area, two men stand on the hood of an '85 Cadillac and swing sledgehammers, unbending fenders, getting ready for the feature run. As for me, I've just been through road-rage hell, and now I'm in a car preparing to go nose-to-nose. I've got an image running through my head: a grainy black-and-white slow-motion film of crash-test dummies hitting a brick wall and bouncing like rag dolls against dashboards.

"I don't understand the stock market," says George Sims, who brought the derby to the Washington County Fair a quarter of a century ago. "I don't understand Einstein's theory of relativity. I don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg. But about this -- about the demolition derby -- I know more than anybody else on the face of the earth. I know what it takes to work."

Sims is a character. He weighs over 400 pounds, and with his white beard, he'd make an excellent Santa Claus. He'll go from quoting poet T.S. Eliot to quoting legendary driver Roger Penske. He can also ramble on about the intricacies of every American car built since 1950: dimensions, horsepower, body type, structural strengths and weaknesses that separate the great derby car from a dud.

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