Crunch Time

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

Drivers of pickup trucks pulling derby cars are lining up a dozen deep and waiting to register. A cornfield behind them provides a natural boundary. The rainbow that flared during a short-lived downpour has faded, and the late-July air hangs thick with humidity.

The drivers range from skinny, testosterone-fueled teenagers to seasoned mechanics with permanently oil-stained hands. They pay the $30 entry fee and sign a waiver that releases Sims' company from any liability. Anyone can play this game. The only qualification: a driver's license. After registering, drivers move into the big pit area, where cars are inspected by Sims' judges.

The demolition derby crashed into existence 46 years ago at the Islip Speedway on Long Island. The rules were so elementary even Cro-Magnon man could understand: a mess of old clunkers slam into one another until just one -- the winner -- is still running. The father of the sport, if one can call it that, was a 28-year-old stock-car driver named Larry Mendelsohn, who grasped the ruthless truth that most race fans love crashes.

The relationship between stock-car drivers and derby 
drivers has long been a contentious one. 
"Demolition-derby drivers call [stock-car drivers] circle 
jerks," says one promoter.
Jennifer Silverberg
The relationship between stock-car drivers and derby drivers has long been a contentious one. "Demolition-derby drivers call [stock-car drivers] circle jerks," says one promoter.
"I got drivers that are normal-looking people," says 
George Sims, "and some that look like they come off 
the set of Deliverance."
Jennifer Silverberg
"I got drivers that are normal-looking people," says George Sims, "and some that look like they come off the set of Deliverance."

In the beginning the derbies captured the hearts of blue-collar America. ABC's Wide World of Sports aired the automotive jousts almost weekly throughout the 1960s. Though the sport's popularity has plummeted (Islip is now a shopping mall), there remains a steady niche of people who get their kicks watching rust buckets smash into one another.

The relationship between stock-car drivers, some of whom spend $50,000 or more on the cars they run, and derby drivers, who might cough up less than $100 for a new body of armor from a junkyard or salvage auction, has long been a contentious one. "Demolition derby drivers call them circle jerks," notes National Demolition Derby Association founder Leonard Pease. "Who wants to see cars riding around in circles? And them circle jerks do not like demolition-derby cars."

Unlike most American sports, the derby is seemingly ruled by chaos. There's no national governing body, no standard set of rules. Each promoter has its own guidelines for car construction, acceptable makes and models, and purses.

Pease and his derby association tried to forge a semblance of uniformity, but George Sims is adamantly opposed -- and told Pease as much the one time he tried to set up a booth at a Sims derby.

"I said, 'Who the hell died and left you in charge? Get the hell out of here.'"

"Cars get turned away because the rules are different for each promoter," argues Pease. "They can run one town, and then fifteen miles away there's another derby two weeks later, and they ought to be able to run that derby too. If everybody was on the same page, it would simplify it. Everybody would know what to expect."


Old American cars are coveted throughout the world, and each bit of steel is revived and reused until it rusts away. In Nashville, Illinois, and elsewhere on summer nights along America's rural routes, cars are demolished -- on purpose. It's happening on a Saturday night amid the farmlands.

As race time approaches, the rumble of muffler-less engines sounds like a swarm of angry Harleys. Nashville derby drivers are, for the most part, rural men whose daytime ride of choice is the shiniest new full-size pickup. The trucks glisten in front of trailers carrying the remains of 1985 Detroit. The cars look like the stars of Road Warrior, each spray-painted with its driver's favorite number and miscellaneous slogans, boasts and one-liners: "Service with a Smile," "City Morge (sic): You stab 'em, we slab 'em." "I Love My Wife" and "Mom, Can I Borrow Your Car?"

The crews work like they're getting ready for the Daytona 500. "It's not like you just throw it together to wreck it," explains driver Ron Pazera. "You want to see if your stuff's better than the other guys' stuff. I like to fiddle around with things to see if I can make it better than it was. That makes it fun."

George Sims scampers through the pits on his golf cart and calls the men to the head of the track for the pre-derby meeting. They surround his cart in a semicircle. The drivers digesting Sims' information are 99 percent male, although an occasional woman will participate. This isn't an old man's sport; the body can't take the constant barrage of banging.

"I'm not here to win," one teenager explains as he registers. "I'm just here to have fun. Tear shit up. It's the only time you can do it legally."

"I've got drivers that still got all their teeth, and I got some that don't," says Sims. "I got drivers that are normal-looking people, and some that look like they come off the set of Deliverance."

Another derby promoter, Charlie Perrine, says his competitions also draw an odd assortment of men. "I have doctors, lawyers, cops, you name it, that run in my shows. If you like some kind of excitement in your life, if you climb in one of them cars one time, a demolition derby one time, and get out there and get smashed and you happen to like it, you're hooked right there."

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