Crunch Time

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

Sitting in his cart, Sims explains the basic rules. No intentional door smashes. If a judge spies someone laying back and saving his car, he'll be warned, then booted. Most of these guys have heard this spiel before. They're veterans, a truth that's echoed by Sims as his voice softens. "I ain't talking you up when I tell you this," he says to the group. "This right here is the best assembled bunch of drivers in the entire state of Illinois. Not only builders, but drivers. There is no place else in this state -- and I've been from one end of it to the other -- that can hold a candle to the talent pool in Nashville."

Sims offers a final slice of derby wisdom: "There's some fellas over here that don't like some other fellas. I know that. But let's handle the animosity with grace. Handle it on the track, not out here in the pits. When you throw that right shoulder over that seat and put it in reverse, you have something in your head except your helmet. Don't do nothing goofy."

On the track, a tanker filled with water crawls out onto the dry dirt, spreads its big steel wings and slowly sprays the track until the dirt has turned to mud, the consistency of cookie dough. Dry tracks are dangerous because the cars gain too much speed, and with speed comes injury. Afterward the pit starts to come to life as the first heat of cars rumble onto the track.

Although the purse is small, the crews work like 
they're getting ready for the Daytona 500.
Jennifer Silverberg
Although the purse is small, the crews work like they're getting ready for the Daytona 500.
At Randy Schwartzkopf's garage, a friend helps 
prepare a car for the derby.
Jennifer Silverberg
At Randy Schwartzkopf's garage, a friend helps prepare a car for the derby.

Half the cars park, asses out, at each end of the rectangle that's the size of three tennis courts lined end-to-end and begin to simultaneously rev their engines. George Sims counts down -- "five, four, three, two, one" -- and the drivers hit accelerators and run in reverse toward each other, colliding in one massive pile-up. Cars then fly out into chaos, spinning to look for targets. The smell of gasoline permeates the fairgrounds. Most move in reverse to guard their engines.

"You want to save the front end for the feature [event]," explains derby veteran Randy Schwartzkopf, "but do enough damage to take people out so you can qualify."

Viewed from the stands, demolition derby is one of the most ridiculous and exciting spectacles around, somewhere between NASCAR, boxing and marbles. As a race progresses, the action moves from being exciting to excruciating to purely laughable as cars run around the track slamming ass-into-axle, sneaking up behind a car and ramming side panels. Spinning tires throw mud, which rains into the grandstand. Cars stuck against walls are quickly killed.

The big hits elicit huge cheers, while random catcalls are spit at sandbaggers -- drivers who don't engage in the crash game but lay back and try to save their cars.

"You know how I do away with them?" says promoter Charles Perrine. "I stop the show and I go out there and put an 'X' on the car. Everybody that's in that heat then knows that that guy's a sandbagger, and they pummel him. And if for some reason they don't go on hitting, I throw them out. People come to the grandstand to watch you smash that car."

Cars start to die after five minutes, and lame-duck drivers sit in their cars and watch the action whizzing around them. They're not allowed to leave their cars -- and they'd be crazy to, anyway, with all the jagged metal racing past.

Schwartzkopf wins his heat, which surprises no one. "Randy wins because he's like Michael Jordan going in for a lay-up," says Sims. "He never breaks his concentration. He never gets mad."

As each heat concludes, cars that can still run scoot off the track. Those that don't are towed back. Then it's a mad dash to prepare for the feature round. Dusk has turned to night, and the sound of sledgehammers and welding torches fills the air.

The day before the Nashville derby, Randy Schwartzkopf readies his Mercury Grand Marquis, which is sitting on a block in the garage of his father's backyard. The car's a sad sack by any standard. All the accoutrements -- the molded plastic dashboard, the hard steering column cover, the carpet -- have been stripped. The car looks naked, like an android with its skin torn off.

Schwartzkopf is an expert mechanic, a critical trait for winning derbies. In the 18 years he's been driving, he's won 77 feature events, and he's only 34 years old.

With handsome features, soft brown hair and a subtle cleft chin that sits at the bottom of a triangular face, Schwartzkopf resembles NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon. He speaks with a gentle country twang and earns his money in a Sauget, Illinois, engine lab where he tests oils, runs engines and tears engines apart to rebuild them. He's married and has two daughters. His wife works at a plant that has a contract with Ford to produce the dashboard of the 2006 H3, the baby Hummer that will be the size of a Jeep Cherokee. Her work might just yield a choice derby car -- circa 2026.

"You'd be surprised at what it takes to put one of these cars on the track -- a competitive car," says Schwartzkopf. "First of all, you have to start out with the right car."

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