Crunch Time

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

By car, however, he means body, because he strips everything else out of it. "I'm basically pulling the Ford stuff out of it and using the body," Schwartzkopf explains. He always uses the same engine, a small-block Chevy 350, which was designed with its distributor cap in the back of the engine rather than the front. With Ford motors, one good knock at the distributor kills the engine.

He then robs the graveyard for the rest of the parts: heavy-duty forklift tires and a protective steel cage to guard him from the torrent of opposing bumpers that the next day will be wreaking havoc on his neck. His transmission only needs two gears: forward and reverse.

Races are won in the garage as much as they are on the track. "A lot of guys get the cart before the horse," says George Sims. "They've got the body secured, but ten minutes before the derby the car won't run."

Derby drivers range from skinny, testosterone-fueled 
teenagers to seasoned mechanics with permanently 
oil-stained hands.
Jennifer Silverberg
Derby drivers range from skinny, testosterone-fueled teenagers to seasoned mechanics with permanently oil-stained hands.
Viewed from the stands, demolition derby is one of the 
most ridiculous and exciting spectacles around, 
somewhere between NASCAR, boxing and marbles.
Jennifer Silverberg
Viewed from the stands, demolition derby is one of the most ridiculous and exciting spectacles around, somewhere between NASCAR, boxing and marbles.

To be successful, Sims advises, "Go down to the Goodwill and get a three-piece suit. Wear that to the track. Come in with a briefcase. Tell yourself you're in the demo business going to work to make some money. You gotta get your head right. You gotta get your car right."

Hold on to your day job if you're thinking of joining the derby circuit. A typical Sims derby purse will range from $1,800 to $3,400, with an average of $600 for the winner. The rest is divvied among other top finishers.

"I don't know about making money," muses Schwartzkopf, "but the last five, six years, I probably bring in five to ten thousand a year." But most of that income goes back to the shop and to acquiring cars, which can become expensive as choice models become harder to find.

The right car changes as certain models become extinct. In his time on the circuit, Sims has seen his share of favorites. "We went from 1960 to '64 Fords -- that was the king dog at one time. Then we moved to the later model [Chrysler] Imperials. I've made this transition three or four times." Last year, he eliminated most cars from the '70s. That's changed the game. The drivers have now discovered Fords.

Mid-'80s Ford bodies are cheap because so many were sold and so few still run. "They're pretty much a dime a dozen," explains Schwartzkopf. "These Ford LTDs and Crown Victorias, they're $25 or $50. But the old big Chevy, they're anywhere from $300 to $800 for just the body, and that's why you can't get the local county-fair guy that's going to run more than a few shows a year to pay that kind of money for them."

In 1977 the government started enforcing standards for better gas mileage. The industry's solution, says Sims, "was to take 900 pounds out of cars." That weight was in the body, and the seasoned drivers began hunting for the heavier cars. "All these guys were hoarding those cars. The hardcore derby drivers not only had the experience, but they had the equipment."

Sims said the rule change balanced the disparity, and he's seeing an increase in fledgling drivers. "These guys that used to do it are still there, but they're all on a level playing field. They don't have a car advantage anymore."

Schwartzkopf, meanwhile, wins in his Grand Marquis. He's won the Washington County derby a dozen times, he says, which makes him a target in his hometown. "You'll hear some trash talk about me tomorrow night," he says. "These guys have it in for me."

And, by association, they'll have it in for me too. I'm riding with Schwartzkopf tomorrow night.


You ready for this?" says Schwartzkopf as he motors his 1988 Chevrolet Cavalier toward the track and backs into his position. I nod as I stuff in earplugs, pull on a helmet and strap on some racing goggles. He imparts a few safety tips: Keep an eye out for door slams and don't, under any circumstances, hang your hands or arms out the windows. Most important, become a noodle. Roll with the punches. The more you resist the impact, the more you'll ache tomorrow.

Easier said than done. "Five, four, three, two, one!" The race begins as we move in reverse toward trunks fast approaching. I crane my neck to look back just as we slam into a Ford Pinto and my head jerks back, then forward, then back again. One hand's holding the door handle, which quickly becomes unglued from the door. Schwartzkopf spins the car around and moves toward the rear quarter-panel of an Escort, and we crunch hard. Just as we hit, we're slammed, and my torso changes directions way too quickly. I'm in the middle of a bumper tornado. A car swipes us and pops off my side mirror, and glass shoots up and hits my goggles.

Across the track another Cavalier sits like a bull blowing nostril smoke. It's sizing us up. Schwartzkopf doesn't see it. Here it comes, barreling in, straight at the front quarter-panel. Just as it's about to hit, Schwartzkopf pulls forward. The car slams smack into my door going what seems to be 80 miles per hour -- though it's probably closer to 20. My body surges left. Were it not for the seat belt, I'd be flying into the grandstand right now.

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