Crunch Time

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

Schwartzkopf kicks it into reverse and spins around, looking for the wounded, which he finds locked between two now-dead cars. It's stuck there, its driver shifting forward, then reverse, like he's trying to parallel park. Too late. Our Cavalier nails it in the rear wheel, which kills the axle.

Now there are three cars, and Schwartzkopf illustrates why he's the king of the derby: He's a driver. He moves in circles around dead cars with amazing grace and skill, squeezes between them without scraping. Even if he does hit, who cares? What's a little nick on this car?

He's doing his best to engage without going crazy. The steering wheel spins and spins as Schwartzkopf moves from wheel to shifter to wheel, moving forward and backward. Cars circle like sharks.

As each heat concludes, cars that can still run scoot 
off the track. Those that can't are towed back.
Jennifer Silverberg
As each heat concludes, cars that can still run scoot off the track. Those that can't are towed back.

At some point the Cav's trunk is so damaged that he has to crane his neck to see above it. But he doesn't care. As the race proceeds the cars start to look like wounded animals. Tires flatten, then shear, then flop, until they're running on a raw rim. Twenty minutes later -- a span of time that seems to last forever -- we are one of two cars standing.

Judge Shannon Virdin walks out as George Sims announces the sudden-death nose-to-nose, a term I'm heretofore unfamiliar with. I don't like the sound of it. Virdin directs the Cavalier and the Escort into position. Then, from a distance of 30 yards, the judge drops his hands and Schwartzkopf floors it. The car approaches, and all I can see is the grill of the opponent's car headed my way. We collide with crazy velocity.

The first head-on collision is like being punched in the head, throat and chest at the same time. "You okay?" asks Schwartzkopf. I just look at him. This sucks.

Nose-to-nose takes more than one round. Both cars reverse, and Virdin motions, and Schwartzkopf floors it. This second approach is far worse, because I now know what to expect as the headlights grow larger. We smash again, and the seat belt restrains my chest and neck as my legs and head convulse forward.

That's enough for me. "I can't do this again," I scream. "Let me out!"

Schwartzkopf either doesn't hear me or ignores me. Both cars are still running. The judge again waves us forward, and we do it again. I'm numb. The world is swirling. I hurt. So does our opponent, who is now struggling to start his car. Unfortunately, he gets it started. We smash again, and it feels like a baseball bat is pounding my chest. The other driver's car dies. He looks at us helplessly. Schwartzkopf seizes the opportunity and swings it into reverse, then forward, and we push in again hard. I'm shaking and dizzy. My neck burns.

"Nose-to-nose, that's kind of where the line is," says Charlie Perrine. "It's different if you were driving. You were over on the other side where you couldn't brace yourself. You had no control. Over on the driver's side it's a whole different deal, because you have control over how hard you're going to hit this guy and what's going to happen after you hit him. I enjoy it."

We win the derby, and the crowd stands and applauds as we both extricate ourselves from the Cavalier. The world is glowing, and my hands are shaking. I push on my ribcage. It's tender to the touch, and I fear I've cracked it. I'm punch-drunk, and bugs circling the spotlights move in slow motion. Two weeks later, my ribcage will still ache, but the seat belt burn will have healed.

"It's the adrenaline of sitting in the car," Perrine says later of the allure of the derby. "It's a rush that you get when you're in one. If you have anything to do with wanting to smash a car or feel that rush, then you just get the bug and get right in it."

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