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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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."

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.