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September 27, 1999

Captain Crunch

There's more to sleepy little fall fairs than pumpkin judging and quilts.
There's the modern day equivalent of jousting - the Demolition Derby!

Forget all that propaganda about sexual divisions, racial divisions, and even Canada's omnipresent English/French bickering - there are actually only two types of people in this world. There are Watchers. And there are Doers. I must admit that for a good portion of my life I have been a Watcher, content with going through life as an enthusiastic spectator. But recently, I became bored with living vicariously through the accomplishments of others. It was time to get into the game. So when the fall fair season rolled around, I knew what I had to do. I had to enter the Demolition Derby.

Entering a demolition derby is a watershed for most people. It marks that point when you leave your life of quiet desperation behind and throw aside the primal instinct of self-preservation, twentieth century society's respect for personal property and your deepest, darkest fear of insurance companies. You come to the realization that cars are not just for getting from Point A to Point B - they're sports equipment... something to be customized to fit your purposes, used hard and then discarded. And from that day forward, commuting to work will never be the same again.

When I told my friends that I had entered the derby at a local fall fair, I was surprised, amazed and a tad disappointed at how many of them couldn't figure out why. Was the concept too deep? You don't have to be a mechanic, a gear-head, or a car nut to be in the derby. In fact, I can't understand why more people aren't - it should be the perfect stress-release. How many commuter drones, stuck in traffic hell, haven't wished they had the nerve, the money or the Bluesmobile incarnate to just lose control and plow their way out of there? How many people haven't felt the anger and resentment building inside them when some inconsiderate slob has left a divot in their previously pristine car door? And how many people have kicked themselves at their own vanity as they hurried off to an auto body shop get an estimate on fixing a ding in their bumper? Aren't bumpers there to be bumped? These kinds of pent-up frustrations can kill you. But forget the therapy sessions and save the Yani CD's for cheese boards, for a paltry twenty-five dollar entry fee you can get it all out of your system. For the price of a two four of beer - it's pay-back time!

Finding and prepping a demo car is kind of like making an apple pie from scratch - it's a fair amount of work and that scares a lot of people away. But even if you know absolutely NOTHING about cars, the selection of a derby car is fairly easy if you remember three simple concepts: bigger is better, rust is your enemy, and Fords crumple easier. A lot of people go for old station wagons for their extra rear crumple zone but I prefer old Chrysler products. You have to be careful, though, because some derbys have actually banned old New Yorkers and Imperials on the grounds that they were built on Sherman tank frames and therefore represent a threat to the survival rates of other drivers. The derby I was in allowed them so I combed the countryside until I found a '74 Chrysler Imperial that had spent the last few years as the rural equivalent of a lawn jockey. It was in pretty rough shape: the interior had been ripped apart by something pretty large and fairly mean, it had been deemed uncertifiable due to its complete lack of floorboards and all of the windows had those safety glass cobweb shatters that are so fun to make as long as you aren't using your forehead to do it. But the frame was solid and I was sure that I could revive the engine, even for an hour or so. So for sixty dollars, cash and carry (literally), I was set.

Once you've settled on a car, the actual prepping process is a little more involved. But to demo derby types, it can only be described as a labour of love. First the windows all come out. Then the chrome trim, door handles, mirrors and anything else that could become a projectile is removed. The doors are welded and chained shut. So are the hood and the trunk, but not before holes are cut in them to provided visibility if they fly open and accessibility in case of fire. Speaking of which, the interior creature comforts have got to go - carpeting, head liners and door panels are way too combustible for this type of game. The gas tank is removed and replaced with a 2 gallon tank anchored where the back seat used to be and a new gas line is run through the car to the engine. With the removal of each piece of glitzy cosmetic finery, the car gets uglier. With each pass of the cutting torch, the beast looks meaner. With each modification, it is less a '74 Imperial and more a Battle Wagon/ Deathmobile/ Mary-Kay-From-Hell-mobile. By the time you are done, its appearance actually scares you. Just looking at it gives you the prom-night jitters of impending doom. You can only hope that the competition is similarly shaken.

The evening of the derby started with the registration of the drivers and a quick meeting to make sure that everyone knew the rules. There aren't that many, but the referees are firm on them and breaking one can get you black flagged and shut down. Nobody wanted to go to all the trouble of prepping a car to get disqualified for doing something dumb so everyone listened intently: there were to be no head-on hits (as if you'd want to - your rad is up there), there were no intentional driver's door hits, no hiding in the corner and waiting for the smoke to clear (you have to keep up a steady pace of competitive hits or you'll be flagged out) and you were to NEVER get out of your car - even if it was on fire. Derbys may look like mayhem, but they are reasonably choreographed mayhem.

The most interesting thing about the driver's meeting had to be the drivers themselves. Anyone who thinks that demo derbys are for red-neck southern boys hasn't driven in one recently. This was a pretty diverse crowd: a bunch of guys from the immediate area, a lot of guys from the nearby reserve, six or seven women and a guy who was either going to need one monster helmet or was going to have to lose the turban. And while it may sound like a tired cliche, the common interest of wanting to mangle some metal provided an automatic atmosphere of camaraderie amongst the drivers. Like some kind of really violent offshoot of the Optimist Club - we all knew that we weren't like other people, but what united us was the realization that it wouldn't be any fun to be like us if there weren't others to crash into. There's a certain logic to that which can't be denied.

One thing I couldn't help but notice as the drivers meeting got underway was a cheering section of overly-refreshed gals in the stands screaming "GO WOMEN! GO WOMEN!". The grandstand announcer picked up on this and mentioned that yes, there were quite a few women entered this year and that if this trend were to continue, they could have an all-woman heat next year. The drunken gals roared their approval, which I must admit surprised me. Wasn't the whole idea of feminism to have men and women compete equally? Isn't it a tribute to the progress that has been made that men and women are now free to cream each other on a level derby field? Wouldn't segregation be one giant step back into the sixties - back to the days of "Powder-Puff Derbys"? Or am I just taking this whole thing just way too Sensitive Urban Male-ish? Probably...

While finding a car was fun and prepping it was exciting, nothing matches the pure rapture as you sit there on a derby field in your revving, shaking, flame-belching beast, doorhandle-to-doorhandle (if anybody still had any) with two cars as mean and ugly as your own, gazing over your shoulder at the back ends of a row of eight more monstrosities soon to be headed your way. The starter counted down from five and when he got to "...TWO...ONE..." there was a flash of sick hesitation in my heart - the same one that I get at the top of a rollercoaster before it plummets down. For one brief moment I think, "Oh, man... this wasn't such a great idea...". But then the starter screamed "GO" and the hesitation was gone. I built this monstrosity. I strapped myself into it. It was showtime!

There was an unexpectedly normal sound to the start. Two opposing rows of eight cars have to back up, touch rear bumpers and then take off. The trip back to meet the other cars seemed way too normal and sounded much the same as the light going green at any given intersection ... in Thailand. Everyone went fairly slow and the cars actually braked for the initial tap. Then we touched bumpers.

At the touch of the bumpers, everyone threw their car into D and stomped on the gas in a strategic effort to claim a corner. Sixteen eight-cylinder cars, all running open headers, were wound out to maximum rpms simultaneously, creating a helmet-rattling roar of acceleration that would have scared the hell out of me if I hadn't been a tad preoccupied grinding my front fenders off trying to squeeze into a corner. I pinned the brakes, threw it into reverse even though I hadn't stopped skidding forward yet, mashed the gas and flipped my right arm over the seat so that I could see where I was going over my shoulder. As I was about to hit something fairly solid, it was probably a position that would have made a chiropractor wince but health concerns were waived long ago. The scream of the engine goaded me on as I blazed across a few yards of real estate and smashed into what used to be a '76 Monte Carlo. Now it was The War Pony and thanks to me it was about 4" shorter than GM meant it to be. But there was no time to gloat. I was out in the open, fully exposed. It was time to... <<CRUNCH>>

I'd been broadsided by someone I never saw coming and my game plan of heading back to my corner was shot. I ended up careening wildly around, ricocheting off people and taking hits to every quarter panel. There was a guy dead ahead of me but I didn't want to damage my rad with a front-on hit. In the world of demo derbys, more cars die from overheating than from anything else. I pinned the wheel hard left, floored the gas pedal and spun the back end around 270, hip-checking his T-Bird and practically knocking him out of his seat. I pulled forward, realized that someone was backing up with me in their sights and threw it into reverse. Sure my foot was on the gas at the time, but seconds counted. Transmission longevity was not an issue. If I took a hit to the front grille like that, my rad would be toast. I out-accelerated him in reverse but in doing so ignored the fact that others were watching me. There was a bone-jarring but somehow erotic crunch of twisting metal as my trunk was mashed up and into my back seat and just as my neck whipped my head back upright, the guy I was avoiding in the first place planted himself in my front grille. The inside of my car now looked like a Turkish bath - only one that stank of burning Prestone and transmission fluid. My rad was toast.

The rad flattener pulled away but I wasn't going anywhere. My trunk had now become one with the trunk of the guy behind me and the two of us sat there heaving and grinding like a beast with two fronts. I've seen stags stuck head-to-head on Wild Kingdom before but I've never seen anything locked butt-to-butt before. The car was still full of steam as I rocked it back and forth, full-speed gear changes grinding my tranny gears to dust. There wasn't much time to get unhooked - if I didn't make a competitive hit soon, I'd be black flagged and told to shut down. The transmission was starting to really clunk into gear and I was genuinely worried that it might seize from the heat when Christmas miraculously came early. A '79 Chev wagon powdered my Siamese twin broadside and I was shaken free!

The field was now strewn with shredded cars, making the place look like rush hour in Beirut. There were only a few cars still moving and even then, it was only by some kind of miracle. Some of them had been torn apart/ mashed in so badly that it was impossible to tell what they'd been when they rolled off the line. Forget what Duvall said about napalm, when you're still moving amidst all this twisted metal, the stench of burning antifreeze smells more like victory to me. It was a bizarre and savage testimonial to Detroit's engineering that these cars were still moving at all. I spent the next few minutes dueling with the last few remaining cars, desperately trying to knock off a tire, crush a wheel well or kill an engine without damaging myself too much more in the process.

By the time we were down to the last three cars, the place looked like the parking lot of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Nay, six of mine enemies had fallen at my left hand and seven more on my right. My passenger door had been crimped in almost to my right elbow, bending the frame about 15 to the right and fatally crimping my gas line. I sat in my gas starved machine and watched the last two combatants go at it for 1st prize, spitting out dirt that I seemed to have eaten during the action and praying that my damaged gas line didn't leak onto the glowing transmission housing. Crashing is fun. Burning alive is another thing entirely...

All in all it was a hell of a night. I did some major pay-back damage to some of Detroit's finest machines and got an adrenaline buzz that'll last me a couple of months. But the greatest thrill of all had to have been going home with a big smile on my face, walking in the front door and without fear of premium increases proclaiming, "Honey, I totaled the car!!"

It just doesn't get any better than this!

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