It went almost unnoticed outside the television industry when the Demolition Derby recently changed its license plates from ABC to CBS. "Well," cynics in the business said, "ABC grabbed the Kentucky Derby away from CBS, so CBS had to go out and try to get some kind of derby."
For a dozen years ABC had shown the Demolition Derby so often on its Wide World of Sports that to some viewers it had become little more than a crashing bore. But apparently those people are in the minority, if the rights fees CBS paid for the show are any indication. When ABC first broadcast the event, it cost the network about $2,000. Estimates of what CBS paid to acquire the derby and one of its counterparts, Figure-8 racing, run as high as $750,000 for five years. Not even CBS knows exactly when it will telecast these events, but that seems to make no difference to derby fans. They will find it whenever it's on. They always do.
The Demolition Derby is the ultimate in televised sporting corn. Unlike the Roller Derby or professional wrestling, which have not been the subjects of regular network telecasts, the car-wreckers appear nationally in prime sports viewing spots. In fact, Demolition Derby is recognized as the forerunner of the made-for-television events that have proliferated in the last few years. Partly because of the success of the derby, sports TV now includes The Superstars, wrist-wrestling and actors who seem to spend more time on Celebrity Bowling and Celebrity Tennis than on location. And, along the way, it has made its home base, Islip, N.Y., into a relatively famous town.
Ratings for the Demolition Derby are among the highest for sports events; all told, an estimated 25 million viewers watched it last winter. The derby is also popular with the networks because it can be taped and telecast in segments throughout the year. ABC shot Derby Day in 1974 and got five shows out of it.
"This year when our contract with ABC was up," says Dick Corbeil, the head of Spectacular Promotions, which runs the Islip show, "I made a quick phone call to CBS to see if they might be interested. They told me to come up to their office right away. It was tough to leave ABC. The network helped make the Demolition Derby by putting it on almost from the start. Now you can mention it anyplace, and people say, 'Oh, yeah, from Islip, Long Island.' "
Many tracks run demolition derbies, but Islip's is the only one seen on television regularly. The madness originated there in 1958 when a former dishwasher, banana boat loader, gas station operator and coal shoveler named Larry Mendelsohn crashed his stock car through the fence and into the grandstands during a race. Islip was then attracting sparse crowds for stock and midget racing. When Mendelsohn cracked up, he noticed that far more people were fascinated with his wreck than with the ongoing race. He borrowed $1,000 and bought the track, even though he was $44,000 in debt. He started the Demolition Derby in 1961 and, largely because of television exposure, began drawing big crowds. Attendance sometimes reaches 15,000 people, who pay up to $5 to sit on stands made of rickety boards.
That is a long way from the derby's early days, when its publicity consisted of classifieds that read, "Wanted: 100 Men Not Afraid to Die." On another page of the paper appeared photographs of some derby drivers under the headline, "Are They Brave or Are They Stark Raving Mad?"
Now nearly all the derby's promotional matter includes the fact that the races will be televised. A flyer says, "So Spectacular...all of these great shows will be videotaped in color and shown nation-wide on CBS-TV Sports Spectacular." Entry blanks carry a reminder that "Drivers will be interviewed in front of the TV cameras, so it is important to look neat."
The winner of the men's world championship Demolition Derby receives $1,500, and the winner of the ladies' Demolition Derby takes home $100. It costs $10 to enter, and if a contestant has no car, the track will supply one for $100. When a vehicle becomes so damaged that its driver does not want to pay to have it towed away, the track sells it for scrap for $45.
The success of the Demolition Derby, in which the competitors smash into each other until only one car is left running, has spawned variations, although these are seldom seen on TV. Blackout demolitions are raced at night; the winner is the last car remaining with its lights shining. A football demolition has a small auto, often a red Volkswagen, that is bashed between teams of larger cars until it is pushed over a goal line.
Carl Voelker, 37, is typical of the drivers at Islip. "I started coming to the races when I was 12," he says. "Last year was my best; I won $4,262. I've been interviewed on television five times. My son is 17, and he wants to go into the derby, but I'm going to quit. Now I want to drive modified stocks."
Voelker may not find the same satisfaction in racing around a track trying not to hit the other cars. Many Demolition Derby drivers claim they compete to relieve the frustrations of driving in everyday traffic; what a wonderful feeling to be able to slam into an old heap and watch it lurch to a halt amid clouds of steam. Others simply enjoy the camaraderie. One driver says he comes all the way to Islip from Montreal because "You run into a lot of nice people."