Demolition Experts

August 25, 2002

Try as we might, my teenage sons and I could not make my wife see
the educational, patriotic and spiritual value of my taking the
two boys to the demolition derby one night.

"Demolition derby is the most American of sports!" I explained.
"Where else do you combine car wrecks, beer and men with welding
torches? Well, aside from rush hour in Birmingham?"

She arched one eyebrow.

"Yeah, Mom," said the boys. "We're talking 3,500-pound bumper
cars! Belching smoke! Crumpling steel! And all served up in the
casual elegance of a county fair!"

She barely looked up from her magazine.

Boy, did she miss out.

The boys learned history! Where else can you watch a 1976 Ford
LTD like the one you borrowed for the prom continually ramming
its grill into a 1973 Olds Toronado like the one your high school
principal drove?

They felt a surge of patriotism! Where else is the American tuna
boat still king? The 1964, '65 and '66 Chrysler Imperials are so
indestructible some demo derbies have banned them. You think the
derbies have banned any damned Subarus?

They practiced math! We witnessed the destruction of 57 cars
(total blue book value: $938). We thrilled to spine-tingling
action with 5,000 other derby-lievers (total teeth: 12,874). We
enjoyed a nourishing dinner of corn dogs, pork chop sandwiches
and fried ice cream (total vegetables: 0).

There was romance! After the second heat, driver Loren Campbell
married one of his crew members, Amanda Smallwood. She was
dressed in a white taffeta gown, her train dragging molten car
parts. Following the ceremony the groom hopped into a grotesquely
misshapen 1966 Chevy Impala in time for the third heat. Typical
groom. Soon as it's over, he's out getting smashed.

There was creative thinking! At one hellacious point, all the
drivers were making like undermedicated Mike Tysons trying to
park Hummers at the Tokyo Nordstrom. Through the smoke we could
see that two metal beasts--one blue, one white--had locked rear
bumpers. Though the blue car was more powerful, the driver could
not break free. So what did he do? He began smashing other
vehicles with the white car. Why can't that man run WorldCom?

We witnessed tests of faith! Ford Torinos rolling on nothing more
than rims. Chrysler New Yorkers, with hoods so crumpled the
drivers couldn't see over them, steaming ahead blindly, hoping to
crunch something--perhaps the funnel cake stand. Buick Regals
whose radiators were spewing like Old Faithful, battling
courageously on their last gasp of coolant.

And all for, what, $12? Who needs baseball?

We studied economics! Demolition derby is the last of the poor
man's sports. It costs $50 to enter. The cars start at $25. "I
paid $500 for this," said one driver. "Plus, I've got about a
grand in my rear end." Weren't those exact words once spoken by
Joan Rivers?

We saw problem-solving! Though derby cars have all their glass,
plastic, lights and knobs stripped off, the batteries and gas
tanks moved inside the car for safety and the doors welded shut,
whatever's left can still break. So half the fun is strolling the
pits, where crews madly sledgehammer and weld, hoping to get cars
rolling again for the next heat.

One guy had 45 minutes to put in a new transmission before his
next race. "I can do it," the guy yelled from under the hood.
"I'm a mechanic." Yet if you took your car to this man for the
same job, it would cost you $2,000 and be ready in three weeks.

Lastly, we learned the importance of family! In the championship
heat the final two cars alive happened to be driven by a father
and son--Bernie Smith and Bernie Jr., of Stratton, Colo. The mom
and two daughters are also derby drivers. "Sometimes," says
Bernie Sr., "we go out in the pasture behind our house and go at
it. You know, at Thanksgiving and stuff."

Can you think of a more heartwarming Oprah?

And who could keep a dry eye at the end, as the 24-year-old
Bernie smashed the 60-year-old Bernie's heap until it resembled
modern art? When the son was declared the winner, the dad popped
out through the front window, ripped off his helmet and beamed,
"I taught him that!" The boys and I embraced.

Still, for some reason, when we got back home, my wife refused to
hear of derby glory until the three of us had showered and burned
our clothes.

Guess we won't spring our new Thanksgiving idea on her yet.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

Who could keep a dry eye as the young Bernie smashed the old
Bernie's heap until it resembled modern art?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)