Crash Courses For nasty rivalries, earsplitting noise and bone-rattling collisions, nothing beats the mud-caked, low-staked, high-speed, steel-and-horsepower free-for-alls of demolition derby

November 11, 2002

Here are the directions you'll need to find the best demolition
derby drivers: "Go about four or five miles; there's a dairy farm
and a church. Take a right. It's the first house after the stop
sign. You'll see cars and a backhoe." And "Not to be mean or
anything, but there's a junky house on the corner, and we're the
second one after that." Or simply, "Go straight through town. If
you cross the railroad tracks, you've gone too far. You'll know
you're in the right place when you see all the cars."

You drive on straight and flat two-lane highways between
one-sign towns (Dadsville, Germantown, Gratis). The land on
either side is green and open, the miles of soybeans, sod farms
and corn interrupted by the occasional quarry or salvage yard
or state reformatory for women. Wherever you're going, you've
probably still got a ways to go. Everything in this part of the
world seems to be an hour and 10 minutes from everything
else--or, as the old-timers say, "a 12-pack away."

But let's face it. You can think only so long
about soybeans. The road's empty. You floor it.

You're not the first. The pavement in front of many farm turnoffs
is tattooed with black snakes: 40-yard-long side-by-side ess
patches of barely controlled acceleration off a dead stop, or
burnouts. The city may be full of cars, but it's the country
that's full of drivers, and these marks on the road are signs of
practice sessions off to a rip-roaring start. The marks say "bye,
Ma" and "beware" and "arrest me" all at once. One driver--O.K.,
the driver, Scott (Ziz) Zizelman of Celina, Ohio, the 1999 DENT
(Demolition Events National Tour) champion--says that as a young
man he used to put on a new set of tires just to bald them,
completely wearing out the treads in a few hours of tricks and
burnouts on a Friday night.

"We used to take cars out and Baja [off-road wildly] through the
fields," Ziz says. Or he'd do doughnuts, five or six of them in a
row, in the middle of an intersection. Or--and this is where he
and his gang separate themselves from the mere race-car
enthusiasts he calls roundee-rounders--"we drove into bridge
abutments," he says, "just to see what would happen."

This smash-it-yourself brand of intellectual curiosity is the
mark of a demolition derby driver and the sure sign of an Ohio
driver in particular. Out here they fix it so cars improve with
contact--so a couple of good hits at the start of a derby help
wad up the car's rear end to fully weaponize it. "Ohio county
fairs, especially in the southwest or mid-central region, they're
your hammer shows," says Todd Dube, the president of DENT. Dube
knows Buckeyes: 60% of the starters at this year's national
championship, and four of the top five (including first, second
and third), were Ohio drivers. As Zizelman puts it, "This whole
area is pretty derby-warped."

Smashing the family car is wholesome entertainment out here, and
the demolition derby is always a county fair's hottest ticket,
outselling other events such as tractor pulls, monster-truck
shows and even Garth Brooks concerts. Of course, smashing the
family car is even more entertaining when there's family in it.
Jeff Clark Jr., who edged Zizelman to become this year's DENT
champion, says the day his mom beat him at the Morrow County Fair
was the proudest moment of his derbying career: "I asked Dad
before I went into the feature, 'How do I beat Mom?' And he said,
'Well, hit her as fast as you can in the ass with your front
end.' So it came down to three cars, and there was a fire, and I
was clear down at one end, and she was clear at the other. So I
hit her as fast as I could go."

Jeff Sr., winner of more than 100 county-fair features before he
lost his leg in a truck accident, smiles at the memory. "It just
pissed her off," he says.

"It didn't put a dent in her wagon," says Jeff Jr., who's known
as Fatty, putting an arm around his mother, Alice. "And man, she
just let me have it after that. Everybody throws it in my face
that my mom beat me. But I don't care. The crowd loved it."

THE INSPECTION
UNION COUNTY FAIR, MARYSVILLE

Derby driving rules are pretty simple: no driver's-door hits; a
minimum of one hit per minute required of every car; last car
running wins. But before you get to drive, your car has to pass
inspection, and that's not so simple. Old-timers talk fondly of
the days when all you had to do was kick out the windows and go.
"Back when I started," Jeff Clark Sr. says, "if I bought a car
for 15 bucks and it ran, we derbied it. That's when derbies was
derbies." But later in the conversation he gives a sneaky, smoky,
profane little laugh that tells a different story. "You do half
the s---we did then now," he says, "and you'd end up in jail."

That is why, on the day of the show, a brain trust of derby
mechanics gathers on the infield lawn to look over, and under,
the cars. Mostly the inspectors perform safety checks: Doors must
be wired shut so drivers don't fly out; holes must be cut into
the hood so the fire crew can put out engine fires; and so on.
But whenever a trophy-level driver checks in with a well-built
car, the inspection crew--all veteran drivers with their own
mechanical secrets--gets excited. As one inspector says, "It
takes a cheater to know a cheater."

Exhibit A: Tony Long, a second-generation derbier, drives up in a
suspiciously high-riding 1973 Lincoln. With Gary Hart bravado, he
dares the crew to find something: "You can look all you want. Cut
it in half. It's as legal as can be."

When the inspectors find something, Long drives away with a snarl
of his 350 Chevy small-block engine, returning to his flatbed
trailer to jiffy-fix his car. Tim Clark, Jeff Jr.'s uncle and the
chief judge for this derby, seems unconcerned. "He'll cool down,"
Clark says. "But when I seen it sit so high with those factory
springs in it, I knew it had to be welded someplace."

Hidden welds are to derbying what loaded gloves are to boxing:
They make a normal hit harder than it has any right to be. But
checking boxing gloves is easy. Checking for extra iron in a
Nixon-era land yacht out of Detroit--all those old Impalas,
Caddies, Caprice Classics and Malibu wagons--is like finding a
needle in a junkyard. It takes somebody who knows the latest
hiding places, which is why this week's inspector often is next
week's opponent. Does this add an intriguing element of secrecy,
conflict and disinformation to the derby circuit? You bet. It's
like the cold war all over again, with louder motors.

Still, not every jalopy gets the Checkpoint Charlie treatment.
Besides the powerful cars, there's a parade of colorful rust
buckets with no hope of surviving their heats. One driver spends
the entire inspection period spitting tobacco juice straight
through his rotted floorboards onto the grass.

The paint jobs are not quite showroom. One guy has painted KILL
where his speedometer used to be; another, JESUS on his door
handle. The names of loved ones are painted everywhere: DEB,
JIMMY, CHRIS, ELMER. And all cars must have large identifying
numbers; 69 is a popular choice.

To the entries with no chance--the first-timers and "beaters"
that every derby needs--the inspectors speak in a gentle
death-row chaplain's tone. As one overmatched car putts up to
inspection with a woman walking beside it, the inspector asks the
driver, "This your wife's car?"

"The wife don't have a car no more," he answers.

"He ran mine last weekend," she says.

The driver hasn't wired his doors shut. The inspector explains
the necessity of this safety precaution, first to the husband and
again to his wife. He tries to put it in the simplest terms. "I
want him to see his kids," the inspector says.

"They ain't here," the wife says.

"No, I mean I want him to see his kids tomorrow."

"Oh, well," the woman says as she walks away, "he's well
insured."

Pretty soon, Shawn Allen drives up in a '74 Electra 225, number
4667 (his birthday). Allen teaches phys ed, but during summer
vacations he dedicates himself to derbying, spending a lot of
time in the shop whipping his rust-free collection of
see-America-first cars ('74 Custom Cruiser out of Georgia, '76
Cutlass from Tennessee, '75 Impala out of New Mexico and so on)
into tip-top demolition-derby shape.

In his garage the day before the Union County Fair derby, Allen
pointed out a few of his secrets. For instance, his rear bumper
sat at the regulation 22 inches off the ground, but he'd fixed it
so that after a couple of hits the whole back end, with its
three-quarter-ton-truck suspension, would spring up. Once the
derby got rolling, he'd be ramming the sheet metal on other cars
instead of trading blows on their bumpers. He also predicted that
the inspectors would find something they wanted him to change. He
hinted that it would be what he wanted them to find. Sure enough,
after a few minutes of lying on the grass poking around
underneath Allen's Buick, one judge says, "All right, Shawn, come
here."

"Aw, Lordy, here we go," Allen cries with as much acting skill as
you're likely to see in a gym teacher. Moments later, at his
flatbed, he says contentedly, "If they don't send me back, they
think they haven't done their job. It makes them feel good."

Out on the derby field, steam billows from broken radiators, and
rooster tails of mud shoot in every direction; axles bust and
drivetrains snap; wagons crumple, engines seize, tires wobble on
busted ball joints, and one Pontiac climbs the four-foot mud wall
and hangs there; rims hit and sparks fly; mad-dog drivers take
full-track shots for no reason other than a love of impact and a
taste for the grandstand roar. Amazingly, through all the
blindsiding and rear-ending and T-boning and head-on hits by 46
drivers, through three heats, a consolation and the feature
event, everything goes exactly according to Allen's plan. After
the first few hits, his rear end does, in fact, spring up, and
whenever he drives backward (the forward of derbies everywhere)
his car turns into a battering ram. You can hear the roar of his
motor over all the others to the very end, when number 4667, the
last car running (with its $1,200 drivetrain, $2,000 engine and
$300 drag-race axles), doesn't look all that different from how
it looked at the start. It's not about the money: Allen wins $540
for his trouble. Nobody makes money at the demolition derby.

BEATING THE HIT MEN
PREBLE COUNTY FAIR, EATON

"This fairground is vital to the community," Marty Bresher
explains as she drives past the swine barn in her golf cart.
Bresher--the sort of big, loud older woman who encourages grown
men to call her Mom--is a tireless fair booster. She introduces
one official who rattles off the fairground's year-round
schedule: "We got hog sales, cattle sales, weddin's," he says.
"We have the antique tractor show, and after that there's the
pork festival."

It's the day before the derby, when the 4-H shows end and the
little kids have to sell their prizewinning hand-raised pigs,
cows and sheep. "It's the saddest day of the fair," Bresher says.
"There's always a lot of tears." But she can't stay downbeat for
long. "Animalwise," she says, "this is really quite a big fair."

Demolitionwise too. At Preble, in 1999, some 200 cars ran in 12
heats, and the feature didn't finish until after 3 a.m. Recent
turnouts have been smaller because, frankly, Ohio is running out
of derby cars, but Bresher expects well over 100 entries this
year, with heats for full-sized and compact cars, and a
"powder-puff" heat for women.

The Preble County Fair is known for big derbies and hard, heavily
welded cars. It's also notorious for its derby teams: the gangs
of red, black or yellow cars that take out strangers first and
then start on each other. "A lot of people don't want to come up
here because they know they'll get teamed up on and destroyed,"
the chief derby inspector, Joe Deaton, says. "It's a county-pride
thing."

Although Preble's posted rules clearly state NO TEAMING, Deaton
ticks off the lineup: In red there's PCHM (Preble County Hit
Men); in yellow, BRMD (Boys Race Men Derby); and in black, TBMF
(Totally Bad, well, MFs). The most successful team, PCHM, began
when Mark Hibberd and Paul Petro recruited people to run red with
them. The tactic worked: Hibberd won the Preble derby six years
straight before giving it up.

Here's the problem: Successful teaming makes for boring derbies.
In the early '90s PCHM drivers used to eliminate everybody else,
then shut off their engines in order of team seniority, splitting
the prize money and saving their cars. Derby fans hate that.
Preble needed a reckless glory-above-all derby savior to take on
the Hit Men. What it got was Shannon Pugh, a tall, sad-eyed semi
trailer mechanic who sees red, then hits it. "I started nailing
them from the get-go," he says, "and people realized they weren't
as tough as they thought they were."

Pugh is many things: the child of a split family, a dog lover and
wrestling fan, a habitual loser of friends, and a fiercely
devoted uncle who says he'd "go to jail over my nephews."
One-on-one, he can be achingly confessional, but out in public he
seems eager to have others think he's crazy. As Jason Whisman,
his former best friend and current No. 1 enemy, says, "He's got a
charisma that it's like total chaos when he shows up."

On the day of the derby Pugh shows up early. His pickup truck
says PSYCHOTIC across the windshield, and the '74 Impala wagon on
his trailer is painted with tombstones bearing the derby numbers
of enemy drivers. Inspectors okay the car, and Pugh takes his
heat assignment and heads over to the lineup. The lines grow in
the afternoon heat--the Dayton weather bureau has issued a heat
emergency--but the drivers, worried about somebody sabotaging
their engines, stay pinned to their vehicles, checking out the
competition and forming on-the-spot alliances. The sun bakes the
drought-hardened track, making it much faster.

Just before the first heat, the Eaton Fire Department hoses down
the track, a safety measure to cut the pace a little. As a result
the heat, which is loaded with red cars, including Petro's, is
sloshy and slow, like water ballet. By the end, the crowd is
booing as four Hit Men gang up on a lonely, spunky sedan.

The second heat is faster, but the last four drivers, including
Whisman, get penned by a line of wreckage into one side of the
derby field. They circle each other in tight quarters in a
complicated choreography of feints and doughnuts and sudden
braking that give away exactly who made alliances with whom. The
third heat, Pugh's, looks more like rugby, full of scrums, with
cars bashing together and then bulling through the pileup,
followed by long end-to-end runs and full-track hits. In the
fourth heat, after some brave kamikaze shots from flimsy cars,
the surviving drivers turn cautious, and the judges stop the
competition to warn everybody about sandbagging, or intentionally
avoiding contact to save the car. The most compelling sight
during the fifth heat is a drunk who climbs a trackside cherry
picker, then falls off right in front of a pair of state
troopers.

Before the feature (the top four drivers in each heat qualify)
Petro complains that the track hasn't been watered since the
derby started. "The wetter the better," he says. "That way I can
take my car someplace else afterward. If it stays like it is now,
somebody's going to get hurt." Sure enough, as soon as the
feature starts, Pugh slams Whisman--in the driver's door!
Whisman's red running mates surround Pugh, smacking his car
around in the corner, while Pugh's brother, Deron, takes over the
feud with Whisman. The two drive their wagons to opposite ends,
throw them in reverse and slam each other, dead center, wayback
to wayback. Both drivers bounce like crash-test dummies.

Moments later Deron Pugh blacks out, and Deaton, the closest
judge, stops the action. The emergency squad runs out with the
Jaws of Life, but the men can't cut Deron free, because there's a
hidden axle welded into his roof supports. During the long delay
the drivers get out of their cars and curse the fast track
conditions. Sensing rebellion, fair officials have the fire
department water the track again. After the restart (without the
Pughs--Deron leaves on a body board, Shannon under sheriff's
escort after someone accused him of illegal welding and he threw
a fit), the derby looks like ice hockey in penny loafers. The
cars slip and slide rather than bang and bounce. Still, the
result is familiar: In the end four Hit Men, including Petro and
Whisman, are left to gang up on one car.

But this time the outnumbered driver is the savvy veteran Wes
Monebrake, who teamed with the Pughs during the rough early
going. Monebrake keeps slipping away, Jackie Chan--style, and the
Hit Men slam into each other. The few times Monebrake gets caught
in what Zizelman calls "the good old hold 'em and hit 'em," he
waits it out and powers away.

One by one the Hit Men fall, till it comes down to Petro and
Monebrake. Petro, on three wheels now and with his transmission
smoking, knows his car is too beat-up to chance it in the open,
where a fresher, faster Monebrake could waste his wagon in one
shot. So he hides amid the wreckage, dodging Monebrake in a
peekaboo duel at parking-lot speed. It's a fascinating matchup of
strategies: Monebrake, deprived of his speed, aims at Petro's
wheels to break an axle, and Petro takes shots at Monebrake's
midsection, hoping to disable the engine's electrical system. But
after a long struggle Petro pays the price for his slowdown
defense: His gas runs out.

As for the Pughs, both feel fine by the next morning. Three weeks
later they drive in a Dayton derby. Shannon wins.

HOMETOWN DERBY WARS
MERCER COUNTY FAIR, CELINA

But first a beer break. And after you open that cold one, pop the
hood of your car. (It would help if you could take out the engine
too.) Now observe the many natural cup holders--not just on top
of the fender but on the cowl of the wheel well, across that core
support. Beer just goes with derbying. Not during the derby
itself (no, that would be illegal), but just about any other
time: during the wee-hours welding, the afternoon parts run, the
weekend tuning. Sometimes you might even throw a couple of cases
into your truck and just drive around town, seeing who's doing
what to his derby car. People work all hours.

Zizelman, a Budweiser man, sure does. "You see people's shops,"
he says, "and you know it's a poor man's sport." Pure bluster:
Ziz's garage is a derby temple, with a herd of Chevy wagons from
Georgia and Alabama, a cluster of trophies resting on a hood, a
lending library of Chevy small-block engines along the wall, his
Sunday derby car up on a hoist, and enough welding apparatus to
build a small aircraft carrier. "That's pretty weird," he says
with a grin. "I have the most welding equipment, and you're not
allowed to weld."

Ziz thrives on the gamesmanship in demolition derby. He's a big
guy with a basso chuckle, full of bully bonhomie, and he admits
that he "likes to stir up havoc." Even his friends seem wary in
his presence. This can help: At Metal Mayhem, a stock derby in
June, the other drivers were so busy worrying about Ziz that they
didn't notice he lost his steering halfway through the feature.
By calculating his caroms and protecting the middle of the track,
Ziz managed to win the first-place $15,000 paycheck. That's
high-impact bluffing.

Ziz's skill at mind games keeps people guessing in Celina, where
the hometown derby is a year-round obsession. Couples watch derby
tapes on double dates, and everybody seems to know whose dad
built him a new shifter and who's driving with whose rear end.
Speculating about what Ziz is up to is a favorite local pastime.

When Ziz hears that a reporter is going to visit his archrival
and former buddy, Trent Braun, he mentions that he dated Trent's
wife, Jeanelle, in high school. "Whoa, he brings that up," Trent
says, laughing. "We weren't going to get into that." But when he
hears that Ziz also claimed to have taught Jeanelle how to drive,
Trent's mood turns ugly. Jeanelle says she has no idea what Ziz
could be referring to.

Jeanelle drives in the Celina derby too. ("I actually won a derby
when I was pregnant with Joey and we didn't know it," she says.)
Unlike Zizelman, who derbies everywhere and builds a lot of cars,
the Brauns run only in Celina. Trent builds two identical hard
black wagons, number 13 for her, 31 for him. They make a cute
couple, the sort that goes off-roading in the mud on their first
date. The day before the derby they test their cars, doing
doughnuts around each other in a dusty field. They look fearless
and athletic and romantic, like ice dancers.

On derby night the Brauns and Ziz get through the heats and make
the feature, as they have for years. Before the countdown Ziz and
Trent take positions at opposite ends of the track. When the
action starts, it's as if the two men are in their own private
derby, and the other drivers steer clear of them. Ziz Bajas
straight at Trent, bouncing full bore over the ripped-up derby
field, and Trent honors their annual appointment, racing toward
Ziz with no letup. A crash is inevitable, and everybody in Celina
tunes in: This is choice gossip at road-rage speed. The two men
hit, as they say in the sport, ass-end to ass-end, and the front
wheels on both wagons leave the ground. Ziz gets the worst of it,
but he backs up and hits Trent again--Ziz's car crumpling, in his
opinion, way more than it should in a collision with a legal car.
Moments later Ziz's drive-train snaps, and he's through.

Braun goes on to win, but he seems troubled by the victory--and
not because he and Jeanelle, who took third, just junked $2,500
worth of cars to win $1,450. "I got the fun took out of it," he
says, looking weary and feeling sad about his lost friendship
with Zizelman. "It's not worth it anymore. Tell you the truth, I
had a lot more fun yesterday" doing doughnuts with Jeanelle and
drinking beer with her and his derby buddies.

The Brauns are a tight derbying family: Their two boys add
Tinkertoy wheels to cereal boxes and derby on the kitchen table;
Jeanelle has bought Trent a truck radiator and a crash helmet for
Christmas; and for their 10th wedding anniversary, the couple
took their kids to the Wapakoneta derby.

But while derbying may be a poor man's sport, as Zizelman says,
it's not cheap. It takes time, it frequently inspires obsession,
and its pursuit can take you far from home in the company of
beer. "You're either with these guys like I am," Jeanelle says,
"or you're divorced."

After Trent wins the Mercer County derby, Jeanelle does not share
her husband's tragic-hero routine. She knows that when friends
come to visit, from now until the next county fair, she and Trent
will stick this year's derby tapes in the video, and the thrill
of victory will continue in their happy home. Her dad, who's been
off work for a year with a pinched nerve, got a painkilling
injection just to come see her derby. He's sitting in the stands,
and she's ready to celebrate. With all the engines shut off, her
holler is the loudest thing around. "I can't believe it!" she
says as the salvage-yard tow trucks start to work. "I'm so proud
of myself!"

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO AND LYNN JOHNSON RUSH HOUR At the Preble County derby it's shoulder-to-shoulder in the grandstand and often bumper-to-bumper down on the track. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO AND LYNN JOHNSON EXTENDED CHILDHOOD Kids in central Ohio develop a taste for the wheel early, and as adults they still play in the mud. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO AND LYNN JOHNSON IMMOLATION DERBY With flame-breathing machines bent on skull-shaking pileups, firemen sit ready for action. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO AND LYNN JOHNSON PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE Caring for your derby machine often means bashing it into shape to bash other cars on the course. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO AND LYNN JOHNSON READY TO ROLL It's all in the preparation, be it lining up to crash butt-first into a rival, or looking good after a practice run. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO AND LYNN JOHNSON WHEEL LIFE Crack-ups and breakdowns on the derby track don't stop kids from dreaming of their own driving exploits.

"I asked Dad before the feature, 'How do I beat Mom?' And he
said, 'Hit her as fast as you can in the ass with your front
end.'"

Out here they fix it so cars improve with contact--so a couple of
good hits help wad up the rear end to fully weaponize
it.

Derbying may be a poor man's sport, but it's not cheap. It takes
time, and it can take you far from home in the company of beer.

The emergency squad can't cut Deron free with the Jaws of Life,
because there's a hidden axle welded into his roof supports.

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)