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Demolition Men

Inside Demolition Derby, a vanishing, but still Kicking, piece of Americana

Author David Ramsey Photography Carolyn Drake

derby

Gary Hart whips his 1976 Chevy Impala in reverse, sending a cloud of dust and smoke into the air. Ten yards away, a car has just caught on fire. At the other end of the track, a station wagon is still rumbling along even though the entire hood has been dislodged and is being dragged by a rusty chain. Directly in front of Hart is a ’91 Lincoln Town Car—wheels spinning, stuck between a pileup of wrecked cars and a patch of wet dirt.

The Ozark Demolition Derby in Springdale, Arkansas, is very, very loud—a rowdy crowd of 7,000 hooting spectators, the roar and pop of engines, the chaotic screeching and crashing of wheels stuck in the mud and metal colliding with metal.

But there are moments when, just for an instant, it gets quiet. A collective hush, like the fraction of a second when the fans at a football game realize a receiver is wide open. Hart has positioned himself perfectly. He has a clean shot. The crowd begins stomping its feet in the stands, Hart buries his foot on the gas, and the Impala crushes the passenger-side fender of the Lincoln with such force that it lifts the side of the car half a foot in the air. You can hear not just the bang but the crunch of steel.

Hart sweeps back again. The crowd, jacked up on cheap beer and carnival food, is in revival-tent hysterics. It’s time to crash again, and again, and again.

There are two kinds of car fanatics who might spend time hunting down mid-’70s Impalas: those who wish to take pristine care of them and preserve them as beautiful objects—and those who want to smash them beyond recognition, to wring out every bit of life in the car before sending it off to the scrap heap. Gary Hart likes to smash cars.

A 61-year-old former mechanic and now a maintenance worker at a factory in Rogers, Arkansas, Hart has been driving in demolition derbies for almost 40 years. When he started out, his wife was expecting their first son. “It’s a wonder he wasn’t born at a racetrack,” he says. Today, three generations of Harts are driving at the 16th annual fall derby in Springdale, just down the road from Rogers, in northwest Arkansas: Gary; his son Jesse, 37, an IT manager at Walmart; and Jesse’s son Caleb, a high school senior who just turned 18 and is driving in his second derby ever. Justin, Gary’s other son, also drives in derbies, but he had to be out of town for a wedding. Well, weddings can be fun, I suggest to Jesse. “Nah,” he says. “I’d rather be crashing cars.”

Anyone who’s ever been in a car wreck knows the rush of adrenaline that comes with a crash, the way your senses heighten and time slows. And anyone who’s ever watched a NASCAR race knows that a good portion of the crowd is more interested in the big, bad wrecks than in the skillful high-speed circling.

Demolition derbies are unapologetic celebrations of the car crash. Drivers call them races, but there’s no race to speak of. The concept is simple: put a group of cars on a rectangular dirt strip (in Springdale, it’s 75 by 175 feet) and let them bang and bash into each other until there’s only one car left able to run.

The origin of the sport is in some dispute. The Islip Raceway on Long Island, New York, long claimed to be the place where the demolition derby was born in the late 1950s. It’s true that Islip, which hosted derbies on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” is where the pastime became famous in the early 1960s. But the events were already popular at county fairs and traveling road shows across America by the late 1940s, blooming out of speed shows and stunt shows, even making it to big speedways like Soldier Field and O’Hare Stadium in Chicago (the term “demolition derby” was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1953).

Today, there are hundreds of derbies held across the country every year, with tens of thousands of drivers participating. Some events are enormous affairs that attract drivers from all over the country. The annual Metal Mayhem Derby in Illinois, for example, which is about as close as demolition derby gets to a national championship, is a multiday event that attracts hundreds of cars and the best drivers in the country. But more common are events like Springdale’s. The Rodeo of the Ozarks arena holds two derbies a year, one in the spring and a bigger event in the fall, which is the one I’m attending today. Gary has driven in derbies all over the country, but the Harts stick to the two in Springdale now. Jesse’s explanation of the Hart family tradition: “When you were a kid, did you ever have Matchbox cars and crash them into each other? This is just your chance to do that in real life.”

Caleb drove in his first derby last spring, when he was 17. He has my favorite take on what makes derbies so fun. Every time you get on the road, he says, since you first learn to drive, your instincts are focused on avoiding a wreck. There is something forbidden—something thrilling—about getting in a collision on purpose.

There’s no real way to train or prepare. Last spring, at Gary’s house the morning before the race, Gary told Caleb to take a lap around the yard.

“I was just getting used to driving it, did some laps forwards and backwards,” Caleb says. “I get back, and I don’t see him. Then I hear his car start, and all of a sudden I’m being chased by my grandfather, in his yard, backwards.”

Bang! A few crushing collisions later, Caleb was initiated.

“All out of love,” Gary says. “He had to learn, and I thought that was a good opportunity.”

To find cars, the Harts hunt through Craigslist, junkyards and want ads, plus they have a network of friends on the lookout. One car they bought from a family that was eager to see it destroyed; a ticket to the derby was part of the purchase price.

“If it runs and drives, then that’s half the battle,” Gary says. They try not to spend more than $500 total on buying a car and getting it ready. If anything’s missing or not working, a replacement can probably be found among the piles of car parts in Gary’s shed. Once a car is totaled beyond repair, they strip it of everything they can use before taking it to the scrap yard. Parts are recycled so that every derby car has a little bit of various derby cars that came before it.

“We’ll use a motor and transmission as many times as we can,” Jesse says. “It’s all about doing it on the cheap.”

Gary’s backyard is where most of the work happens. They take off all the chrome, with the exception of the bumpers; remove all the glass; strip the entire interior save the front seat; secure the doors and front and back ends by welding, bolting or chaining; cut the wheel wells out so the tires have more clearance.

“And cut the exhaust off so it makes a whole lot of noise,” Gary adds.

What remains looks like a post-apocalyptic Mad Max skeleton of a car, reduced to pure utility: to give and receive punishment.

The afternoon of the derby, the Harts gather at Gary’s place in Rogers to make last-minute alterations and get the cars loaded onto trailers for the 12-mile drive south to Springdale. It’s a warm October Saturday, with just a hint of mountain breeze.

Gary’s driving the ’76 Impala, Jesse’s in a ’77 Monte Carlo, and Caleb’s in a ’91 Grand Marquis. Newer cars like Caleb’s typically don’t hold up as well—the best cars for demolition derbies are those with big steel frames from the 1960s and ’70s, which are “just built like tanks,” Gary explains. “They’re built super-heavy, they have real metal in them, the frames are heavy.”

Such cars are getting harder and harder to find (Cash for Clunkers didn’t help), and more often than not, the ones that are left fetch top dollar from collectors. For years, demolition derby fanatics have worried about running out of cars to crash. Vehicles are getting lighter and more fuel-efficient every year, but significantly less ferocious. Still, don’t bet against the inventiveness of people bound and determined to smash into each other. “One of these days, we’ll be crashing minivans,” Gary says. “That’s OK with me. An old Astro van would be the toughest thing in the world, I’m telling you. I think that’s what it’s gonna come to.”

The Harts have become celebrities at the Rodeo of the Ozarks, with fans wearing their “Dogpile Demo Derby Team” T-shirts. As most of the drivers come from at least 100 miles away, the Harts are the obvious local favorites. On top of that, they add the drama of family feud: The Harts target other drivers in the early going, but if a couple of them make it to the end, all bets are off.

Gary has won the event several times, including the fall of the previous year, when he finished first and Justin finished second.

“We were just out there pounding on each other,” Gary says. “His car started out sitting in the middle of the arena. By the time I was done beating on him, it was clear over to the side against the rail. The crowd enjoyed it.”

Today, as the returning champion, Gary will have a target on his back. First prize is $10,000, more than three times what it’s been in the past (the entry fee is $50). That’s liable to bring in what the Harts refer to as “the big boys.” While demolition derby mostly attracts grease-monkey hobbyists, the sport does have what amount to pros, who travel to events around the country. These are folks who spend a whole lot more time and money on their cars than locals like the Harts do. They might put more than $20,000 into a car. That makes it hard to compete—like for a clean baseball player going up against opponents on steroids.

“It’s like any other automotive sport,” says Tory Schutte of Derby Icons—an organization that promotes big-time derbies across the country, including Metal Mayhem, and sponsors superstar drivers. “The people who spend the money are going to do a little better and win.”

Schutte estimates that there are a couple hundred derby pros traveling the circuit and making at least a portion of a living. They’ll stake out the events with big purses, and the best ones might make up to $40,000 in prize money per year.

“They have engines built, transmissions built, and rear ends and all of this kind of stuff, and we can’t compete with that,” Gary says. He’s won Springdale several times, but only once when the big boys showed up. “And that was just barely,” he says.

As the Harts load up their cars to head to Springdale, they tell old battle stories. The cars that kept running even after the radiators were torn clear out of them. The time Gary’s Ford Granada was so thoroughly smushed that he could reach out the window and touch the passenger door from the driver’s seat. The time another car ended up lodged on top of Jesse’s and he just kept going, racing around the track as an accidental double-decker.

The big purse this year is nice, but the main prize is bragging rights—especially within the family. Jesse has never beaten his father, and now he has to worry about being usurped by his son. “I think it would be hilarious if I beat either of you,” Caleb announces. “I was a little nervous last year. This year my foot will be on the brake as little as possible.”

Once they get to Springdale, the Harts get to size up the competition as the cars line up for inspection. There’s Brady Reimer, from Topeka, Kansas, with his ’73 Cadillac, painted pink in memoriam for his late daughter. There’s Jacob Creamer, a chicken farmer from Harrison, Arkansas, with his canary yellow ’75 Chevy roundback station wagon, one of the most sought-after derby cars because of the powerful mass in the back end. The cars’ racing numbers are spray-painted onto the doors, along with the occasional message or artwork: “love” or a ragtag skull and crossbones, or even a carefully painted flame, which seems like wasted labor given the circumstances. Some of the cars look like psychedelic works of art; many are rusty, filthy and busted. Lined up, they look more like they’re being delivered to a junkyard than ready to put on a show. Many of these cars, including the Harts’, are survivors of previous derbies. “One to five, depending,” one driver tells me when I ask how many derbies a car can run in.

Every derby has slightly different rules, a point of consternation for many drivers, as the lack of a single standard tends to lead to confusion from track to track. The rules are long and technical, and drivers inevitably look for gray areas to avoid disqualification by the derby inspector.

“We’re making sure they’re not overbuilt or excessive,” says Steve Castleman, the head inspector and official here in Springdale. (As the manager of a collision center in town, he knows a bit about car crashes.)

The safety rules, including bans on head-on collisions and hitting the driver-side door, are inevitably hard to enforce in the chaos of a derby, which is inherently dangerous. Most drivers have only a lap belt with which to strap themselves in. They wear motorcycle helmets, which are covered in dings and dents if they’ve been through derbies before, because crashes so frequently jolt drivers up in their seats, slamming their heads against the roofs of their cars. For all of that, remarkably, in 16 years the worst injury they’ve had in Springdale is a broken collarbone. This is cold comfort for Gary and Jesse’s wives, who show up to every derby to cheer them on but nevertheless would prefer the men in their lives opted for a safer passion.

“I don’t like it,” says Michelle, Jesse’s wife and Caleb’s mother.

When I ask why, she has a sensible response: “Because they’re out there crashing cars.”

That said, she does admit that they “love the fact that there are three generations out there. That is a rare thing.”

The 33 cars at today’s derby are divided into four heats. The three cars that make it out of each heat advance to the finals. There’s also a consolation heat—any car knocked out in the first round that can be revived back in the pit can give it one last go. Just one car advances from the consolation round to the finals. There’s also a “mini” class, where compact cars with a V6 or smaller engine do battle in one winner-take-all heat—“just like little bumblebees,” as one mini driver puts it. The winner of the mini class is allowed to compete in the finals with the big cars—if he’s feeling suicidal.

During the heats, officials line the track, calling out cars that are no longer moving. Once a car is knocked out, the driver has to sit there until the heat is finished, a sitting-duck obstacle getting splashed with mud and more often than not receiving additional postmortem poundings from the still-running cars. When the heat is over, the cars that can still drive leave the arena to cheers, while the dead cars are hauled out by tractor or skylift. They go back to the pit, which is not open to the public but is just as entertaining as the arena—a flurry of hammers, blowtorches and wrenches trying to put life back into cars that have been thoroughly wrecked.

Gary dominates his heat with panache. For all the talk of smashing other cars and withstanding hits in return, it’s easy to forget about the actual driving. Gary is a master of quick and tricky maneuvering in cat-and-mouse moments before and after the big crashes. There isn’t a lot of space—just tiny angles to zig and zag through—and most competitors don’t manage much more than straight-line ramming. Within a minute, probably half the cars are, in one way or another, stuck. Gary, meanwhile, is zipping unpredictably through those small channels of space, like a hotshot point guard dribbling through the defense on a basketball court.

Of the Hart family, only Gary manages to make it to the finals. Caleb wins the consolation round, but he’s unable to compete in the main event because his car stops running back in the pit. However, before that, he got the satisfaction of driving out of the arena to cheers, his grandfather running up to slap the hood of his car in congratulation.

Eleven cars face off in the chaotic finals. Gary wastes no time going on the attack, using his rear bumper to pummel a group of cars jammed in the middle of the track. A few minutes later, he executes a dramatic spin to evade an opponent. A curtain of dirt flies up in his wake, so that, for an instant, the scrum around him is invisible to the crowd. As the dust fades, it becomes clear: This time it’s Gary who’s in trouble. His front end is pinned against one car, leaving the rear exposed. From predator to prey just like that: Two foes come flying in to sandwich the back of his Impala.

As the action continues apace around him, Gary has stopped. On his right side, the axle is dislodged, and the tire is lying facedown in the dust. Gary tells me after the race that he could have easily kept going on three wheels, dragging the now-useless tire with him. The trouble was the hit from the other side, which flattened the left rear tire. That was it for Gary. Wrong place at the wrong time. “I try to have a strategy, but about the first or second hit, that strategy goes away,” he says.

His Impala is pummeled, bent and twisted beyond recognition, but when I ask if he can run it again, he says: “Don’t see why not.”

“This car, when I got it, was perfect,” he says. “I mean, it was a beautiful old car. Great condition, no rust, the paint wasn’t even scratched. Everybody said, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to do that to this car.’ I’ve had some nice cars that probably shouldn’t have been crashed. But that’s what we do.”

Arkansas-based writer David Ramsey is finally going to learn to drive a stick shift this year.

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