Summertime thrill-seeking at the demolition derby

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Witnessing the massive wreckage at a demolition derby is one way to cure the summertime blues. (Rockingham County Fair) Witnessing the massive wreckage at a demolition derby is one way to cure the summertime blues. (Rockingham County Fair)

Charlottesville has a habit of slowing down during the summer months. Most UVA students and many faculty are on summer break, cutting the population by nearly a third. Some art galleries close, concerts and performances are comparatively sparse, and many local residents take a vacation. It’s true that Charlottesville has a wealth of worthy summertime activities, from seasonal food vendors to nearby swimming holes, but sooner or later the broiling heat sets in and the remaining, sweating townies desire larger, more extravagant entertainment to appeal to our baser instincts. For this, we turn to surrounding counties for one of the most exhilarating events of the summer: the demolition derby.

As a city kid, I had never even heard of demolition derbies. Attending one for the first time as an adult, I found it to be a thrilling pinnacle of DIY, lowbrow entertainment. Summer blockbusters may provide spectacles of mayhem, but there’s nothing quite like watching two (or three or four) vehicles deliberately smashing into each other in a semi-controlled and ostensibly safe environment. Since my first derby years ago, I’ve made it a point to attend at least one every summer.

For the uninitiated, a demolition derby is basically a sport involving competitive car crashes. In a flattened dirt pit, surrounded by concrete safety barriers, the drivers compete in a series of heats in which an increasing number of vehicles are pitted against one another until only one remains functional. Any car that stays stationary, or fails to make contact with another car for a certain period of time, is eliminated.

What begins as uncontrolled mayhem —a half-dozen vehicles playing bumper cars with real cars—is soon sorted out into a competition, as the toughest vehicles and best drivers compete against one another, strategically ramming vehicles into the barriers and each other until their frames are mangled, their engines crushed, their wheels thrown askew, and they can move no more. For the derby’s final heat, all cars that can still get their engines started compete against each other, often with as many as a dozen vehicles at once.

For use in a derby, the vehicles are stripped down: The passenger seats and the dashboard are ripped out, the interior is gutted, the window glass and lights are removed, the doors are welded shut, safety bars are installed, and the gas tanks are replaced (often with boat tanks), holding just enough fuel to compete in the match —any cars leaking fluid, or repeatedly catching fire, are disqualified.

It’s an odd procession of vehicles, mostly cars from the ’70s and ’80s which, having outlived all other usefulness, get fixed up just enough to function in a competition that will leave them totally demolished. A few participants drive sturdier, elongated station wagons (I’ve even seen what looked like a hearse), although they have a tendency to jackknife upon heavy impact. Trucks and farm vehicles are out, as they would dominate the competition—most of the cars tend to be sturdy American-made ones (some derbies even insist on it). It’s not just rural American pride, but also an issue of practicality—most of the smaller and lighter foreign cars would be crushed immediately.

A number of websites track an index of all the scheduled fairs, and many drivers are semi-professionals, spending their summers competing around the state—the winner, after all, receives a cash prize. More seasoned drivers who are looking forward to showing down against one another may even pick off the more vulnerable or less experienced drivers before they face off. But some of the competitors are also local, often sponsored by a nearby auto shop. Many cars have advertisements or humourous slogans crudely spray-painted on their doors, and the crowd is never more riled up than when cheering for a hometown hero.
Those looking to add further debauchery to the spectacle of two hours of car wrecks can indulge in the guilty pleasure of heart-stopping fairground food: chili cheese dogs, funnel cakes, and deep-fried Oreo cookies.

There are a number of events held at various county fairs throughout the summer. Several derby events have already come and gone, but there are more to come. Albemarle County Fair, sadly, does not feature a demolition derby, but nearby Harrisonburg is hosting one on Friday, August 17 at the Pepsi Grandstand as part of the Rockingham County Fair, which runs from August 13 to 18. Tickets for the derby are $15 and under, and, like the fair, the derby is an all-ages event.

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