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The Boston Phoenix Seek. Destroy. Enjoy.

Sometimes there's a fine line between sport and sideshow. Exhibit one: Demolition derby

By Andrew Weiner

JULY 24, 2000:  WEST LEBANON, NY -- Cindy Regimbald has a thing for her Elmo doll. "Elmo is my mascot," she happily informs me as she readjusts her hair scrunchie. "We go everywhere together."

Today, "everywhere" means onto a dirt-track speedway in eastern New York and directly into a series of other cars traveling at speeds ranging from five to 50 miles per hour. Cindy's adorable red plush toy is wired to a steel grate that has replaced the windshield on her LTD Crown Victoria. Cindy herself, an affable and soft-spoken 23-year old, is a demolition-derby driver with nine trophies on her wall back home in East Middlebury, Vermont.

Cuddly little Elmo has a front-row seat for the Eastern finals of the 2000 National Championship Demolition Derby Series. He doesn't know what's about to happen, and that's probably a good thing: during the next two hours he will sustain more high-impact collisions than the Volvo test lab sees in a year.

Ten minutes after I talk to her, Cindy and 56 of her fellow drivers are in a last-minute huddle with Todd Dubé, president of the Demolition Events National Tour, or DENT. "Cars that catch fire," he says, "will be allowed to continue at the officials' discretion. Rollovers are okay. Now go out there and make good hits. No love taps, and no sandbagging."

What Todd calls sandbagging, anyone else would call self-preservation. Braking before impact, waiting more than 20 seconds between hits, and generally staying out of harm's way -- these are all against the rules of today's derby, and will result in disqualification. In a sport that has about as many rules as kill-the-carrier, the ban on sandbagging is sacrosanct. The only other thing you can't do is drive directly into a driver's-side door.

To the assembled drivers, this speech is a mere formality. The three-year old DENT circuit is the closest thing demolition derby has to a major league, and most of today's entrants -- here to qualify for the national championship -- are veteran competitors. Some of them have traveled from as far as Texas for their shot at being crowned the least defensive driver in America.

FOR A first-time spectator, not even a complete viewing of the Mad Max trilogy would be adequate preparation for the sensory assault of a demolition derby. Within a minute of the opening gun, the track becomes carmageddon.

Collisions come fast and thick, about one per second. The smell of charred Buick hangs thickly over the stands. To protect their engines, most drivers crash backward into each other, which gives the track the look of a mall parking lot populated by psychotic elderly drivers. The roar of muffler-less engines is punctuated by thud after thud; it sounds like a dozen refrigerators landing on a busy airport runway. Unidentified car parts arc high into the air. Fans hoot lustily. One car does a complete rollover, only to drive on as though nothing had happened.

Halfway through the heat, a Chevy lines up a stalled Chrysler from across the track. As the Chrysler's driver flails with the ignition, the Chevy uses a hundred-foot head start to unleash a devastating hit. The whole passenger side of the Chrysler caves in; it looks like a dinghy struck by a cannonball. The crowd erupts in cheers, only to sober up when it appears that an ambulance might be needed. But just then a feeble wave from the Chrysler's driver lets us know he's okay, and the derby continues, growing uglier by the minute.

I want to want to stop watching, but I can't. It's kind of like a massive . . . er . . . car wreck.

What one might loosely call the genius of demolition derby lies in its simplicity. Stock-car racing is hugely popular in America, and many race fans will freely admit that they come for the chance of seeing a spectacular pile-up. Like a sports-highlight reel, demo (as it's known to its followers) takes the active ingredient of stock-car racing and isolates it to make a more concentrated form of entertainment.

The spiritual forefather of the sport is generally taken to be "Head-On" Joe Connely, who earned his name staging collisions between locomotives for state fairs at the last turn of the century. Beyond that, demo resembles other sports in the patchiness of its official history: for some time conventional wisdom had it that Larry Mendelsohn, a stock-car driver, organized the first real demolition derby at Long Island's Islip Speedway in 1958. Until its closure, the track proudly billed itself as the birthplace of the sport. Todd Dubé, however, has researched the records of state fairs and racetracks and established that a derby was held eight years earlier, in Franklin, Wisconsin. As he tells it, the event was sponsored by "Crazy Jim" Groh, a local used-car dealer with a surplus of product. A third story, probably apocryphal, holds that demo originated on a street corner with a fender-bender that turned ugly.

Whatever the origin, demo in the 1960s and early '70s made a gradual transition from local curiosity to national sporting event. This unlikely debutante was finally presented to society in 1974, with a series of national broadcasts on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Demand held steady for the next two decades, with an average of more than 2000 derbies annually, most of them in the Great Lakes region and the Midwest. Over time, demo inspired a series of spinoff events: colliding school buses have long been a popular attraction, and other derbies have featured motorcycles, New York City taxicabs, and combines. (Combines!) One event in the '70s featured a game where two teams of cars tried to push a VW Beetle across a set of goal lines. But as the novelty of mainstream demo wore thin, it gradually lost its hold on the nation's attention. The sport also lacked cohesion. Multiple local events billed themselves as "national championships." (Not surprisingly, the US is the only country where demo exists as an organized event.)

In response to these problems, Todd Dubé decided to organize DENT. The new tour began by increasing purses and relaxing restrictions on modifications, allowing roll bars, high-performance gas, and beefy forklift tires. These changes appealed to drivers and fans alike, and seem to have succeeded in raising the profile of the sport. ABC Sports has contacted DENT about televising the national finals, and the Discovery Channel filmed this year's Southern regionals for a documentary that will air in August.

In coming years Dubé hopes to double the number of regional events and create a sanctioning body with the aim of obtaining better insurance coverage for drivers.

But participants have a more practical perspective on the future of the sport. When asked how he pictures demolition derbies in 10 years, Mike Denio gave this response: "It's going to be a lot harder to find mid- or full-size American cars to wreck."

AS STORM clouds mass on the horizon, Cindy and Elmo finish slugging their way to victory in their qualifying heat. The tail end of her Crown Vic is thoroughly bashed in, but the front is relatively untouched. This is a good sign: it means Cindy's done a good job of protecting her radiator, one of a derby car's weak spots. As far as demo strategy is concerned, hitting with the rear end is about as technical as it gets. That, and remembering where the gas pedal is.

The threatening rumbles begin to get louder as drivers joke about the tornado warning issued earlier that day. The forecast was so dire that a good number of ticket holders have stayed home. (This explains the event's disappointing attendance of 619 -- other DENT regionals have drawn crowds of more than 4000.) Earlier, officials had decided to cancel the consolation round in order to beat the bad weather. In the pit, Cindy's crew members are lighting their cutting torches, ready to make last-minute repairs to her car before the final heat.

Although a skilled driver and a good crew are essential for victory, many derbies are really won before they start. A viable, or "crash-worthy," demo car begins with an empty body -- a "shell" -- which typically costs around $500. The shells the pros use are almost exclusively American models from the early to mid '70s, the golden age of the overpowered land barge. The Chevy Caprice and Impala tend to be well represented, as are Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and the occasional Cadillac.

The driver will then remove all windows, mirrors, and chrome from the car, and replace the gas tank with a reinforced fuel cell that sits in the back seat. DENT drivers are allowed to bore out their engines and equip them with headers, like a muscle car. They add roll cages, weld the bumpers to the body, and tweak the steering and suspension so that the car actually gets stronger as it deforms. Months of work can go into a car that will likely be totaled within minutes. Some cars finish derbies in such bad shape that a forklift is needed to remove them from the track.

But there's something perversely noble about giving a junked car one last joy ride. As one driver explains to me: "When you get to the end of a car's life expectancy, it's a fitting way to send it out. Sort of like a Viking burial. It's better to burn out than to fade away."

To hear derby drivers tell it, the sport is the most fun you can have on this side of the law. They don't make any money doing it, and when I ask them to explain their obsession, nearly all respond with phrases like "nonstop excitement" or "one hit and you're hooked." Mike Denio owns a tavern in Troy, New York. In the past 10 years he's competed in more than 50 derbies; once he ran seven demos in five days. His most vivid demo memory is of trying to extinguish his burning pants with a blanket while still ramming other cars.

Mike describes his first derby this way: "You've always been taught not to hit another car, and the first time you hit another car on the track you say to yourself, 'I'm not supposed to do that.' Then you just start to laugh. That laughter never stops."

Cindy talks about how she often gets jitters at the start of an event: "The first hit is the scariest, but after that you calm right down and go out there and kick somebody's ass."

Other competitors speak of the massive adrenaline surge that comes with the opening gun, and describe the act of annihilating cars as a great stress reliever. Says "Crazy" Joe Severance, a long-haul trucker: "Since it's my job to avoid idiots on the highway, it's very nice to get out there for a little legalized road rage."

Later, as I'm driving home, I begin wondering how it would feel to override every healthy instinct and make that first hit. To unlearn two torturously dull months of drivers' ed, to unlearn the discipline of my entire lower nervous system, and to unlearn the mixture of laws, ethics, and manners that keeps me from using my car to whale on the asinine chucklehead in the sport-futility who blithely cuts me off while yammering on his cell phone.

All of a sudden I catch myself drifting out of my lane, and I figure I'd better unlearn this whole train of thought, and quick. But I can't help wondering: is that what freedom feels like? In a society that seeks its answers from high-tech gadgetry and holistic medicine, is real emancipation as simple as battering a Chrysler to pieces?

The skies open up just as the final round starts, and within minutes the track is a knee-deep slurry of mud, motor oil, and transmission fluid. Then lightning strikes the hillside opposite the speedway, forcing most, but not all, of the remaining fans out of the stands for shelter.

The whole spectacle is deeply, deeply wrong, but in a way that somehow feels right. I'm so soaked and slaphappy that I ditch any sense of professional objectivity and begin hollering out for Cindy and Elmo to win.

But, alas, after taking several punishing blows, Cindy's Crown Vic finally gives it up. By this time Elmo is almost unrecognizable under a thick coating of grime.

Between the mud and the cars' overworked engines, it grows steadily harder for drivers to deliver the necessary death blows. It takes a good half-hour to whittle the field down to the last two cars, piloted by Wayne Clemens and Aaron Bunce.

For five minutes the cars go at each other with the spent brutality of two heavyweights in the last round of a prizefight. When it becomes clear that this is going nowhere, the officials arrange a final showdown. Taking to opposite ends of the track, Clemens and Bunce rev up and come directly at each other in a kind of bizarre dystopian joust.

Sensing a kill, the remaining spectators crowd the fence, oblivious to the mud being churned up in their faces. Mercifully, the end is not long in coming, and Wayne Clemens climbs out of his wasted car to claim victory and a $5000 check. Soggy and sated, the derby fans and competitors slog off to their cars for what must be an anticlimactic drive home.

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