For a while when I was young we lived in a very small town in northern California. Hours from any major city, you could only get to it on steep, winding roads. There were no stop lights, no big box stores or fast food franchises. I could walk anywhere in town from my house and, as long as I was home by dinner, I was allowed to roam. Looking back from the lens of parenthood and a world that feels more complicated and more dangerous than it did then, I realize what a gift that kind of childhood was.
Every summer we had a big Fourth of July celebration. Our main park was also home to the fairgrounds and baseball diamonds, a community center and forest service offices. Before the holiday weekend, a cavalcade of semis barreled into town and disgorged their sea-monsterish carnival parts while kids made excuses to hang out at the park and watch the carnies set up shop. Elsewhere in the park, our local chapter of the Lions lined up trailers for food and beer in the concessions area by the playground and organized vintage fire trucks from five counties to participate in the parade. A rodeo, a greased pig race on the baseball field, sack and three-legged races on the park lawn, music at the bandstand — our town transformed itself into a Norman Rockwell painting. At least on the surface.
I loved all those things, of course, but what I really loved best was Sunday night, at the end of the holiday, when the demolition derby happened in the rodeo arena. It was more popular than the rodeo, better attended than the parade, and every year the stands were so packed those who came late had to hang on the fence to watch. Relative to the other events, it cost a lot of money to get in. People had generally blown through whatever cash they’d allotted for the weekend by then, myself included, but that didn’t stop us. The derby was the finale of our festivities.
The evening began with the rodeo queen and her court racing around the arena brandishing various flags. Crammed into the tiny announcer’s booth, the school choir sang the national anthem. After that the water trucks watered down the competition area to ensure cars would never get much traction. The boy scouts sold popcorn and nuts, cotton candy and soda, and one of the rodeo clowns usually sat on the fence to entertain us in between events. Derby cars caravanned slowly into the arena and parked facing the stands in a chevron so we could have a proper look at them. Usually there were twelve or fifteen entries, sometimes more. Inside, these cars had been stripped down — gas tanks moved to the back, roll bars installed, all the seats except for the driver’s and the glass taken out. They were old Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Chryslers –trash-picked from junkyards or someone’s collection of vehicles from their land — implanted with engines that could withstand battle. Cars were worked on all year in secret. Drivers were people we knew from the bank and the hardware store, parents and teachers and firemen. Once in the arena, derby drivers pulled themselves out of cars through driver’s side windows (the doors had been welded shut), and then stood theatrically, often in costume, next to their rides.
The exterior of the car was the thing. Painted, bedazzled, props welded to their tops, the cars were voted on by the audience before they even raced. Voting was crude, the winner decided upon by the announcer for loudest applause. I was generally hoarse from whistling and cheering before the destruction part ever started.
The suspense, until we got to see what we all came for, was delicious, tortuous. In the beginning, three or four cars at a time would race in “circles” around the arena, like it was a NASCAR event. There were several heats of this sort of racing so we could get a look at how each car performed. After that, cars came back again in sets of three or four and ran the track backwards, and this was the beginning of lost bumpers, dented doors, radiators spewing hot fluid onto the arena floor. Between heats, cars drove behind the arena to a place we couldn’t see, where each driver had a pit crew that kept the thing going for the big event.
The big event, when all hell broke loose, was, of course, what we’d all really come to see. Event coordinators made us sit through a singer with a guitar, usually, or the rodeo clown doing his bit with a bull. Water trucks mudded down the arena again. We fidgeted through intermission, placed bets, loaded up on more snacks until cars limped back into the arena and staged themselves in a circle facing out. The announcer gave the call. Every engine gunned. Sparks flew. The din thrummed in our chests. And then it began. Drivers circled and rammed each other, ganged up on cars with popped tires and flattened back ends. Props were severed from the tops of cars. Some cars died early on, the driver required to sit inside until it was over. Sometimes a dead car magically resurrected itself, able to battle again, a thrilling reversal of fortune. I loved every minute of it.
Since that town, I’ve lived in several others that also host derbies. One summer in my first few years of teaching a friend of mine from the city came to visit during our town’s Memorial Day celebration. A die-hard urbanite who prided himself on visiting small towns only through drive-by, Brody was fascinated with the mule parade, the craft fair, and the rodeo, at which we featured chariot steer roping (which was more about how not to get ripped from your homemade, welded chariot by your horse than lassoing a hysterical steer calf). He loved it all, but what he loved best was the destruction derby.
Because my husband was a paramedic, we were allowed access to the gate at the end of the arena. Brody and I hung on the fence, close enough to get sprayed by mud, and watched people I worked with ram into each other. Cars caught fire and got hooked together, waging attack as hybrid, two-car beasts.
A few minutes into the finale, Brody turned to me a little wild-eyed, and said, “Now I know how the Romans felt.” He raised his fist into the air. “Throw in some more Christians!”
Maybe my zeal for the derby grows from some primordial delight humans harbor for watching destruction. Maybe it comes from the disjoint in witnessing people I know to be reasonable, thoughtful humans in their everyday lives step into an impulse that’s surprising, shocking. I’m riveted by the marriage of art and savagery, of community and competition, of recycling and waste.
I’m in another small town now, and we have a derby here, too. This year I’ll partake in the demolition again. Only this time, I’ll be in the arena, driving an ’85 Cutlass.