Demolition Derby. The very name invokes visions of socially challenged Neanderthals behind worthless old cars, pointlessly bashing them to pieces. The cars may be nearly worthless, and they still bash each other, but it's only pointless until you check it out yourself and begin to understand: "The adrenaline rush that goes up your spine cannot be described by anybody," says Frank Roberts, promoter and owner of Stoney Roberts Demolition Derby. Roberts puts on 52 safe and well-organized shows a year, and he knows what he's talking about.
"It's probably one of the most pleasurable things you've ever felt," he adds ... and, well, who am I to argue? There's got to be some reason all these drivers are standing around, itching to get started, with not a caveman in the bunch. Of course, there are some motorheads, always will be, but the packed N.C. State Fair grandstands are looking down in rapt anticipation on a surprisingly varied group of contestants.
You've got high school automotive-tech teachers like Terry Drummond of Southern Durham High School, who teaches students basic skills by having them prep the car he's driving today. There's also another team from Northeast Guilford High, a Raleigh radio personality, D.J. Hogan from WKNAC, independent cars manned by the likes of teenager Brent Townsend and also Ted Murphy, ready to drive in his first derby. With a Ph.D. in biology, Murphy works for a pharmaceutical consulting company. What's he doing out here? Not to mention Annette Goodman, a smiling 21-year-old from Garner. It's her first demo, too.
Frank Roberts is concerned about safety. The cars are prepped by stripping them, inside and out, of anything that might come loose. What remains is the stark grandeur of elemental locomotion: engine, sheet metal, seat and controls. Roberts' derby safety supervisors use air horns to signal all drivers to stop when something potentially dangerous happens, and the cars' hoods all have holes cut in them, to aim extinguishers through in case "something starts to burn."
When asked about his chances of winning before the heat starts, D.J. Hogan, wearing psychotic yellow sunglasses, replies simply, "dumb luck."
On the other hand, Rickey Cooke of Jamestown, a demolition derby driver with 25 years of experience, talks strategy. "It's kind of like the Winston Cup, where you have to save your car. Save the front end, and try and use your back end to take out someone's rear drive wheels."
Cooke's one of the favorites, and many of the veterans have their doubts about the newcomers. They all agree that a compact Mercury Lynx is doomed from the outset, and when one of the drivers catches sight of Goodman's bright pink '74 Olds Royale, he dismisses it with a chuckle: "Sorry, baby."
All the cars of the heat are introduced. Rickey Cooke waits in an old monster with silver spray-can flames, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, the rookie Goodman revs up her pink-and-white behemoth, joining the other engines in a chorus of rumbling menace.
Then the entire crowd counts down to zero, and it begins.
A contender immediately slams into Cooke and slings around in a fishtail. A victim of its own aggression, Cooke's attacker immediately starts streaming fluid from underneath the engine, hot and steaming.
Tire-spinning chaos ensues. It's hard to keep track of what's happening, with all six cars confined by a perimeter of downed tree logs, smashing and backing up and bashing and sliding and howling in fury. There is no escape. The sound of sheet metal against sheet metal, that instantly recognizable snap-crunch-popping-grinding scrape of doom-laden finality, floats across the warm sunshine in unfettered bliss. The crowd is ecstatic.
Suddenly, favored son Cooke receives the most spectacular impact of the day in his passenger door, driving it at least halfway toward Cooke in a U-shaped gouge. From that side, you can clearly see him driving while exposed to the elements, searching out his next target. Soon, he takes an absolutely amazing blow in the front end, holy god, and the entire hood buckles up into an A-frame. Cooke can't even see out of the front, but he guns the engine, smelling the smoking opponent in front of him, trying for one last ram before, like an old moose surrounded by hungry wolves, Cooke's ride to another state championship rolls to a corner of the muddy pit and just ... stops.
The other cars, including a ridiculously camouflaged Cordoba, lunge and tear at each other, with one in particular remaining in astonishingly good shape. Its pink exterior almost unscathed, Annette Goodman's Royale is fishtailing, braking, backing up and delivering punishment as good as she gets. You can see her thinking as she whips the steering wheel and slams another opponent.
When all the smoke and steam settle, the unthinkable descends upon the gladiators in their lurching, strangely noble chariots of destruction. They take one last hit, spew one last drop of fluid and grind to stillness in the pit. Goodman rules.
Ahh ... but this is only a heat. And on Sunday, the last day of the fair, today's winners and survivors will climb back in (through the window) and goad their shaking, bellowing creations into more joyful combat. Annette Goodman can't wait.