BITHLO, Fla.--The mayor of Bithlo (pronounced "biflo") is fixing to do some cutting. It's dark, the night falling out of the sky like poisoned buzzards. He lights a dazzling acetylene torch and proceeds to draw a molten line in the hood of a white 1977 T-Bird. The mayor's entourage--including his wife and his two barelegged kids--gather round to scorch their retinas.
We are standing in the pot-holed paddock of the Orlando Speedworld--a 3/8-mile bullring/figure-eight track surrounded by sagging catch fences, 17 miles east of Orlando, among the scrub pines and industrial mosquito farms. Some of the finest recipes for armadillo come from this part of the world.
"We got to chain down the hood," Wes Railing says, from deep within a beard, back behind a lit Marlboro and out from under a camo hat. "Plus, we can shoot fire extinguishers through the holes." Oh, it's a safety procedure. See, to the untrained eye, all that sparking wet metal falling into the open carburetor looks fuck-all dangerous.
Hanging limply from a broomstick on the back of the T-Bird is a Confederate battle flag with the words "The South Will Rise Again." The flag marks the grubby Suribache around which tonight's activity swirls. On Friday nights from March to November, Orlando Speedworld runs raucous paint-swapping derbies, everything from super late-model sportsmen (roughly equivalent to Busch stockers) to dwarf cars--here in Bithlo they pronounce it "dwoff." Tonight, however, the last Friday in the season, the usual racing steps aside in favor of the Speedworld's inimitable Crash-o-Rama, Night of Destruction. Railing is repeat winner and heavy favorite in several demo derby events, including the big draw, the figure-eight school bus race.
Crash-o-Rama is the malarial brainchild of C.A. "Bucky" Buckman, erstwhile school bus mechanic and the track's some-time employee.
Bucky has his hands full. Overnight, a gang broke through the gate and stole the batteries out of the track's collection of school buses and siphoned all their gas. The "coordinator of all bus, boat-trailer and demolition activity," Bucky has been working for four days straight. His jeans and long-sleeved thermal underwear caked with grease and his gray beard sprouting like bread mold, Bucky exhibits the classic signs of long-term homelessness.
Bucky staged the first Crash-o-Rama eight years ago, and at that time there were plenty of buses. "Back then we were paying $1,100 for used buses, just so we could total them," Bucky says. "Now they're getting kinda scarce."
Fortunately, most folks who bring a bus to the semi-annual Crash-o-Ramas are inclined to donate the bus to the track once the race is over. So Bucky has a stable of recycled rent-a-rides. These old gladiators--Blue Birds, Thomas Builts, International Harvesters, most of them powered with gasoline V8s--have been bashed and balled up, crumpled like big yellow milk cartons and straightened out again. If they roll over, Bucky says, "We just pull 'em back on their wheels and fire them up again."
Most of the buses have names: "1-800-EAT ME," "Been Gay," "School Blows." One bus is all pink with "Heart of Love" professionally painted on it. "The boys who did The Blair Witch Project came down here with it to make a movie," explains Bucky. "It was about a group of religious people who worshipped cucumbers."
"This is Bithlo," he concludes, "ain't nothing strange in Bithlo."
At the appointed time, the buses line up outside the track, 13 steaming, smoking, squeaking derelicts, many of them with their overhead safety flashers going. They look like a huge, psychedelically segmented snake. The crowd bleats its approval. The air is filled with moths big enough to show up on FAA radar.
First thing, these guys are going unholy, stupid redneck fast, somewhere between 50 and 60 mph, taking the corners flat and making the buses get crossed up like rally cars, blue smoke billowing from the rear tandem tires.
The green flag flies. It only takes a lap before the rusty anaconda of buses bites its own tail. The lead bus, spraying oil, is bearing down on a line of buses crossing at a 90-degree angle in the center of the track. As if of one mind, everybody in the stands winces, hunches their shoulders and waits for the tooth-rattling crash that they paid good food stamps to see.
But the lead bus threads a gap and the other buses rear-end each other accordion style. More buses fan out across the infield at full boogie, kicking up clods of dirt and clouds of dust, narrowly missing one another. Now the buses are forming scrimmages of five and six, intersecting at right angles at speeds not approved of by the Department of Education.
Seventeen laps into the 20-lap heat, it looks like the fans screaming for bus blood might be disappointed. Then, bus Armageddon. Butch Pierce, in the "red bus," has it floored and Raybo, in the hobo-death bus, the '57 International, isn't lifting. The night swims away as everyone gets tunnel vision, awaiting the impact. A crisp, orgasmic KRUNCH ricochets off the pines as Butch's bus slams into Raybo's. Both buses leave the ground. The red bus' motor punches through the firewall, landing well aft of the driver's seat in a shower of hot oil and broken glass. The International's in-line six is knocked out of the engine bay and winds up sitting on the fender, dislodged like a knocked-out molar. A toilet seat spins gracefully into the air.
The crowd, momentarily stunned, erupts in hoots, cheers and rebel yells. Some even take the cigarettes out of their mouths.
And then it's over. Rusty Cruze, driving the "America the Weird" bus, wins the race and the $1,000 prize. The demolished buses' drivers walk wobble-kneed out to the start-finish line to congratulate him in front of the frenzied crowd.
Man, I could go for a cucumber right about now.