Crunch time

This story appears in the May 16, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.


That's the question a concerned woman in the front row of Del Mar Arena racetrack puts to the only blonde in the stands whose eyes are fixed on me, the driver idling in car No. 6. Her intensity -- okay, mortal fear -- stands out. So does mine. We're minutes from the starting gun.

"That's my husband."

"Does he know what he's doing?" the kind stranger asks.

"Not really."

Like the other 10 drivers in the Demolition Cup VIP demolition derby race in Del Mar, Calif., last July 4, I'm making my world debut. Still, from where my newly pregnant wife and the rest of the 5,000 spectators sit, I'm not exactly the horse you'd bet on. Sweating buckets, I'm regretting my decision to strap duct tape and a stolen hotel towel around my head rather than spring for a more legitimate neck brace -- especially after seeing a fellow driver get rolled and leave in an ambulance the day before. A half-baked idea in participatory journalism has become a very serious proposition involving gasoline, fire and repeated metal-on-metal impacts of a sort I've never come close to experiencing. Break it down, and there's one thing that can go right for me today: I can walk away uninjured.

THE BIRTH OF demolition derby is a Wikipedia page that can't quite be trusted. One theory holds that West Coast racing promoter Don Basile staged the first full-contact race in 1947 at the Carrell Speedway in Gardena, Calif. Another says stock car driver Larry Mendelsohn dreamed up the sport after noticing fans preferred wrecks to racing at the Islip Speedway on Long Island, N.Y. Demolition derby's popularity, though, is more easily traced. Fueled by coverage on ABC's Wide World of Sports and a story line on the network's once top-rated sitcom, Happy Days, in which The Fonz falls for driver Pinky Tuscadero, national interest peaked in the 1970s. Derbies were a mainstay of county fairs, where local drivers in stripped-down Fords, Chevys and Buicks (tough models still favored by policemen and derby drivers) crashed into one another as families filled the stands and roared with approval. It was awesome, uncomplicated American fun.

"The rap on derby guys," says Johnny "Cap'n Crunch" Gullo, an event promoter who agreed to serve as my derby Yoda, "is they drink beer and crash cars." And to be fair, in derby's earliest days, that was more true than not. But in more recent decades, spectacle has become sport and a playground for deep car geeks. "We used to knock the windows out, chain the doors down and run," says Ryan Sweat, part of the pit crew for derby regular T.J. McPhie. "Now there isn't a car out there with less than $3,000 in it."

"You look at the caliber of the cars we build today versus what was built 20 years ago," adds Gullo, calling to mind an old hippie ruminating on how much stronger pot has gotten since the 1960s, "and it's a completely different story."

Fact is, it's easy to sink $10,000 into a car. A rebuilt transmission that has been reinforced to handle the instantaneous stops and swift forward-to-reverse changes can set you back two grand. A modified engine that will keep running at very high temps runs four more. Special rear ends and bumpers, tires with rims that won't pop of ... it all adds up. Then, if all goes well, a winner takes home a few grand -- and a car that needs to be rebuilt all over again.

So, you wonder, what could possibly make spending so much on wrecking your property and, maybe, your body over and over worth it?

Well, dollar for dollar, it sure beats sitting in a therapist's office. Derby is stress management. Drivers pinball across a dirt track, ramming the pedal to the floor to tear a wheel off an axle or cause another car to go up in flames. Maybe, just maybe, it's a car that got 'em good a few moments, a few races or a few years ago. There's a certain satisfaction in that. For those who compete, derby is a weird world, a dream come true. "That dream," driver Russ Fleetwood explains, "is to go ballistic."

The aggression of the circumstance is most palpable when you're in the midst of it. Earplugs may muffle the bellow of cars stripped to their essence, and a bandanna can protect eyes from dust and spitting mud, but down where the action is, close enough to see the snot on another man's nose, you are keenly aware that humankind's basest fantasies are about to be loosed. This is what Gullo calls "the last gladiator sport," and there are only two possible reactions to it: What is wrong with these people? And, I must do this.

I had both.

ALTHOUGH I'D BEEN preparing for this race for months, I'd never actually driven a derby car, much less smashed one into anything. Mine was all passive research, with lots of nodding as gearheads debated the merits of various 1970s transmissions. But now I'm strapped inside thousands of pounds of metal, with foes whose sole aim is to smash me to bits, then smash me again until only one of us is moving, and my predicament is suddenly very real. "I don't think I've ever seen you so serious," my wife will tell me later. "You had the eye of the tiger." A tiger hoping not to pee his pants.

Promoters run VIP races a few times a year. It's a misleading name for a couple of reasons. For starters, the "VIPs" are inevitably a ragtag collection of locals -- area CEOs, members of the media, maybe a racer's teenage son or daughter, a winner or two of a radio contest. In other words, a crew that is pretty clueless about derbying, yet willing to turn instantly bloodthirsty once the race begins. It's a bad combo.

We VIPs each get a car whose life began as a 1990 Buick Century, along with a 10-minute pep talk, rules review an ... that's about it. Fortunately, my car builder, 17-year-old Brian Johnson, was able to give my ride a little character ("Demo Joe 13" became "Demo Smith 6"). More important, he let me borrow his helmet and gloves, as I hadn't thought to bring my own. Oops.

My lack of preparation fuels my anxiety. As I wait in a line of cars just outside the raceway before the start, I'm thinking I should have listened to my dad, a personal injury lawyer who, when I told him I was doing a story on demo derby -- not mentioning I also planned to compete in one -- said: "Don't get too close to the cars." Or to one editor who told me a few days before I left on my journey that I really didn't have to go through with it. "We can take out extra insurance," the concerned colleague said. "We'd feel bad if you messed up your back for the rest of your life."

And she didn't even know that association with a national media entity can bring a whole new level of intensity to the event. When you're the ESPN The Magazine guy -- the only driver with a video crew following you around -- there's a bull's-eye on your back. And your car: During the night, someone had tagged the passenger side of my Buick with "E-S-P-N," arguably the only time those letters have been used as hate speech. But getting punked has an odd effect on me. It makes me stop worrying about surviving and start focusing on winning.

Jim "Boomer" Feemster, a track official, shoves his head into each of our windows, screaming above the noise of the mufflerless cars. All of us are busy pressing the gas just to hear that roar. And make no mistake, it is an awesome roar. "There are five rules and they're all same," Feemster tells us. "Don't hit the driver-side door." If you do -- by accident or design -- you're out. (This is a good rule, I think.)

We enter the arena slowly, and the fans cheer. Our cars idle front-to-back in the center of the ring, as the crowd counts down with the announcer, 5-4-3-2- ... "You will be scared until the first hit," Gullo replied to my panicked e-mail of the night before. "Then adrenaline will be your friend." Seconds in, I take a few bumps in the back that I barely notice. At 16 seconds, I get my first good wallop, then another hit I didn't see coming. "Keep your head on a swivel," Gullo told me. "The worst hit you can take is the unseen hit."

So far, those have been my specialty. My head is getting banged around like an abused marionette. Fourteen seconds later, another hit from behind and my head flies forward into what would have been a windshield. I'm sweating, cursing, confused and on the verge of a meltdown. Why won't this car switch gears quicker? Which hit will be the one that sends me out on a stretcher? I'm way too tentative, playing defense -- and getting crushed. No one who sees me getting plastered at the one-minute mark can feel good about my chances, much less my ability to someday throw a Frisbee to my as-yet unborn son.

But then it dawns on me: I'm not going to die. And even if I am, I might as well have some fun. Invoking my inner badass, I summon 2009 Hit of the Year winner Frank Dickman's words: "Hammer down, put it to the floor and kick their butts."

I sweat harder. I curse louder. I grit my teeth; the worm has turned. I get stuck on a mound of dirt, seemingly left for dead, but come back; I hear the crowd cheer and I roar back. A quick scan of the track tells me half of the cars are gone. Now I'm in it to win it. I am no longer a reporter doing a story on demo derby. I am a derby driver.

I quickly grow proficient at driving in reverse; that's the prescribed way to protect your motor as you go after someone else's. I keep my head loose. I am nasty, dirty and delicious. At 16 minutes, my car is smoking, my back bumper hangs like a loose tooth and my front tire on the passenger side is falling off. But just three of us are left. At the 16:40 mark, I get hit from behind, look up and see there is one other driver still moving. I dig in for a big finish, but, alas, No. 6 refuses to respond. As smoke billows from the engine, Boomer gives me the cutoff sign.

Alejandro Aleandre (car No. 17) is declared the winner. He never does come over to shake my hand. Not very derbylike, dude.

In the still-hazy twilight after the event, I realize that driving this car was the dumbest, most exhilarating thing I have ever done.

Tomorrow my back will spasm, my left shoulder will throb and my brain will feel like a box of broken crayons. I will change my Facebook profile photo to a shot of me in front of my smoking, chewed-up car, holding my helmet with the self-satisfied smile of the gladiator I am. Today, though, as I get ready to leave the arena and head back to the hotel, I turn to my relieved wife, hand her the keys and say, "Baby, you drive."

Larry Smith is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.