“Get him out of the ring,” jeers a voice from the stands.
Finally, a tow truck lifts the back of his car, just long enough for someone to push the right rear wheel back into place. Then, Orndorff eases the Pontiac out of sight.
The last “full-frame” car — one with a heavy steel chassis bolted beneath the body — was a Ford Crown Victoria that rolled off an assembly line in St. Thomas, Ontario, in September 2011. The decades-long change to lighter, fuel-efficient “unibody” cars was now complete.
Those old steel frames are essential to a derby car’s ability to administer and absorb extreme punishment. The newer styles are too light.
This new reality has upended derby economics. From its origins in auto-thrill shows of the 1940s and 1950s, the derby has always depended on a vast, self-replenishing inventory of old, unwanted cars.
“What this entire country is based on is the automobile,” Larry Mendelsohn, father of the modern derby, explained to The Washington Post 40 years ago. He had begun crashing cars for sport at Islip Speedway on Long Island in 1958. “And people absolutely love to see them crash. Whenever there’s an accident on a corner, you have a crowd gather around. You can imagine what the crowd would be like if there were 100 cars, all in one night, deliberately crashing against each other.”
Derbies became staples of county fairs and fire hall fundraisers for decades. About 5,000 are still held each year, says Tory Schutte, who promotes some of the largest crash fests through his company Derby Icons in Genoa City, Wis.
Not so long ago, a rusting hulk in a farmer’s field would sell for $150. Now, those heaps are a vanishing resource; the front bumper alone is worth $150, and the whole car costs $500 or $1,000.
Other forces are also at work. Recent spikes in world scrap prices have tempted jalopy owners to sell straight to the junkyard, rather than support a quixotic detour into the derby ring. And the federal “cash for clunkers” program in 2009 sent tens of thousands of future derby cars to the crusher by paying people to trade in old gas guzzlers and buy new, fuel-efficient models. As a result, while derbies pack the grandstands, and the number of derbies is steady, the “car count” — the number of vehicles competing — “is off 85 and 90 percent nationwide,” Schutte says.
In response, derby promoters are creating divisions for smaller, lighter cars. But to watch Honda Civics Ping-Pong around the ring is to miss the demolition derby at its most mythic. It’s like taking the tackle out of football.
The derby has long held a close and ironic relationship with the idea of preservation: The entertainment is founded on restoring junk in order to destroy it. Now the demolition endeavor itself, and the quirky culture it supports, are endangered.