The other night Larry Garver borrowed a friend's 1969 Cadillac Coupe de Ville for a little jaunt to Gaithersburg. He remembers well what happened next:

"One car hit me in the driver's door, then another climbed on top of my hood. All I could think was 'I gotta get him off me' and shoved him back down in reverse. Then two cars ganged up on me and pushed me over the telephone poles. Next morning, a bunch of scrappers came and hauled it up to Hagerstown."

So it goes at the demolition derby, that glorious rite of summer in which old cars perish in a clangor of fire and steam while thousands cheer.

"I'll tell you what it feels like: like being in a big bumper car at the amusement park," said Garver, 26, an auto mechanic from Rockville. "It's like nothing you've ever experienced. Seriously, you should try it."

Earlier, he'd been waiting in a rain-soaked field at the fair grounds, amid a hundred other cars girded for battle, with a couple of fire trucks and a red-and-white ambulance. He climbed into his weapon for a few final checks, ran a hand along the shoulder strap, donned his crash helmet.

"I put the radiator in the trunk," he said, pointing to a thick hose that snaked from below the dashboard, across the floorboards, and vanished behind the space where the back seats had been. "I also changed the shift around -- put it on the dash here, 'cause I just know the steering column's gonna get smashed."

It was a vision of ravaged elegance: evil black enamel covering the body; angry cicatrices of yellow and orange Rustoleum ("Cadillac Cowboy," "Buck Hall," and "Sweet Dreams" read the boldly scrawled graffiti); headlights, grill, side and back windows punched out; seats ripped out; doors and hood chained tightly shut. Garver's blue eyes flashed wide and bright; his face was flushed by beer and excitement.

"She's a good car; only has sixty or seventy thousand miles on 'er," said owner Charlie Taylor, a construction worker who's known to his friends as the "Cadillac Cowboy." "But I had a girl hit me in Rockville the other day; messed up one side of it." He crinkled his brow under a cap that declared his solidarity with Rockville-Gaithersburg VFW Post 9862. "So I gave it to Larry here to run in the derby."

The strains of a country-western band ("My uncle's Arnett Knight," said their leader, "you know, the one who just did the good thing down in Nashville") gave way to a ripple in the bleachers that quickly became a roar. The first event was about to begin.

Beyond a chicken-wire fence and a platoon of towtrucks, in a dusty corral ringed by uprooted telephone poles, eight American-made mammoths, one sporting a tank turret and "U.S. Army" logo, had moved into four-on-four formation. Midway between, in hapless isolation under the floodlights, sat the rusted hulk of a Volkswagen Bug. Officials holding flags scurried to and fro: this was to be a game of demolition football; and the football was the Volkswagen.

A checkered flag went down, there was a thunder of unmuffled engines, and the cars advanced grimly through rising clouds of dust. A white Cadillac sprouting horns from its hood was first to connect. There was a crunching sound, then other cars battered the bug from either side. The mashing of steel was lost in a shout from the bleachers: a noise like the crowd scenes in Hollywood lions-and-Christians epics.

In a moment the bug rolled over -- "Looks just like a dead cockroach," someone guffawed between swigs -- and the attackers pushed and prodded it to the edge of the ring. In another moment the game ended, the Volkswagon straddling a pole on its side, to be dragged away by a towtruck. There was a smell of grease and gasoline.

The applause was long and loud.

Then came the main event: fights to the death, full of sound and fury. Besides the fray into which Larry Garver leaped, there were seven others, including a "powder puff" heat for women, all beginning with a flurry of first-strikes, sometimes punctuated by shooting flames, and ending in a heap of tortured steel.

"There's no guarantee you're not gonna get hurt, but with your helmet and your safety belt on, I don't think it's dangerous," said Joan Inman, the mother of a 14-month- old girl, who wielded a 1965 Ford Galaxy sporting red flames along the sides in the "powder puff." Although it was her first bout, she took second place. "It was all new to me, but a lot of fun. I'd never been a in car accident before."

Another first-time contestant, 22-year-old William "Weebles" Kerere, used the rear end of his 1972 Chevrolet Impala, No. 00, to good effect before going over the poles. "It's sort of satisfying," he said. "You get cranked up, somebody hits you, you hit somebody, the crowd goes crazy, you scream and have a good time. It's not like you get downhearted because your car's totaled or something."

And mechanic Don Shaut, a competitor in his sixties, may have spoken for many. "I hate cars," he said. "I think everybody does, especially if you work on them all the time like I do."

Through it all, even during bursts of rain, the crowd's attention wavered only for pit stops at the concession stand and visits to the comfort station.

"Strategy? There ain't no strategy," said one brawny fan who looked as if he'd just rolled in on a Harley-Davidson. "They just bang each other, see, and the last car moving wins."


A demolition derby starts Saturday night at 8 at the Old Dominion Speeway, on Route 234 between I-66 and I-95 in Manassas. Admission $6. Call 703/361-7753.