Adozen big old American cars come rumbling down a grassy hill, drivers flooring it, nobody bothering to brake as they merge into a single lane, and in a matter of seconds, fenders are flying, tires are popping and, with the gut-wrenching thud of heavy metal against heavy metal, we are enjoying fun for the entire family.
The demolition derby somehow survives as if in a land before lawyers, in a world in which every thrill has not yet been hemmed in by worries about whether someone might get hurt or be offended. A signature on a waiver, a $40 entry fee, a quick inspection of your vehicle -- doors chained shut, all glass removed but for the windshield, drivers wearing helmets and seat belts -- and you're ready to aim thousands of pounds of steel at your fellow man.
The kids lap it up. The women, by general consensus, are the most aggressive drivers. And the guys -- well, some of them spend the whole year working for these few adrenaline-soaked minutes in the pit.
We're in Arcadia, Md., an otherwise quiet hamlet on the northwestern edge of Baltimore County, about an 80-minute drive from Washington, and here at the base of a gentle hillside in a dirt pit filled with nearly 2,000 spectators, the volunteer fire company is staging one of five derbies it holds annually. (Two remain this year: Aug. 27 and Oct. 1.)
Your average county or state fair may offer a demolition derby, and the commercial version is a fine show, real-life bumper cars having at each other in front of a grandstand full of vicarious thrill-seekers. (The next will be tomorrow, at the Warren County Fair in Front Royal, Va., followed by the Prince William County Fair's on Aug. 15, 17 and 18, and Aug. 19-20 at the Montgomery County Fair.)
But in Arcadia, they cater to people who live, as the track announcer says, "derby-style." This is seven hours of action, from roundy-round races in which cars chase each other in circles around the short track to the big event, the smash-and-crash derby in which there is no pretense of a race, just a bunch of vehicles thrown into the pit slamming into each other until all but the winner are stuck in the mud, spinning wheels and getting whacked until the checkered flag flies.
Participants in the derby don't do it for the money -- even if they win the big event, the $700 purse will barely cover their expenses in buying cars and prepping them for the show. (The bulk of the proceeds go to support the fire company.)
They're people like Brian Beares, 20, a Baltimore County man who brought two cars to Arcadia, a '94 Saturn that he bought from a junkyard in Laurel for $75, and a 1980 Buick LeSabre, also a steal at $75, the former for the roundy-round and the big one for the crash-up event. Beares, who works a landscaping job by day, puts in two or three hours each evening for several weeks to get his cars ready for their six minutes in the pit.
On this day, he doesn't finish in the money, but he has a whale of a time; he even flips the Saturn during one race. (No air bags allowed in derby races.) Beares climbs out through the driver's window, waves to the cheering crowd, waits for the Bobcat tractor to come turn his car right side up and then, to another ovation, climbs back in -- but only after wiping the debris off his passenger seat for a friend who's come along for the ride.
This is not exactly precision work. The tools of choice in the pit are the sledgehammer -- "Knock off that mudflap," referee Skip Schildhauer tells one driver during the pre-race inspection; "Get rid of that rearview mirror," he orders another -- and the spray paint can, wielded to adorn the cars: "Redneck Rocket," "Psycho Steve," "Weapon of Mass Destruction" and the always alluring trunk decoration "Kiss Me."
On the hillside, the thrills are a step removed from the action in the pit. But only a step. As the cars turn the tight corners, mud and rocks fly into the front row of beach chairs and blankets. When the red flag waves and the racers halt so firefighters can put out some flames, the kids up front feel the heat rising off the engine.
And the views are spectacular. You see tires getting slashed off in a sideswipe, hear axles crack, glimpse the frustration on a driver's face when he gets maneuvered into a Jersey barrier or marooned on a dirt pile. Coming down the hill into one race, a driver hits a rut and his hood flies up, almost entirely blocking his view of the track. No matter: He soldiers on three times around the track, until finally a red flag gives him the chance to climb out and slam the hood down. (It bounces right back up another minute into the battle.)
This is a game of raw force but also of skill -- a good driver can weave through the blockade formed by the early losers or punch a hole through a pile of wrecks without doing fatal damage to his own vehicle. There are moments of admirable strategy, especially during the derby itself, when a driver must hit another car every 60 seconds or be disqualified, and of raw showmanship, as when the aforementioned Psycho Steve had his steering wheel fall off into his lap during an attempt to jump his Dodge Neon over a limousine -- and then taped the wheel back on for a second try.
Roz Snyder is the wife of an Arcadia firefighter who also runs a garage in town. Both drive in the derby. They buy old jalopies for $200 or $300 -- your primo demo derby car is a big old American vehicle from the 1970s or early '80s, made back when steel was steel and the major plastic item in the car was the Jesus figure hanging from the rearview mirror -- and spend the winter getting the cars ready. A neighborhood mechanic does the tear-down, ripping out windows and back seats, welding the doors and trunk shut.
"You build up all winter long, all your frustrations, and with three kids and a husband, this is a good outlet," Snyder says. "The first hit is the hardest, but after that, your adrenaline kicks in. You're really only going about 10 miles per hour when you hit, but it sure feels like a lot more than that."
Like most drivers, Snyder has suffered her share of bruises, but no serious injuries, and she says every black-and-blue mark is worth it: "Wouldn't you like to go out on the highway and hit people?"
Some drivers, like Snyder, say taking out their aggressions in the derby pit makes them more careful motorists on the highways. But the beauty of the derby and the crowd that loves it is that some drivers make no such claim. They drive this way because this is the kind of life they want to live, "derby-style."