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Where It Pays to Drive Badly

O.C. Fair: Demolition derby is back. The Costa Mesa fairgrounds host tonight's mayhem.

July 21, 2001|BRADY MacDONALD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before monster truck rallies, super motocross extravaganzas and X Games, there was that progenitor of all mud-splattered, high-testosterone blood sports--the demolition derby.

The road warrior-meets-the-Roman Colesseum smash 'em up reached its peak in popularity in the 1970s. It's having something of a turn-of-the-century renaissance as an extreme-sports-obsessed youth and their nostalgic baby boomer parents reclaim the sport as a strange blend of circus sideshow and American tradition.

Booming nationwide and spreading overseas, the wreck-'em rodeo will careen into the Orange County Fair tonight for the "Orange Crush"--quenching a two-year derby dry spell in the Greater Los Angeles area.

"The fans are attracted to the destruction and the mayhem," said Bob Basile, son of motor sports promoter Don Basile, who staged Southern California's first demolition derby in the 1940s. "They used to say, 'People just go to a [car] race to see a wreck.' With the derby, there's a wreck every second."

First-time driver Daniel "Super Dan" Robinson has been working on his 1982 Buick Electra for a month, prepping for his one-night stand at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds. He's painted each of his four children's names on the corners of the car--promising to crunch each into an unreadable mess.

"I'm not nervous," said the Lake Forest tow truck driver, who used pneumatic shears to cut jagged teeth into his Buick's hood. "I'm just going to try to hit one car at a time and try not to get knocked out."

Nationwide, about 60,000 to 75,000 demolition drivers compete in at least one of the 2,000 or so derbies a year. California is home to 80 to 100 derbies annually.

Purses that typically ran in the hundreds of dollars have shot up to $10,000 or more since the Nashville Network began televising derbies as part of its "Motor Madness" series. The Orange Crush prize is $1,500.

The requirements are simple. Drivers must be at least 16; seat belts and helmets are mandatory. And, of course, you must have a car--preferably of no Blue Book value. A nom de demo--Gravel, Junkyard Dog or Captain Insano--is optional.

Entries must be American-made hardtops typically manufactured after 1965 and in stock condition. The most sought-after cars are mid-1970s Chevrolet wagons and sedans, especially the solid-framed Impala. Chrysler Imperials usually are banned because they are said to be virtually indestructible.

Crashing is compulsory. Drivers must smash into another car every two minutes or face disqualification. Head-on collisions and intentional driver's-side door hits are typically illegal. Avoiding contact--that's called "sandbagging"--is an affront to the other drivers and strictly forbidden. The last car still running wins.

The primary goal is to protect the car's front end--engine, radiator and carburetor--from damage. Strategy demands that drivers slam into each other tail first at full speed, usually 30 mph, aiming for axles and radiators.

Commercial and home development in the 1980s claimed many race tracks, and the demolition derbies with them. But in the early 1990s, these wreck-'em rodeos found a home at state and county fairs, drawing capacity crowds.

"It used to be shade-tree mechanics, but now we get lawyers, policemen and housewives who want to run in the derby," Basile said. "People come out and see it and just want to do it. They just feel they can get all their aggressions out on the track."

Dave Shipp, 38, of Laguna Beach bought a 1971 Pontiac Bonneville for his latest escapade.

"I've never driven in a demolition derby before. I've never even seen one. I just thought it would be fun. Hopefully I won't get jarred around too bad."

Shipp may be in for a surprise, Basile said.

"They're going to hit him hard. In most of our derbies, we have to put the losers on their trailers with a forklift because the car won't even roll. His car will probably be destroyed."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Disposable Metal

How to prepare a demolition derby car:

All glass removed, windshield replaced with wire mesh

Pipe installed as brace

Doors welded shut, trunk and hood chained

Back seat removed, plastic gas tank installed

Horn disconnected, padding added to steering wheel

Hole cut in hood for fire extinguisher access

Battery bolted to floor of passenger side

*

Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD/Los Angeles Times

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