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Some Cars' Road to Ruin Leads to O.C. Fair

July 21, 2001|BRADY MacDONALD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

The Road-Warrior-meets-the-Roman-Coliseum smash 'em up reached its peak in popularity in the 1970s. It's having something of a turn-of-the-century renaissance as extreme-sports-obsessed youths and their nostalgic baby boomer parents reclaim the sport.

Booming nationwide and spreading overseas, the wreck-'em rodeo will careen into the Orange County Fair tonight at 8 for the first "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 legendary 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 kids' 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."

That's what has his wife worried.

"I want him to do it because he wants to . . . but it can be dangerous," Melanie Robinson said. "I'm worried he might get whiplash. I'm just going to say a prayer."

On any given summer weekend night, derby jalopies, engines sputtering, make their way onto race tracks from Hicksville, Ohio, to Dagenham, England. Nationwide, 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, about half the number in the demolition derby capital of the United States, Ohio.

Purses that typically ran in the hundreds of dollars have shot up to $10,000 or more since TNN began televising derbies as part of its "Motor Madness" series. The Orange Crush prize is $1,500. But a Canadian pay-per-view outfit recently filmed a derby spectacular with a $50,000 top prize. And DENT, an East Coast derby promoter, is organizing a televised 13-event U.S. tour for 2002 that culminates with a $25,000 national championship in Las Vegas.

"I don't know why, but suddenly it's popular again," said Jackie Thurgood, co-founder of the U.S. Demolition Derby Assn. and wife of a driver. "More people are watching and participating than we've ever seen before."

Smashing, Yes, 'Sandbagging,' No

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 derby drivers and strictly forbidden. The last car 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 miles an hour, aiming for axles and radiators.

Typically, a derby starts with a ragtag group of cars lined up randomly around a retaining wall of a dirt oval, tail lights facing center. The crowd chants, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1!" with the announcer. A green flag is dropped and the drivers are off--in reverse.

The crunch of metal, the hiss of radiator steam, the spinning of wheels--in the ground and in the air--lasts about 20 minutes. The occasional car flips over or bursts into flames. Derby officials insist that serious injuries are rare--the occasional whiplash, busted tooth or broken bone. Drivers must sign a waiver releasing organizers of all liability.

But the danger is real. Three years ago, a driver was badly burned at a Lake Perris derby. In August, a 20-year-old driver was severely burned over two-thirds of his body at a derby in Iowa when a spark ignited gasoline leaking from his car. Two years before that, a female spectator at another Iowa derby was critically injured when a car flew off the track, landing on top of her.

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