RIVERHEAD, N.Y.-- At a crowded racetrack on a Saturday night, the spectators begin chanting a countdown to the evening's final event. When they hit zero, chaos follows. A dozen cars thunder off in every direction, blasting into each other's fenders in a growing percussion of gut-thumping thuds.
Soon, smoke is billowing from engines, rubber tires are shredded down to steel wheels that screech and squeal as the competitors squeeze every last breath out of their dying machines. Sparks fly in all directions as torn-off steel scratches pavement and the odor of burnt rubber and God-knows-what burning under the hoods fills the lungs.
The demolition derby is back in town.
Demolition derbies have been a staple at American racetracks and county fairs since at least World War II -- and remain hugely popular to this day. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 are held every summer, according to Tory Schutte, founder of the Wisconsin-based Demolition Derby Drivers Assn. But derbies are constantly confronted with new challenges. They occasionally turn dangerous, as evidenced by a fireball that engulfed a driver at Riverhead Raceway in July, and drivers are increasingly being forced to compete with newer, smaller cars as the behemoths from the '70s and '80s that make ideal derby vehicles slowly disappear.
The criteria for crowning a demolition derby champion has not changed, however: Be the last driver behind the wheel of a vehicle that can still move.
The temptation to smash a vehicle to smithereens is universal, derby drivers insist, just ask anyone who has ever been stuck in maddening traffic jams or behind someone going 30 mph in the fast lane.
"Since I started competing in demolition derbies I've gotten rid of my road rage," Schutte says.
"Most kids get yelled at for wrecking a car. I can go out and have a ball doing it and I don't get in trouble for it," said James White Jr., who at 19 is among the youngest competitors at Riverhead's demolition derbies.
Schutte is a self-appointed expert on "demos." His research finds they likely started in the late 1930s and early 1940s somewhere in the Midwest, although specific details are murky. Early contests were held at places like O'Hare Airport and Soldier's Field in Chicago, he said.
The first major national exposure for demolition derby came in the early 1960s, when Jim McKay would televise from Islip Speedway on Long Island on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" on Saturday afternoons.
"ABC helped bring in thousands of people," says Marty Himes, a racing historian who runs a modest museum in Bay Shore on Long Island. "If you didn't get a seat by 6 o'clock, you'd be standing up all night at Islip."
Schutte, who claims to represent 25,000 drivers and runs the Wecrash.com Web site, says he has been pushing to standardize derby rules. But with no official sanctioning body, that has been a chore.
Basically, all derby vehicles must have a protective cage around the driver. Batteries and gas tanks are often moved inside the passenger compartment, making them less likely to be ignited into fireballs by the sparks that fly during crashes. Doors are usually welded shut and bumpers are taken off.
The combination of rising scrap metal prices and the popularity of derbies has made it more difficult each year for competitors to find suitable junkers to use in competition. Tracks like Riverhead offer contests in various categories including school buses. Track promoters buy school buses at a discount after the vehicles are deemed no longer safe for schoolchildren.
"Tell me it's not every kid's dream to come out and see that school bus that takes you to that rotten school be destroyed," says Bob Rommeney.