By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It's Saturday night. The air reeks of transmission fluid, scorched steel and horse manure. A man jumps up and down on the roof of his car like a chimpanzee on a Samsonite. John Denver warbles "Sunshine on my shoulders . . . makes me hap-py" from tinny loudspeakers. Another man sheds his shirt and lays into his car with a sledgehammer. The thuds overpower the music, echoing into the night like a .357 in an elevator shaft. This is what makes these men happy. Fuck sunshine.
"I'm going to destroy my car tonight," vows Ryan Horn, a blond, blue-eyed 26-year-old with a face better suited to a boy band than demolition derby.
"I'm going to kill it!" he sputters. "I've had enough! I want there to be nothing left when I go home tonight!"
Despite his apparent desperation, Horn knows just how he wants the car he's spent months working on to die. Although there will be 40 other cars in the arena tonight, he'll plow through them all to reach just one, his target, Eric DePoy.
"I hate Eric, I hate him!" Horn says, looking over to where DePoy stands next to his black hearse-like station wagon, the same car that won him first place at the State Fair two weeks earlier.
"I'm sick and tired of hearing him whine about how we tag-teamed him at the fair," Horn continues. "I don't ever want to hear him whine again after tonight, except maybe about how he lost."
If Horn seems intense, he is only reflecting the intensity of the sport he loves. With its unholy industrial-strength carnage, only America could have birthed a spectacle like demolition derby. It is poetry and violence, a ritual Tristan Tzara would have loved.
"We are a furious Wind, tearing the dirty linen of clouds and prayers, preparing the great spectacle of disaster, fire, decomposition," Tzara wrote in his Dada Manifesto of 1918, but he might as well have been talking about demolition derby.
Drivers strip the biggest, baddest and boldest carcasses of Detroit steel of the comfortable interiors and safety features that defined them in their genesis, and return these machines to a stark fury truer to their steely essence. They give the cars their souls back for one shining moment, and the results are intentionally disastrous.
As the creations of man lash out in the arena, these wagons and sedans that suffered through 30 years of slowing for speed bumps and carting around grocery bags are no longer safe and comfortable transportation. They are as much gladiators as the men who drive them, man and machine simultaneously, and seemingly, demonically possessed.
The rulers of the Arizona demolition derby scene are an elite, wizened coven of drivers who have run together for decades. Horn's nemesis, Eric DePoy, is their reigning champion.
The crew of middle-aged men who accompany him to battle are a select few who have through the years proven their worth in the arena. They know the deep, dark secrets that will keep a car running through fire and ruthless destruction. Most of them are balding.
The clan gathers before a derby to build cars together and trade wisdom. They consistently place in the top five and work hard to keep it that way. Their camaraderie extends to inside the arena as well. DePoy and friends band together to take out newer drivers they view as threats. Drivers like Horn, and his friends Justin Suhr and Jolee Murdell.
But tonight, in Buckeye, vengeance is burning in the young challengers' veins. DePoy was on Suhr two weeks ago at the State Fair, tag-teaming and pounding him as best he could through the thick mud.
Not this time.
"This is a small, fast track," Horn tells the small huddle of younger drivers, friends all. "There's no mud to protect [DePoy] tonight."
Tonight it is kill or be killed, and probably both.
Kevin Temple is one of DePoy's minions. A laid-back general contractor with thinning red hair, Temple is a derby junkie. Lured in after helping a friend build a car, Temple drove his first derby in 1986 and has been addicted ever since.
"It only takes one time to get the bug. Everybody loves derbies. Kids really love derbies," he says. "Most people enjoy seeing things destroyed."
But there is more to driving derbies than most casual fans recognize. It can take years for a novice driver to learn the secrets necessary to be competitive, Temple says, and these secrets are not something veteran drivers are willing to share.
"You have newer people who come up to you and want to be your friend and want you to tell them all your tricks," he says, shaking his head slowly. "That's not the way this works. You have to go through a lot of years of losing. You have to pay your dues and figure things out on your own."
A month before the fair, Temple surveys his '76 Impala and points out some of the modifications he has made.
The gas tank has been removed and replaced with a smaller, military gas tank that has been chained to the floor behind the front passenger's seat. The exhaust has been rerouted to sprout through holes cut into the hood with a blowtorch, resembling a half-dozen skeletal ribs. The motor has been chained and welded to the frame to prevent it from ending up in his lap. A crude roll cage has been added. The dashboard has been removed completely. Strategic cuts have been made to sections of the sides and trunk, which upon impact will cause the back end to crumple into a more effective weapon.