Appetite For Destruction

Things that go bang in the night and the men who love them

"It's funny to think that once this was somebody's pride and joy, sitting in their driveway as they showed it off to their friends," he says, pausing as he surveys his handiwork.

And then there are the tires, a demolition driver's Achilles' heel. Drivers have been known to fill them with cement to keep them from puncturing.

"Cement is illegal, of course," Temple says quickly. "I like to put a tire inside a tire, double tires, we call 'em." Double tires are also illegal, but not as illegal, Temple reasons. "It's not cheating, really. Just because I have an edge doesn't make me a cheater." Temple refuses to comment on other edge-garnering techniques. "I can't go there. Let's just say I don't do anything no one else can do."

"It's a weird, wonderful feeling when you run into people," says Justin Suhr.
Kevin Scanlon
"It's a weird, wonderful feeling when you run into people," says Justin Suhr.
Ryan Horn won't be satisfied with anything less than total destruction.
Kevin Scanlon
Ryan Horn won't be satisfied with anything less than total destruction.

Temple classifies himself as a semiprofessional. He attends 12 derbies a year around the state, and usually wins money. Although his winnings have bought him a new video camera in the past (to film derbies with) and a color TV (to watch derbies on), most of the dough goes to support his habit. "Say I win four derbies a year; that's four thousand dollars. I can buy a lot of cars with that money."

And if Temple is not in the money, he knows one of his friends will be. "There's a small group of guys who really know how to build cars. We work together. We race together. We help each other take out the other cars, then at the end we battle each other."

To hear him talk, there's not much competition. He searches his mind for names. "I think there's one younger driver named Justin who's pretty aggressive," Temple adds, "but I guarantee you it'll be one of us who wins it."

Justin Suhr has a baby swing in his living room and shells of dead cars in his back yard. He's 26, a married father of two who works for a pool company. His wife doesn't care much for his hobby. "It's not the derbies she minds, but the time I spend on them," he says.

Suhr looks like a jock: tall, broad shoulders, slate blue eyes, earring, baseball cap, lip full of dip.

Five years ago his life changed. "I don't do anything else anymore for fun. I used to play basketball and stuff, then I got into this and it takes up all of my time. Besides work, it's just derby."

Suhr flips through a thick album of derby photos, depicting startling before and after shots, and a trophy here and there. "My dad [Jim "Slick" Suhr, who pits and builds cars with his son] drove for a few years in South Dakota. I remember when I was 6 or 7 years old watching him work on cars, smashing in windshields," he reminisces. "It looked awfully fun to me. One day I came across a cheap car, entered a derby and got hooked." The first car he ever owned ended up in a derby, he says. Wrecking it, he adds, was richly satisfying.

Suhr likens demolition derby to bumper cars for big boys. It's a chance, he says, to break all the rules of the road. "It's a weird, wonderful feeling when you run into people. The expression on their faces is great. You really find out what one car can do to another." He smiles shyly and nudges the carpet with his toe. "You can take your aggression out . . . and I have a lot of aggression."

In Suhr's back yard, Ryan Horn applies house paint to the '76 Impala. The color? "Recycling-can blue," Suhr says. Horn and Suhr met at a derby four years ago, discovered they lived near one another, and became close friends and teammates. Horn, too, was just starting out in derbies. "I can't really explain the feeling except to say it's a 45-minute adrenaline rush. The first time I went out, I was like, What have I gotten myself into?' Now I can't wait to get out there." Horn placed fourth in his first derby. "[Suhr] has more trophies than I do," he says, "but I'm more consistent."

Both are meticulous mechanics, and maniacs behind the wheel. "I think we've gotten a lot of respect out there," Horn says. "People watch out for us now. They don't want to make us mad or we'll destroy them."

Horn looks at Suhr. "Shall we start her up?" he says as he climbs up on the hood and lowers his wiry frame in through the windshield, snaking into the driver's seat. Horn and Suhr glance around the quiet street for a split second, then Suhr removes a series of soda cans sitting on the exhaust pipes to keep rain and dust out. He takes a step back, Horn flips a switch, and the old Impala wails like a wounded animal, shattering any semblance of peace in the north Phoenix neighborhood. Exhaust screams out of the hood through the pipes that sputter and wheeze for a moment, then rumble violently enough to rattle the windows.

Horn and Suhr are momentarily mesmerized, as if the revving engine were an aria instead of a potential noise pollution citation. Horn guns it a few times, then switches it off.

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