By Amy Silverman
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A subdivision has moved in across the street in the last few months. The first families have taken up residence. It means the boys must be a little more restrained than they once were. Before construction began, the land the homes now sit on was a big dirt field, and Justin and Ryan could not resist taking a couple of cars out there for some one-on-one.
The following Friday night at the State Fair, both camps are assembled for what should be the greatest derby of the season. The evening is dark, pungent and velvety smooth. The air shudders with drumbeats and piercing screams. Sparks shower and steel burns white-hot. The atmosphere is decidedly tribal as the rival teams and rogue individual challengers ready themselves for a fight to the death.
The cotton-candy crowd pays little attention to the brewing drama deep in the pits, where, oblivious to the midway's Ferris wheels and fried Twinkies, drivers put the finishing touches on their cars. It's not a delicate business. Engines rev, and blowtorches bore into bumpers, as inspectors check for violations and safety features, ordering duct tape here, chains there.
In one corner: a fleet of shiny, sleek station wagons belonging to DePoy and his crew. On the opposite side of the pits: Horn, Suhr and their friends prep their fleet of banged-up Impalas.
This is the first of three scheduled nights of racing at the Arizona State Fair, a tradition for 30 years. The grandstands hold 7,000 people, and before the event can begin they are completely full. Jon Sellers, the derby's promoter, is the Don King of motorized events in Arizona. He's hard to miss in his ever-present black Stetson, bulging belt buckle and cowboy boots, but in case you did, somehow, miss him, his announcers remind the crowd over and over to "look for the Jon Sellers name" at every motorized event they attend.
Sellers took over promotion of the derby shortly before retiring from the Phoenix Police Department, where he worked as a detective. (Sellers was the chief investigator on the Don Bolles case.) Besides promoting the derby each year, Sellers sings country-western music and calls women pretty little fillies, oozing honky-tonk charm.
Sellers is as organized as he is personable. During his tenure at the fair he has transformed what could be a chaotic, rule-bending free-for-all into a smooth, crowd-pleasing spectacle of family entertainment. His events start and end on a schedule as precise as Stalin's trains.
But try as he might, Sellers can't control every variable. The derby arena has just come off four nights of monster trucks and remains muddy and sticky like chocolate cake batter.
The traction his drivers need to obtain to make walloping hits isn't there, and the drivers are complaining. Suhr, Horn and their teammate Jolee Murdell mostly spend their time in the arena trying to get unstuck instead of attacking. Sellers promises the arena just needs another day to dry out, and that the action will be much faster Saturday night. Nature has other plans.
Saturday a hard rain saturates Phoenix, turning the arena into a swamp. Sellers cancels his "rain or shine" derby for the second time in 30 years. Sunday, as clouds circle, Sellers rounds up a fleet of derby crews with four-wheel-drive trucks and has them drive around and around the arena for hours trying to pack down the mud. They drive until they run out of gas, but the ruts are still deep enough to lose a sheep in.
Despite their efforts, the main event that night is a big disappointment. The crowd thins midway through the show, tired of watching a parking lot of stuck cars spin their wheels. The drivers are frustrated, too. All except Eric DePoy, who manages to win without receiving or inflicting any real damage. This means his wagon will be at the Buckeye derby, the last of the season, in two weeks.
So, the young challengers vow, will they.
Two weeks later, as the sun sets in Buckeye, Horn and Murdell head to the concession stand to grab a hot dog. Suhr's father, Slick, looks around the crowded field for his son. "Aw, he's off talking to somebody," Slick says, lighting a cigarette. "He's kind of the social butterfly. Maybe he's talking to the Shoeless boys."
The Shoeless boys are exactly the type of demolition derby drivers Suhr says fans expect to see. It makes him cringe. "You know, the media always picks some scraggly haired redneck with a cigar butt hanging out of his mouth in a '60s helmet driving some heap into the arena." There is that element, Suhr says as he walks over to talk to a prime specimen, "but most of us are real respectable." He's proud of his sport, and he and Horn both shower and put on clean clothes before a derby.
By all appearances, Shoeless Jim does not know a shower nearly as well. He still draws a crowd; a Springeresque celebrity even in Buckeye. Tonight, Shoeless Jim talks with Suhr in front of an unrecognizable heap that looks more fragile than a wadded-up Kleenex.