By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Shoeless Jim Wagner and his brothers are full-time demolition derby drivers from Missouri, where they drive 40 to 60 derbies from May to October every year. They spend the off-season working as ranch hands in Arizona, and racing in derbies they aren't banned from.
Shoeless Jim is 26 years old with thick glasses and a permanently dazed look on his face. He's been racing since he was 13. The shoeless nickname stems from the fact that he and his kin don't wear shoes -- ever -- because "that's the way our daddy raised us. That's how everyone is back home."
Going barefoot can be a hazard as a ranch hand, and can be downright dangerous in the arena, especially since Shoeless Jim prefers to drive a manual transmission. "Remember that time you duct-taped a boot to the clutch so your foot wouldn't slip?" asks Suhr with a smile. "Uh, yup," says Shoeless Jim.
The Shoeless boys are no longer welcome at the State Fair. Sellers, and other drivers, cite sandbagging (hiding from the action), but Shoeless Jim says he's been banned for "political differences. My daddy was the only man in history to win all three nights at the State Fair with the same car. We don't fit in with the promoter's idea of who should win, so he don't want us there." Buckeye isn't so picky.
A few yards from the Shoeless boys stands Eric DePoy, holding court. Suhr may enjoy making the rounds and trading small talk with other drivers, but DePoy stays put. People come to him.
DePoy is tall and clean-cut, with rust-colored hair, an orange APS shirt and snug black jeans that he likes to adjust when he talks with Justin. Eric adjusts, Justin spits, almost as if trading dance moves while DePoy's prize-winning wagon lurks behind him.
He's still strong competition, and no car should look so good after doing in 42 others.
DePoy's prepared the wagon with the utmost care. His precision is diabolical. "Look at that," says Horn, peering inside the stark interior of the long, ebony body with wide eyes. "You see all those seams where he's welded? I did that once. Once," he gulps. "You have to go through after you strip it and scrape off this shiny glue they put on the seams, then weld to reinforce them. It takes, like, months!"
The drivers' meeting is called next. The typical warnings include no sandbagging, no hits to the driver's-side door, as well as cautions against arena hits (speeding from one end of the arena to another to nail someone) and T-boning.
Because of the number of cars, organizers decide to run three heats and take the top eight cars from each for the main event. As they call out the names for each heat, Suhr, Horn, Murdell and three other sympathetic young racers find themselves together in the first heat. DePoy is in the third heat.
The challengers converge in front of Suhr's car and assess the competition. With six out of the top eight in their heat being friendly, they must move aggressively on the other cars, and keep their objectives straight. "There's a mean-looking '50s Mercury wagon and an old Buckeye cop car that need to go away," Horn says. "The cop car and the Mercury are the ones we need to pound," Suhr agrees. "You got that [Murdell]?" jokes Slick. "Do you want me to write their numbers on your visor?"
The announcer begins calling drivers into the arena. Suhr dons his helmet, spits, then slips gracefully into his car. "I don't care what they said at the drivers' meeting about arena shots," he says. "I'm gonna come out there and make some really hard hits. We need to get the crowd behind us."
The boys back out of their slots and rumble toward the arena gate. Slick talks about his son's first derby in Buckeye as he clambers up the grandstand, a video camera in hand.
"He was smoking so bad you could barely see him, there was this white cloud all around him." Suhr won that year, and his dad says proudly, "It was a heck of a finish. As soon as he shut off his engine, the car burst into flames. The crowd loved it."
Two factors make his son competitive. "Mainly it's the driving," he says. "He knows how to watch for cars in the right place and where and when to hit. Also, he's kind of meticulous about the way he builds things."
Then Slick smiles without turning his head. "Here comes Jolee [Murdell], here comes my car," he says. "I can tell by the sound of the motor." Murdell dates Slick's daughter, Suhr's sister, and is the least experienced, and most nervous, of the three.
As the rest of the cars line up backward on either side of the arena, a firefighter stationed along the edge motions to Murdell to leave the arena. There is a confusion over car numbers. With the cacophony of revving engines, this is no place for a discussion, so Murdell pulls out of the arena, back into the pit. Slick is puzzled, but mostly worried. "I don't know what happened; they'll probably put him in another heat, but that's not good. I hate to see Jolee out there alone."