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.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
10, 9, 8 . . .
Slick focuses his video camera . . . 4, 3, 2, 1! The crowd shouts, and suddenly it sounds like a swarm of bees as cars shimmy across the arena to make contact.
After a few soft hits and maneuvers, Suhr breaks away from the pack and skates quickly around the dusty arena looking for his targets. But before he can do much damage, the action is stopped.
A devastating hit has knocked the hood of a black sedan straight through to the passenger's compartment. The driver is pinned underneath and safety personnel can't tell if he's conscious or decapitated.
The firefighters slide the hood back to where it belongs, the driver climbs gingerly out of the window, apparently unharmed, and jogs out of the arena. The crowd applauds and begs for more. The green flag waves again and Suhr and Horn work both ends of the Mercury for a while before Horn gets spun around and moves toward the cop car.
Suhr is enraged, though, and begins a series of devastating hits on the Mercury that push it closer and closer to the concrete barriers at one corner of the arena. The crowd cheers, dogs bark. "Boom! Boom!" yells a toddler, laughing. Slick, one eye glued to the camcorder, says softly, "Right on target."
The Mercury is pinned in the corner and can neither avoid Suhr's pummeling nor inflict any real damage of its own. Suhr backs up and flies forward at him one last time, shoving the Mercury up and over the concrete barrier where he high-centers.
Although the Mercury flounders, paralyzed, Suhr backs up and pounds him again. The Mercury driver reaches out angrily and rips the flag from his window, disqualifying himself.
Suhr wheels around quickly and looks for Horn. Horn, however, is dead in the water. Red flags wave again and the heat is over. Suhr drives out of the arena, but not Horn. His steering column is useless, and as a tractor drags him to the pits, he shrugs and spins the steering wheel like a top.
"I gotta do something fancy here," says Horn after reviewing the problem. He jacks the car up, changes a shredded tire in seconds, and goes to work on the steering with friends gathering around to offer advice.
Meanwhile, Murdell is sent out alone in the second heat. Although he is known as an easy target, most of the older drivers have chosen a different sacrificial lamb, Shoeless Jim.
They move in on him like orcas on a seal, tossing him to and fro hard enough that he bounces off every surface of what's left of his car. He's obviously out of commission, but the feeding frenzy continues until Shoeless manages to stick one arm out through his windshield and raise a middle finger. He breaks off his flag with the other. His face is dripping with blood.
In the third heat, DePoy is virtually untouched, protected by his horde.
Murdell, Horn and Suhr prepare for the main event, eyeing DePoy every now and again. Horn has pounded, twisted and finally blowtorched his way around the steering problem. He fires up his twisted ride with a relieved smile. "God, I love that sound right there, it makes me feel all tingly!"
DePoy stands tall in his pit, unflinching, pokerfaced. "I can only worry about myself," he says. "I can't control the other cars. There are teams, you know. Justin and them . . . and us. I'm only saying I'm going to try not to hit my friends."
DePoy glances over at what is left of Suhr's and Horn's cars. "They're very competitive when they have fresh cars, but they're kind of beat up tonight," he says dismissively.
The organizers draw out the suspense between the third heat and the finale, running lawn mower races for an hour as drivers prepare, and wait. Finally they are summoned back to the arena.
Murdell straps on his helmet and waves goodbye to his 9-year-old brother Jordan. "Jolee, watch out," the boy says, gripping his mother's hand. "I will, Jordan, I will," Murdell vows.
When the melee begins, Suhr homes in on DePoy and slaps him with a hit on the rear driver's-side door. DePoy's buddies move in to block Suhr, but he spins around and nails him in the back end hard enough to make the crowd gasp.
Horn moves in to protect Suhr, blocking a potentially devastating hit from DePoy's friend Glenn Grim. DePoy's out of reach now, so Suhr moves to the Mercury he picked on in the first heat, slamming it once, then backing into it again, ripping into its side with his rear end that has been bent and twisted into a battering ram.
Horn chases down DePoy and aims for a radiator shot that just misses. DePoy's friends come to his rescue, and now there are four of them on Suhr at once, delivering blows from all four sides, crunching him for a good three minutes until he manages to break free.
Horn and Suhr resume their abuse of DePoy, making him the meat in their sandwich as they slam him from both sides.
DePoy is hobbling now, but so is Suhr. He's giving as good as he's getting, but a rear end to the grille sends a geyser of steam shooting into the air. "That's Justin losing his water," Slick narrates for the camcorder. There are just over a dozen cars left when Horn also runs into trouble. He's trying to extricate himself from a pile-up when the competitor lying on his hood is black-flagged. Horn can't move. Murdell is in a similar heap at the far end of the arena with a busted transmission.
Suhr circles around the dead cars, trying to find DePoy, but without a radiator he hasn't got much time. Suddenly he's T-boned hard, knocking his car a good 10 feet sideways. The radiator quits, and he's disqualified. DePoy soon follows. David Schueller, a DePoy teammate, wins the derby a few minutes later.
Horn and Suhr regroup in the pit area. "Oh well," Suhr says. "At least we took out Eric."
Tractors pull off body after body, but not Horn. His mortally wounded Impala is still running, much to his dismay.
This was meant to be a suicide mission. Horn looks at the mutilated heap in disgust. It's either finish it off tonight, or live with it until the next derby, in April. "No way am I taking this thing home," he vows.
Although the main derby is over, the women's powder-puff remains. It's Horn's last chance. With his radiator gone, he knows his car has just a few minutes of life left. All he needs is a woman. "Maybe we should put a wig on Jolee and let him race," Slick suggests.
Horn kicks a tire, then turns to survey the pit area where a few wide-eyed fans wander between wrecked cars.
The furrows in his brow disappear as he spots a woman standing nearby. He's on her in an instant. "I'm begging you to kill my car. There's still just enough life left in it that I can't stand it, please, please."
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The woman does not say no immediately, and that's all Horn needs. "Listen, after your first hit you're going to love it. Forget your instinct about not hurting other people, forget everything but reverse and forward. And no brakes, there's no need for brakes here." The woman remains unconvinced. "How hard are the hits?" she asks.
Horn is honest. "The last powder-puff here was brutal, worse than the men. It's like women don't care about the rules." She takes a step back but he continues. "Look, you're not going to go much faster than 20 miles an hour, maybe 30. Of course, a head-on when you're both going 30 is like hitting a brick wall at 60 . . . but you'll be okay." She looks terrified. He realizes he's losing her, and pulls out his trump card. "Here, get in. Just sit behind the wheel and see how you feel."
She lets loose of her daughter's hand, steps up on the hood and eases into the seat. Grabbing hold of the steering wheel, a wide grin blooms across her face. "Um, can I start it?" she says. "Sure," Horn says, smiling widely. He shows her the switch, she flicks it and the roaring engine makes her shriek in delight. "All right!" she shouts over the engine, "this is great! Now what do I have to do, just go hit people?"