If the demolition derby isn't America's greatest underknown sport and sacrament, I want to know what is. It is an end-of-summer ritual in New York State's dozens of rural counties, culminating this year in a championship derby on Labor Day at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. I have attended it religiously for years at the Delaware County Fair in the Catskills, where I have a country place. Let me tell you about it.
The demolition derby is American bullfighting, in which the bull and the matador are one. It is a witches' sabbath of our national cult of the car. It inverts everyone's lifelong determination, when at the wheel, not to run into anything. Abolishing "accident," it makes crashing compulsory. It is folk Dada. It is deafening and smelly, balletic, operatic, and beautiful. Spatterings of wheel-spun dirt anoint the massed grandstand congregants.
When floodlights shine through billows of unmufflered exhaust, cracked-engine smoke, and smashed-radiator steam upon the last laboring cars, which groan and shriek in their terminal struggle like beasts on the final weekend of the Jurassic, words fail.
Back-road and small-town boys and girls and whole families spend months preparing near-junk vehicles for a few minutes of goodbye valor. All glass is removed, as is anything else the driver wishes. Nothing can be added. The gas tank, with a minimum of fuel, is displaced to the backseat for safety. Hood and trunk are chained shut. Doors are welded, never to open again.
Lively, often terrific abstract, cartoony, and verbal paint jobs parade poignantly doomed artistry.
Winners earn no more than a couple of hundred bucks, so love is all. That and youth. Drivers can get banged around pretty smartly, though serious injuries are rare. Once I saw a gas tank catch fire and explode. The driver somersaulted out his window just ahead of the ball of flames and came up grinning from ear to ear.
The arena is a stretch of racetrack about 40 by 180 feet. In each of several heats over four hours or so, up to 18 cars vie in the cramped space. Not getting boxed in is part of the driver's craft. Attainable speeds are modest, no more than 20 miles per hour usually, though with occasional kamikaze runs at 30-some that make the crowd yelp with fear and joy.
No cars in the normal world can take hits at much more than five miles per hour without causing telephones to ring in insurance offices. Everything more violent enters obscure territory. In the derby, things happen to cars that a crash-test dummy never dreamed of. The track after a heat is a surreal landscape by Yves Tanguy.
Impacted sheet metal obeys unknown rules of crazy origami, chased with surface detailing as dense and delicate as tapestries. Crunched or spavined derelicts resemble cars for lack of anything else to resemble. They can suggest cartoon characters after mishaps, but, unlike Daffy Duck, they won't be snapping back into shape.
See cars locked in inextricable, fatal embraces. Ogle long sedans now fit for compact parking spaces. Dig the guy folded up in the middle, back wheels hysterically spinning in the air. Bumpers, ripped tires, and the odd whole wheel bestrew the churned ground.
As we look and look, farm tractors soberly clear all of it away.
The rules are few and plain. Basically, the last car moving wins. Its driver and the next to last receive trophies, as does another driver voted "best in show" by the crowd's applause. These three return to join the night's championship heat, often in relatively intact cars bought or otherwise finagled from losers behind the scenes.
Your ideal tactic is to ram the other guy's front end with your back end. Broken radiators are the most common cause of death. Belching steam, a car thus afflicted may have a minute left in which to exact vengeance before its engine, overheating, seizes up and becomes useful henceforth as, say, a large boat anchor.
A delectable moment: seen through a window, somebody's "SERVICE ENGINE SOON" warning light pops on.
Some drivers awe with their cool gladiatorial finesse. More than once I've seen a master maneuver a rival car into a head-on smash with a third. Others visibly go completely off their heads, rampaging with suicidal abandon. The crowd adores them while they last, as it loathes the jerk who, laying doggo, plays patty-cake in a corner while the others eliminate each other. Though inevitably still around toward the finish, no doggo that I've seen has ever won. (Yay.)
Nor, I don't know why, has any of the occasional morons who flaunt Confederate flags. Last week at the Delaware County Fair, the two last cars in the last heatrecycled by drivers whose previous mounts had gone nevermindhappened to be a black station wagon bearing nihilistic slogans and the Dixie banner and a muscular old coupe emblazoned all over with the Stars and Stripes.
In and around a reef of silent wrecks, the duel dragged on. It was like the Merrimack and the Monitor. Our guy kept getting the better of the slugfest, but the reb was as unkillable as Rasputin, lurching back into action time and again. At last, crumpled and reeking, the horrid hulk was still. The crowd bolted to its feet, shouting.
Somewhat like Cuba, chronically poor upstate regions maintain limping, sizable stocks of the old-time Detroit monsters that make good derby cars. (Circa-1970 two-door dreadnoughts of The Dukes of Hazzard ilk, not to mention station wagons and any Cadillac, are choice.) But history is catching up, and this year I witnessed the innovation of special heats for four- cylinder Toyotas, Datsuns, and so on from the fuel-shortage era.
Screaming like mosquitoes with head colds, the little cars collided at fierce velocities and bounced off, lacking the heft to wreak much palpable ruin. Then some small, mysterious, high-strung thing would snap in them, and one after another they were sculpture.
The traditions and monuments of the world's older cultures dwarf the scale of merely personal feelings in the present. In these United States, on the contrary, our current feelings often exceed our viable national symbols, which tend to be crap. Give us anything at all to love gratuitously, and our spirits will cover it with spirit to spare.
So it is with the demolition derby, which you probably must be an American to comprehend. Other folks would likely see destruction and waste where we recognize transcendence: poverty exalted, decay blessed, death trumped by instant and indelible memories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.