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Going to Wreck and Ruin

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert Rice loves to crash. Loves it so much, in fact, that they call him “The Wrecker.”

At least, that’s what his friends call him. His insurance broker uses another name, but we can’t print that one.

In the last 17 years, or since he first qualified for a driver’s license, Rice has totaled about 130 cars. And that’s a conservative estimate. Yet Rice’s fetish for fender benders has earned him more than just some catchy nicknames and memorable headaches. It’s also earned him a reputation as one of the best demolition derby drivers in Southern California--one with 92 wins in 130 competitions.

Not that Rice has to crash for a living, mind you. He’s also one of the area’s top oval-track drivers, having finished fourth in the Grand American Modified points standings during Irwindale Raceway’s inaugural season last summer. And that’s a good thing, because in demolition derbies, Rice says, “you really don’t make too much money--you spend it.”

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To the uninitiated, Rice may sound like some sort of crash-test dummy. Who else would have accidents on purpose and call it fun?

“It’s a totally different atmosphere,” says Rice, 33, a stocky, towheaded bear of man who runs his own auto garage--what else?--in Hawthorne. “You’re crashing cars and you know it isn’t going to cost you money to fix them.”

Besides, crashing is something of a tradition in the Rice family. Robert’s father, John Rice, drove in demolition derbies for six years, and his 3-year-old son, Robert Jr., is already staging mock derbies with his Hot Wheels cars on the living room floor.

“He’s been to a lot of my races, and he knows the drivers,” Rice says. “So he’ll just line the cars up, say, ‘This is Robert Rice, this is Steve Cook’ or whatever, and then crash them up.”

When he was a kid, albeit an older one, Rice used to crash real cars. The family garage was usually full of old engines and vehicles in various states of repair, and if his father forgot to disable them before leaving for work in the morning, he’d come home to find young Robert racing them up and down the street. Other neighbors punished their kids by turning off the TV for a week; John Rice punished his son by banishing him from the garage.

When that happened, he’d have to stand outside and watch from the driveway as his dad worked on cars, Robert Rice says.

Now others are watching him. Or better yet, aiming at him. As the defending state champion, Rice entered the recent 1999 Pile-Up in Pomona--the annual California title race at the Los Angeles County Fairplex--as the clear favorite. Or the clear target, depending on your point of view.

“Since I’ve won so many,” Rice says, “I do have a lot of people who want to come after me.”

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Demolition derbies--originally called “crash derbies"--began springing up at county fairs across the U.S. in the 1930s, but they didn’t become commonplace until just after World War II. Legendary motor sports promoter Don Basile brought them to Southern California in 1946, although in true Hollywood fashion, the first race was rigged to look more spectacular than it otherwise would have been.

Basile talked a local dealer into donating four used automobiles and recruited four future Hall of Fame race drivers--Walt James, Joe James, Allen Heath and Willard “Billy” Cantrell--to drive them in a special race at Carrell Speedway in Gardena. Basile had a mechanic customize them so they would fall apart easily. As a result, when the four drivers began to bang into one another, hoods, doors and fenders soon began flying all over the track, steam billowed from the radiators--and, not surprisingly, the crowd went nuts.

Demolition derbies quickly became a regular part of the weekly racing program at Carrell. The biggest event Basile put together took place at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972, when he teamed with J.C. Agajanian to stage a nationally televised derby featuring Indianapolis 500 champions Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Bobby and Al Unser in mint-condition late-model cars, one of them a 3-year-old Rolls-Royce.

*

How a car is set up is still the single most important factor in a successful demolition derby, says Rice, who spends up to 70 hours preparing an auto for a derby. But whereas Basile set up his cars to fall part, Rice says today’s derby drivers condition theirs to absorb impact and keep moving.

“You definitely prepare the car as you need--just making a real durable car that you know is going to flex and move to your advantage,” he says. “You’re getting into a car that you know can take on damage and give damage.

“It’s all in preparing the car.”

There are limits to how many modifications can be made, however, since most promoters have strict specifications for derby cars. For the California championship, for example, cars had to be U.S.-made hardtops manufactured after 1964. Everything on the car, from bumpers to transmission, had to be stock, and the gas tank, window glass and all combustible upholstery had to be removed. Aside from the driver, the only things allowed inside the car were the driver’s seat, the battery, a 6-gallon plastic gas tank anchored in the back-seat area--and a fire extinguisher.

Once the green flag drops, drivers are required to make substantial contact with another car every two minutes, although intentional hits on the driver’s-side door are grounds for disqualification. Avoiding contact or remaining locked up with another car for too long can also result in disqualification.

Yet for all the rules and regulations, the competitions themselves quickly degenerate into a kind of automotive anarchy, with several tons of metal and rubber smashing together at combined speeds of more than 50 mph. Qualifying heats typically last about 20 minutes, and the final may linger a few minutes longer.

In any case, it may be the most violent 20 minutes in sports.

There’s little subtlety in a demolition derby, and some of the collisions are heart-stopping in their intensity. That’s why nobody actually “wins”; the best a driver can hope to do is survive. It even says so in the rules, which declare the last car running to be the champion.

*

Despite the bare-knuckle nature of the demolition derby, serious injuries are rare. Rice, for example, has participated in all those demolition derbies--plus qualifying heats, which would bring his career total to more than 250 demolition runs--yet the most devastating injury he has sustained is a broken nose. The only concession he makes to the violence of the sport is a pre-race stretching routine that loosens his neck and lessens the chance of whiplash.

Still, the potential for serious injury, even death, is always present. Between heats of the California championships, which drew 5,000 spectators on closing night of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, public-address announcer Larry Huffman made a plea for donations to help pay the hospital bills for a driver who was seriously burned in an earlier derby.

“You think about it,” Rice says of the danger. “But once you get in the car and you’re seat-belted in, everything you’re worried about totally goes away. It’s strange how it does.

“You might get butterflies before you go out. Some people do; some people don’t. You know you’re going to get hit. You definitely [are] in a different category than people who are afraid of things.”

And there is a fair degree of strategy involved aside from just the way a car is set up. The weather, the composition of the track, even the make and model of a car will determine how a race will be driven.

“Everybody thinks it’s pretty easy to just get in a derby car and go. But there’s skill involved,” Rice says. “And luck. Definitely you have to be lucky.”

The primary goal is to protect the front of the car, keeping the radiator and engine block from damage. Because of that, most drivers initiate contact with the backs of their automobiles, turning station wagons or sedans with wide rear ends into battering rams.

*

In the California championship, Mike Doyle Jr. of Dixon, a small town west of Sacramento, spent so much time bludgeoning the field with the rear end of his 1974 General Motors-made station wagon that the car finished the night several feet shorter than it had been at the beginning. Still, the car was the last one running.

And when the competition was over, the 75-by-40-yard dirt course looked like a stretch of the Grapevine after a fog-induced chain-reaction. The broken and battered carcasses of nearly two dozens cars littered the field, with steam pouring from the cracked radiators of some, and others listing in the direction of flattened tires or busted fenders.

For his part, Rice, driving a jet-black ’73 Cadillac with a skull and crossbones painted on the hood, failed to finish in the top five for the first time this year after third-place finisher Mike Mora of Merced forced him into a concrete retaining wall.

Though Rice may have lost a little pride, he didn’t miss out on much money: Doyle took home just $3,000 for winning, which barely covered his expenses. In fact, the lack of big-money purses or generous sponsorship is the main reason demolition derbies remain a weekend hobby and not a full-time job. It’s also the reason talented local drivers such as Rice, Mora or Mike Klementich of Fontana can’t afford to travel long distances to compete against other regional champions.

And though the sport does require a good deal of skill, from the fans’ point of view it’s just a bunch of guys crashing. It doesn’t much matter to them if the driver is Mike Doyle or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So tell us again why you do it?

“Because . . . it’s a lot of fun,” Rice says. “There’s definitely an adrenaline rush. You get more frustration out. It keeps me out of trouble.”

Longtime Los Angeles Times staffer Kevin Baxter recently joined the Miami Herald as arts editor. He can be reached at kbaxter@herald.com.


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