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Some Cars’ Road to Ruin Leads to O.C. Fair

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before monster truck rallies, supercross extravaganzas and X Games competitions, there was that progenitor of all mud-splattered, high-testosterone blood sports: the demolition derby.

The Road-Warrior-meets-the-Roman-Coliseum smash ‘em up reached its peak in popularity in the 1970s. It’s having something of a turn-of-the-century renaissance as extreme-sports-obsessed youths and their nostalgic baby boomer parents reclaim the sport.

Booming nationwide and spreading overseas, the wreck-'em rodeo will careen into the Orange County Fair tonight at 8 for the first “Orange Crush"--quenching a two-year derby dry spell in the greater Los Angeles area.

“The fans are attracted to the destruction and the mayhem,” said Bob Basile, son of legendary motor sports promoter Don Basile, who staged Southern California’s first demolition derby in the 1940s. “They used to say, ‘People just go to a [car] race to see a wreck.’ With the derby, there’s a wreck every second.”

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First-time driver Daniel “Super Dan” Robinson has been working on his 1982 Buick Electra for a month, prepping for his one-night stand at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds. He’s painted each of his four kids’ names on the corners of the car--promising to crunch each into an unreadable mess.

“I’m not nervous,” said the Lake Forest tow-truck driver, who used pneumatic shears to cut jagged teeth into his Buick’s hood. “I’m just going to try to hit one car at a time and try not to get knocked out.”

That’s what has his wife worried.

“I want him to do it because he wants to . . . but it can be dangerous,” Melanie Robinson said. “I’m worried he might get whiplash. I’m just going to say a prayer.”

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On any given summer weekend night, derby jalopies, engines sputtering, make their way onto race tracks from Hicksville, Ohio, to Dagenham, England. Nationwide, 60,000 to 75,000 demolition drivers compete in at least one of the 2,000 or so derbies a year. California is home to 80 to 100 derbies annually, about half the number in the demolition derby capital of the United States, Ohio.

Purses that typically ran in the hundreds of dollars have shot up to $10,000 or more since TNN began televising derbies as part of its “Motor Madness” series. The Orange Crush prize is $1,500. But a Canadian pay-per-view outfit recently filmed a derby spectacular with a $50,000 top prize. And DENT, an East Coast derby promoter, is organizing a televised 13-event U.S. tour for 2002 that culminates with a $25,000 national championship in Las Vegas.

“I don’t know why, but suddenly it’s popular again,” said Jackie Thurgood, co-founder of the U.S. Demolition Derby Assn. and wife of a driver. “More people are watching and participating than we’ve ever seen before.”

Smashing, Yes, ‘Sandbagging,’ No

The requirements are simple. Drivers must be at least 16; seat belts and helmets are mandatory. And, of course, you must have a car--preferably of no Blue Book value. A nom de demo--Gravel, Junkyard Dog or Captain Insano--is optional.

Entries must be American-made hardtops typically manufactured after 1965 and in stock condition. The most sought-after cars are mid-1970s Chevrolet wagons and sedans, especially the solid-framed Impala. Chrysler Imperials usually are banned because they are said to be virtually indestructible.

Crashing is compulsory. Drivers must smash into another car every two minutes or face disqualification. Head-on collisions and intentional driver’s-side door hits are typically illegal. Avoiding contact--that’s called “sandbagging"--is an affront to the other derby drivers and strictly forbidden. The last car running wins.

The primary goal is to protect the car’s front end--engine, radiator and carburetor--from damage. Strategy demands that drivers slam into each other tail first at full speed, usually 30 miles an hour, aiming for axles and radiators.

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Typically, a derby starts with a ragtag group of cars lined up randomly around a retaining wall of a dirt oval, tail lights facing center. The crowd chants, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1!” with the announcer. A green flag is dropped and the drivers are off--in reverse.

The crunch of metal, the hiss of radiator steam, the spinning of wheels--in the ground and in the air--lasts about 20 minutes. The occasional car flips over or bursts into flames. Derby officials insist that serious injuries are rare--the occasional whiplash, busted tooth or broken bone. Drivers must sign a waiver releasing organizers of all liability.

But the danger is real. Three years ago, a driver was badly burned at a Lake Perris derby. In August, a 20-year-old driver was severely burned over two-thirds of his body at a derby in Iowa when a spark ignited gasoline leaking from his car. Two years before that, a female spectator at another Iowa derby was critically injured when a car flew off the track, landing on top of her.

Legend has it that stock car driver Larry Mendelsohn dreamed up the modern demolition derby in 1958 at New York’s Islip Speedway after he noticed that fans paid more attention to the wrecks than the racing.

ABC aired the Demolition Derby World Championships from the mid-1960s until 1972. That same year, the Los Angeles Coliseum hosted a nationally televised derby that featured Indianapolis 500 champions Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser in mint condition late-model cars--including a near-new Rolls Royce. And in 1976, leather-clad demolition derby driver Pinky Tuscadero captured Fonzie’s heart on “Happy Days.”

Commercial and home development in the 1980s claimed many aging race tracks, and the demolition derbies with them. But in the early 1990s, derbies found a new home at state and county fairs, drawing capacity crowds wherever they turned up.

“It used to be shade-tree mechanics, but now we get lawyers, policemen and housewives who want to run in the derby,” promoter Bob Basile said. “People come out and see it and just want to do it. They just feel they can get all their aggressions out on the track.”

It’s Fun for the Whole Family

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Despite the motorized mayhem, derby days tend to be family affairs.

At 6 feet, 3 inches and 375 pounds, Patrick “Big Dawg” Vance more than lives up to his nickname. The Dawg and his wife, Lenna, will make the seven-hour trip down from Big Pine with the 1975 Oldsmobile station wagon he’s dubbed “5150"--police code for lunatic on the loose.

“I’ve been driving for more than 20 years,” said Vance, a 38-year-old construction worker who is eager to take part in the race.

“My dad used to drive in the derbies years ago. When I was old enough to drive, we went and found a car.”

Lenna Vance, long resigned to her husband’s weekend wild side, helps out in the garage and works in the pits.

“She does all the paint jobs,” Vance said. “We try to do all the cars with tiger stripes.”

Dave Shipp is a classic suburban adventurist who has bungee-jumped out of hot air balloons, scaled Mt. Rainier and slogged through the annual Camp Pendleton Mud Run. He’s bought a 1971 Pontiac Bonneville for his latest escapade.

“I’ve never driven in a demolition derby before,” said Shipp, 38, who lives in Laguna Beach with his pregnant wife and 2-year-old son. “I’ve never even seen one. I just thought it would be fun. Hopefully I won’t get jarred around too bad.”

Shipp may be in for a surprise, Bob Basile said.

“They’re going to hit him hard. In most of our derbies we have to put the losers on their trailers with a forklift because the car won’t even roll. His car will probably be destroyed.”


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