PBS Premiere: Aug. 24, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

The History and Future of the Demolition Derby

The Future of the Sport

While not an imminent threat to demolition derbies in this country, environmental laws have outlawed events in France, the Netherlands, and Germany. In the course of competition, gasoline, oil, transmission fluid and anti-freeze are routinely spilled onto the ground. Additionally, large clouds of unfiltered exhaust are released into the atmosphere, because catalytic converters and other pollution control devices are stripped off the cars prior to competition. In Europe, concerns over these pollutants have led to legislation preventing the growth of the sport. Luckily for American demo derby competitors and fans, the current popularity of auto racing and other events such as monster truck racing make the idea of restricting motor sports based on environmental grounds almost unthinkable. And reports from England indicate that banger racing and demolition derby are -- for now -- both thriving.
Speedo at Riverhead
If trends in American and British environmental law follow those in Europe, a generation from now there may be specific restrictions on demolition derbies. Already the laws governing automotive technology for emissions control and fuel efficiency are impacting demolition derby in the United States. Emission control standards have given rise to computerized ignition modules, oxygen sensors, and other sophisticated pollution control devices on auto engines. This technology has improved air quality in recent years, but as any backyard mechanic knows, the days of doing your own tune-ups have all but ended. Newer engines are too complex for nonprofessionals to tinker around with, and once stripped of all the pollution control devices in preparation for a demolition derby, the newer engines run very poorly -- or sometimes not at all -- in the hands of casual competitors. Such competitors make up a significant percentage of the field in most events. As older cars with standard carburetors, distributors, and other traditional mechanical systems become scarce, it will become more and more difficult for newcomers to enter the sport.

The Indestructible Car

The Chrysler Imperial, '64 through '67, is the hardest car ever made for the general public. Most demolition derby competitions don't allow it -- it's simply too powerful. We asked Speedo to explain why.

He says there are two reasons. First of all,the Chrysler Imperial has a truck chassis -- far heavier and thicker than a regular car body. But there's another reason the Imperial is so strong. That is, the frame of the car is made from a single band of steel (called an "O-frame") that goes all the way around the car. Most cars have holes or weak spots in their frame which are made to twist and bend on impact. These are known as "crumple zones." An SUV, for example, uses a "C-frame" that doesn't go all the way around the car. "If an Imperial was to have a head-on collision with an SUV," says Speedo, "The SUV would be completely undriveable. The Imperial would back up and drive away."

Crumple zones are an important safety feature that every modern car has. When a car crumples on impact, it absorbs most of the force, protecting the driver. An Imperial doesn't crumple. So all the force goes right into the driver's body.

Photo by Bill Lowenburg

Some promoters are very concerned about this reality, while others are not. Veteran promoter Elwood "Sonny" Hall, who has been staging demolition derbies in Michigan and the surrounding states for twenty-five years, expressed his concerns in an article in Amusement Business, a trade publication devoted to out-of-home entertainment activities. "Computers [in the newer engines] will kill us," said Hall. "I hope to get three or four more years out of what we're doing. It's getting harder to find rear-wheel drive carbureted cars. In the last 15 years, with all the fuel injections, sensory intakes and exhaust manifolds, the cars are getting too hot and shut down."

In contrast, Delbert "Rudy" Rudolph, whose R&R Productions is based in Kentucky, and who stages over 60 demolition derbies around the country each year, feels the sport is "at least holding its own." He cited the small Plainfield Township Farmers Grove competition held annually outside Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, as an example. "Here's a small country venue," said Rudy, "and in two nights we'll have 130 to 140 cars here." The number of newcomers he saw at this particular derby also encouraged him. "Out of all the drivers here, there's maybe 15 to 18 I'd call semi-pro, or real serious competitors. Most of 'em are just out to have a good time."

Regardless of trends in technology, the basic economic principle of supply and demand is entering into the lives of those who participate in demolition derby on a regular basis. Competitors in some parts of the country complain that their favorite demo cars from the 1960s and 70s are increasingly harder to find. The mindset for traditional demolition derbies has always been, when it comes to cars, "the bigger the better." Bigger cars not only crash more spectacularly, they are more durable and can be repaired to compete in more than one event. With the supply of older eight-cylinder cars becoming thin, the past few seasons have seen the rise of compact car derbies.

Compact cars, of which there is an abundant supply, provide their own unique brand of entertainment for the fans -- and new challenges and thrills to the drivers. Compacts are lighter, more maneuverable, and equipped with front-wheel drive, making their rear ends well suited to battering one another. Additionally, their four-cylinder engines can often run longer without overheating like the eight-cylinder engines in bigger cars. Despite offering less protection for the driver, there is no shortage of competitors willing to crash compact vehicles. Assuming that demolition derby survives the next decade, larger vehicles will almost certainly make a comeback, as SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks presently account for more than half of all vehicles sold in the US each year, and their size makes them excellent candidates for derbying.

Many prominent competitors and people central to the sport today believe demolition derby is on the upswing. Sam Dargo, president of the International Demolition Derby Association, scoffs at the suggestion that the sport is doomed, or even in serious trouble. Responding to the concerns, he explained in a phone interview that demo competitors will simply adapt and modify the newer vehicles as needed. Brothers Woody and Bob Kemmerer, who own 422 Auto Inc., in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and who both compete in and serve as officials at national events, agreed that from what they observe around the country, the sport appears to be growing.

While technological advances in vehicle emission controls have challenged competitors, other technology offers positive opportunities. Through websites like the IDDA Homepage which has over 10,000 registered members, the Schutte Demo Page and others, the Internet has greatly fostered communication among competitors and fans. Through these online forums, competitors share information and help one another to locate vehicles, solve technical problems, and find events.

The economic outlook for demolition derby is in many ways quite optimistic. Estimates vary on the number of events held nationally each year, from a low of 750 to a high of over 2,500. Most are held at county fairs, although there are also independent promotions. According to Amusement Business, "demolition derbies are currently the largest draw at county fairs, outside of top name talent." While some fairs hold two derby events, most hold one, generally on the last night, when attendance is highest. Amusement Business confirms that for most fairs around the country, there are "few if any empty seats in the grandstands." Attendance at demolition derbies is estimated to exceed one million spectators each year, with some big events drawing ten thousand fans or more. Television coverage on the Discovery Channel and other cable stations is sporadic, but, like those demolition derby cars that just won't seem to quit, it keeps coming back.


Bill Lowenburg is a photographer and writer. His book, Crash, Burn, Love: Demolition Derby Photographs, is scheduled for release by Lodima Press in the summer of 2004.