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

The History and Future of the Demolition Derby

The Rules of the Pit

Preparing a car for competition

    • Entry fees are generally around $30 per car. Heat winners receive $40 to $60 and a trophy, and feature winners are awarded from $400 to $1500 plus a trophy. Each year a few televised events offer prize money of $10,000 to $25,000 or more.
    • All glass and trim must be removed from the car. Some promoters allow drivers the option of retaining or removing the windshield. Those who remove it may install a wire screen to protect themselves from flying debris.
    • All flammable material from the car's interior must be removed: passenger seats, dash board, carpeting, etc.

Derby referee

  • The gas tank must be removed and replaced with a small two-to-three gallon tank, located behind the driver's seat. This tank must be secured to the floor and shielded against impact. Competitors use sheet metal, small oil drums, or beer kegs to protect their fuel tanks.
  • The muffler, catalytic converter, and exhaust pipes must be removed.
  • The battery must be relocated to the floor on the passenger side, where it must be secured and shielded.
  • The trunk, hood, and doors must be secured with wire, chains, threaded rod, or welds. The amount of welding allowed varies greatly and is a controversial topic among competitors.
  • "Outlaw derbies" allow extensive welding and reinforcement to the interior, exterior, and frame of the cars. Vehicles in these derbies are so strong they generally fail from overheated engines rather than structural damage.
  • Stock tires are generally required. Many competitors use slightly under-inflated snow tires in the hope of achieving better traction.
  • A hole of 12 to 18 inches in diameter must be cut into the middle of the hood so a fire hose can be inserted if necessary.

Speedo's 'Cadillac on the Attack' car

Driver Requirements

  • Drivers must be 18 years old and possess a valid driver's license. Some promoters require competitors to provide registration cards for the cars when checking in to prevent wrecks from being abandoned at the venue.
  • Competitors and crew members must sign release forms in order to enter the pit area.
  • Drivers are required to wear a helmet, goggles, and gloves, along with a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Some also wear a neck support in order to prevent whiplash.
  • Alcohol is not allowed in the pit area, and anyone suspected of being under the influence is ejected.

Rules for competition

Derby referee

  • No head-on collisions and no driver's door hits. Both are grounds for immediate disqualification.
  • Competitors must hit a "live" car every sixty seconds. To hit only as often as required or to brake just before contact to preserve one's car is known as "sandbagging." To be regarded as a sandbagger is the biggest disgrace to aficionados.
  • Teamwork (pinning or blocking a rival so a friend can smash into them) or "ganging up" on a competitor is illegal, but it is almost impossible to enforce and does take place in many derbies.
  • Drivers' arms and heads must remain inside the car. As obvious as this sounds, competitors sometimes get to gesturing and shouting at one another in the heat of battle and must be reminded on the public address system to protect themselves.
  • Engine fires are usually cause for disqualification. Some judges decide on a case-by-case basis, allowing minor fires to be extinguished and the car to continue. Fully equipped fire-fighting crews are always at trackside and are frequently called into action. Ambulance crews are present as well but are seldom needed.

Strategy Basics

  • Ideally, hit the front of someone else's car with the back of your car. Try to damage the competitor's motor and cooling system and preserve yours.
  • Damage the competitors' steering by hitting their front wheel wells from an angle.
  • Flatten opponents' tires by ramming them with the end of your bumper.
  • Knock competitors up over the concrete or log barriers around the perimeter of the arena. Conversely, avoid getting pinned against the perimeter or in among a group of "dead" cars.
  • Time your collision to coincide with another car, hitting an opponent from the opposite side. This is very difficult to accomplish, especially early in a heat when many cars are still active.

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.