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

The Family that Demos Together, Stays Together

Some crash for money. Some crash for love. Some crash to feel what it's like to survive.
Toddler next to car: 'Fender Bender' Demolition derby is an Industrial Age ritual of redemption and resurrection -- born, possibly, out of a drive to take things broken beyond all rational hope of repair, and let them live again. I've been photographing demo derbies for seven years now, and on those nights, time stops for me. In the pit, where I hang out, camaraderie and creativity overshadow desire and destruction.
Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines a demolition derby as "a contest in which skilled drivers ram old cars into one another until only one car remains running." The basic premise of demolition derby is simple: the last car able to move is the winner. However, to become a winner is anything but simple. To win a demolition derby requires a combination of preparation, skill, strategy, and luck.
Car repairDemolition derby competitions generally consist of four to eight heats whose winners advance to the feature event. To begin each heat, ten to twenty stripped-down, wildly painted cars rumble into the arena with introductions from the announcer and heartfelt cheers from their supporters in the stands. Drivers line up their cars opposite one another, or around the perimeter of the arena, generally with their vehicle's rear end facing the center. Concrete highway barriers, telephone poles, or huge heavy-equipment tires laid side-by-side are used to delineate the area of competition, which is wet down to create a muddy "playing field." The mud serves as a safety factor and creates an added challenge to the competitors, as it keeps vehicle speeds low, and makes navigation difficult. Upon the judge's signal, the crowd counts down. When the checkered flag drops, drivers ram the pedal to the metal. Chaos ensues for a few minutes, and then the action slows down as the cars batter one another into submission. Tires and radiator hoses pop in resounding resonance, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd. Thick clouds of blue exhaust and white steam rise and hang ominously over the arena. One by one the cars lurch to a halt, some due to mechanical failure, others from structural damage. The last two cars moving are declared the heat winners, and the judges or fans select a third car to also compete in the feature event at the end of the evening.
Smashing a car with an axe at a derbyThe cars themselves, in all their goofy splendor, are a kind of mechanized American folk art. Slogans dashed on their sides, handpainted by the crews, reflect concerns both private and public: "Darlene 'N Skeeter, True Love. Each Crash a Kiss." "Get Better Soon Pop." "9/11 Heroes All. Gone But Not Forgotten."

The pit in full swing, just before the feature event, is a symphony of foreign sights, sounds, and smells. To the uninitiated, it might be frightening; it certainly was to me the first time I ventured there. I learned to open up to it, approaching slowly on the balls of my feet as a boxer might, cautious but also loose, radar on, ready to duck. Several times it has, in fact, been necessary to duck, and to sidestep quickly to elude flying sparks, debris, hot fluids and, once, a rolling wreck named "Bound for Glory," whose brakes had failed. I usually wear safety glasses in the pit. No one else does.

"I know it might sound corny, " said Tom Furillo of Reading, Pennsylvania, "but make sure you put this in your book: the family that demos together, stays together."

Standing in the middle of the pit as the feature event approaches, I could go off in any number of directions to photograph. Jets of steam hiss from overheated engines and punctured radiators, billowing like geysers into the dark sky. Orders are barked: "Shine that light here, dammit. Here!" Hardened steel pry-bars the length of pool cues are applied to fenders and hoods, bending back wrecked metal so wheels can turn and engines can be diagnosed. Wrenches are slapped into palms like surgical instruments, and the dialogue is a call-and-response mixture of questions, laughter, and profanity. A grimy hand thrusts out from under a jacked-up chassis, followed by a gruff voice yelling, "I tole ya three times it's a 9/16ths and not a 5/8ths, dammit! Gimme the right wrench!" Men whose appearance suggests they never run for exercise go sprinting off into the darkness in heavy work boots to retrieve urgently needed tools, lubricants, fuel and water. In an attempt to improve sight lines for their driver, groups of three and four men hold hands and jump up and down in tribal unison on bent hoods, trunks, and roofs like so many strange metal trampolines. To jerry-rig is to live: At Kutztown I once saw a man mend his drive shaft with duct tape and go on to win the feature event. Punctuating it all is the irregular rhythm of five or six sledgehammers ringing away on fenders in different sectors of the pit. Sometimes, I have learned, the best way to fix a thing is simply to pound the hell out of it.

-- Bill Lowenburg