Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Driving in the demolition derby

(This was a first-person sidebar to a national story on derbies, the kind of crazy night on the job that sticks with you a long time later. When I was an AP correspondent, the occasional feature like this was a welcome break from some of the serious coverage of disasters we were often assigned. (A look at some more typical stories: http://tcom610.blogspot.com/2011/01/some-of-my-stories.html)

Novice drive takes his shot in demolition derby at fair

(John Strauss, the AP’s Evansville correspondent, drove a demolition derby car at the Posey County Fair and lived to write about it.)

NEW HARMONY, Ind. – Joe Downs had the car ready for the demolition derby: the windows and all but one of the seats were out, the hood was lashed down good and the doors were chained shut.

“Don’t be nervous,” he said, watching me fumble with the straps on the crash helmet. “Remember, if the engine catches fire, climb out on the roof. If the fire’s inside, go out on the hood. Whatever you do, don’t get off the car or you’ll get run over.”

Some choice: Say with a flaming 1977 Dodge Monaco or try running through a dozen rampaging jalopies doing their best to wallop each other.

“Just give them a good show,” said Downs, who works at the Evansville junkyard where the car was bought for $35. He taught me the basics:

Reverse gear is important in a demolition derby. Hit other cars with the back of your car to protect your radiator. Try to bash in somebody else’s front end and take out their cooling system. With luck, you can hide in the clouds of steam from exploding radiators.

But the Monaco’s jury-rigged shift stick jammed at the start, trapping my car against the telephone poles laid down to circle the field. Off the passenger side a station wagon hurtled backwards toward me.


The Monaco shuddered violently and then shook clear, full throttle in reverse, toward the center of the cfield with the station wagon in pursuit.


A three-car pileup in heavy traffic near the middle killed the Dodge’s engine. The car had to be hot-wired using cables on the floor as the sedan jerked back and forth under the pounding of the battles around me.

My car’s engine finally started and I was able to get away and take a couple shots of my own. I feinted, jabbed, parried, got some good contact and started to get the feel of it.

The Dodge somehow made it to the final round but got hammered badly there, eliminated finally when the driveshaft broke on one of the telephone poles.

If there was one bright moment, one glimpse of the thrill the regular drivers get out of this mayhem, it came early on – as I scrambled to keep from being disqualified for not hitting another car within the time limit, two minutes.

As the announcer was telling the crowd I only had seconds to go, the Dodge leapt forward, picking up speed toward a slow-moving car 40 yards away.

Time was almost out. The crowd, knowing this was my first derby, was cheering and I felt like a high school kid sprinting for the end zone.

I made the play, creaming the station wagon head-on to stay in the game.

The crowd roared. The head-on crash wasn’t smart – but it was a good show.

Aug. 7, 1987

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