(This was originally published in a short-lived sports portal called Quokka. It was originally written for an aborted online magazine on Autoweb.com)
It was the last day of the Los Angeles County Fair, perhaps the largest of its kind in the country. Long gone the piles of gleaming produce, the largest squash, the heaviest pumpkin, the corrals of sheep and draft horses that such an event featured back when its rural nature was still discernible. The county fair has always been a reflection of the country at large and here in this place, the country’s portrait was painted, in all its cupidity and cheap thievery, its desperation and want. Here, shabby, dangerous thrill rides, synthetic almond slurry, plastic doodads from Taiwan and games of chance told whoever wanted to listen the true tale of America.
As we pulled into the fairgrounds, we were blinded, the dull glint of smog-filtered sun winking dully off two solid miles of parked cars. Before we could turn out of harm’s way Eric and I were shot forward, as though in a log flume, into the middle of 100,000 teenage mothers with bawling kids and the kids’ sloe-eyed fathers-of-record, in grimy Bulls tank-tops and prison tattoos, slowly, slobberingly grinding down lengths of stale, overpriced corndog and following us with eyes like bottle caps, as though fearful we’d steal the bologna they had cooling in the toilet.
Finally, after negotiating this modern Labyrinth, we wound up at Gate 12, staging area for the ”Pile Up In Pomona,” styled as the California State Demolition Derby Championship. It was styled that way by Bob Basile, son of the “sport’s” founder, Don Basile.
Don stood on a rickety picnic table behind a chainlink fence at Gate 12 speaking to the assembly of pot-bellied, t-shirt-clad Magnums and their peroxided mates who made up the drivers, crew and well-wishers of the 26 teams.
“We don’t want nothing like in Chico!” he bellowed. “In Chico they had the naked ladies up on the cars dancing. I’m still getting letters. This did not go over big in Chico. Remember, this is a Best-Appearing Car contest,” he said, referring to the pre-smash-up part of the derby. “A Best-Appearing Car contest, not a dancing contest.”
It was the elder Basile who first officially introduced the world of motor sports to “crash derbies” back in 1946, although they had been done unofficially at county fairs since the 30s. After watching the blood lust of stock car racing audiences, cheering each time an overheated Mustang kerranged off the sidewall, Don figured they’d like demolition derbies just fine.
To call this event a “championship” is misleading. Unlike every other “sport” from curling to jai alai, demolition derby has no officiating or regulating agency. The mere idea seems to run counter to the spirit of the sport, which is anarchic, extralegal, destructive, with the demented joy of boys falling out of trees.
In fact the boyish nature of the sport was the dominating note. As the 26 cars – big American cars all – were pulled ceremoniously out of the staging gate, uncountable hands were thrust out windows in the electric SoCal autumn dusk to feel the warm silky winds, as though the men had in fact become boys again for the evening, boys for whom only the fun of it all – the mere experience of being and feeling and laughing and driving – really mattered. Left behind, if only temporarily, were all the acrimonious divorces, the out-of-wedlock children, the alcoholism, poverty, lack of opportunity, the dirt, danger and humiliation of work, the traffic and crowds, the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of meaning.
The atmosphere in the erstwhile horse racing arena where the event was to be staged was that of a high school football game – I was transported back in time to Grants Pass, Oregon, watching the Hidden Valley Mustangs take on the Grants Pass High Cavemen. Opposite the east stretch of the track was the towering stack of bleacher seating that mounted up to the deepening blue of the night sky. Klieg lights came on, bathing the track in a hard-edged white light. The crowd filtered in and began to fill up the seats.
The audience mirrored the competitors. This was not a basketball or baseball game, the fan with a 25K income, the player with 25 million – these people were each other, tough Oakies and Arkies who came out West in eternal hope for something better and found it was the End. No Pilgrims here, no money, old or young. This crowd was male, white and worked with its hands. This was not the new racially integrated world of the university, this was how it really was.
In the foreground, in the middle of the track, a man in a highway grader dug out the pit, while other men driving forklifts placed concrete barriers around the pit. In the tunnel beneath the track the surreal warble of the National Anthem sputtered and banged. A spider as large as a baby’s hand hung from a single glistening strand, tensed for the start.
After a preliminary that featured an “Homage to Gallagher,” a local radio DJ exhorting audience members to get into the destructive spirit via rage-driven mallet-blow to clock radios, old TVs and china, the Best-Appearing Car Contest began.
In the staging area before the move we had met Al Rocha, number 77, a concrete man from Chino, who had connived Yellow Cab into sponsoring his second attempt at derby fame. His rig, done up in fact like a Yellow Cab, down to the lit up “on duty” sign, was stock derby, which is to say he and his lead pit man Randy Wolfenbarger (a veteran of 10 derbies himself) had torn out the windows and replaced the windshield with metal mesh, had traded out the metal gas tank for a plastic one (less chance of explosions) and moved it inside the cab (counter-intuitively, the safest place); had torn out the passenger seats and braced the driver’s seat with a five-foot section of pipe. He’d also designed some kind of Frankenstein transmission device with the fluid passing through a cooling chamber.
Al was one excited man. He was here to play and he was going to play hard. He was going to take in the $500 Best Appearing Car award as well as the $3,000 for first place. He marched around like a boxer about to go into the ring.
Well, the crowd loved the Yellow Cab and our man Al, but they loved another more. Namely, Mike Mora’s number 55, a black ’76 Chevy with red flames. No matter, Al was there for the long-run. Al was going home to Chino a winner. He already knew where in the window of his concrete contracting shop the trophy would stand.
The first heat featured 12 cars crowded into the small pit. Exhaust rolled out, engines roared, sparks flew as bumper ground into door and side panel into headlight. Burning transmission fluid rolled over the field to settle in a thick fog on the roof of the empty beer concessionary where we stood. When the smoke cleared and our eyes could focus again, there, alas, was Al, a victim of his own ingenuity, stalled out due to transmission troubles and getting the unholy crap beat out of him by the cars that could still run. The refs sounded two air horns and that was it. Several cars had made it to the final, several would have to roll the dice in the Last Chance heat. That’s where Al would be.
In the crew pits, torches bit blue and orange sparks out in sheets from damaged fenders and crippled bumpers. Men with eight-pound mauls strove to beat out stove-in doors and hoods where they interfered with movement.
The second heat benefited from the experiences of the first. The first group looked like a special ed class let loose in museum – all wander and wonder. This heat focused on technique and strategy, both of which seemed to consist of running backward (heartiest part of the car) into other cars’ front ends (the easiest to damage). Although it was more skillful, it was less bracing. Still the occasional 50-yard, 40 mph run from one end of the pit into a stalled car on the other side would evoke a Roman shout of approval from the crowd in the bleachers. In the distance the neon lights of the Ferris wheel rotated in the dark night sky.
The third heat was not competition. The third heat featured local media personalities in a celebrity derby. Men (and one woman) from SoCal radio and newspapers strapped themselves in and went at ‘em. Strangely, this heat was the most exciting so far. These people had no strategy. They rammed crazily at one another front end-first like enraged motorists, making hellish shrieks and shooting flames from the blow-holes in the hoods. Ultimately the unstoppable Judy Croon of KFRG was double-teamed by jealous male colleagues and pounded from both ends with a ferocity whose sexual nature, though possibly unconscious, was not lost and the screaming bleacher monkeys, leaving X103.9’s Pete Fox the victor over the previous year’s Jorge Jarrin of KABC.
Next was the Last Chance heat and if, may He forgive us, we doubted Al before, we were made to see as with new eyes. Al was the lance, the arrow, the sword. He was three places at once in the arena. He was the Alexander the Great of smash-up derby. He was, for a time, It – The Man – King. and no one could gainsay him. Three cars at once would descend on the Yellow Cab like the mighty hammers of an ancient god, but Al would absorb the blows without flinching and without damage, and simply drive away. Again and again they struck. Again and again, Al drove away. As the air horns sounded a cheer went up. Al would go to the final.
In the final heat 21 out of the 26 cars that started would fight it out, each and every one of them battle-scarred, limping and damaged. Except one. One 1974 purple GM station wagon had played cautious in previous heats – just stay running, he must have thought, and get into the final undamaged. This was Mike Doyle, number 70, a veteran of 200 demolition derbies and the winner of 100. As car after car succumbed in the explosive echo of crash after crash, fender folding in to pierce radiator, crankcase cracked and bleeding oil, bumpers smashed so far in they bit into tires – somewhere in the melee Al too gave out. But he kept trying to the end, pinned between two also-rans on the north wall.
In the meanwhile “Defending State Champion” Robert Rice’s number 50, Billy Altfather’s X-13 and all the rest were taken out one after another. Mike Doyle’s number 70 was as unstoppable and merciless as a Mongol of the Golden Horde loose in a nunnery, or a Cosa Nostra hit man berserk in a North Beach pizzeria. All that mattered was the win. It was over.
A few stayed for the trophy ceremony. But most filtered out to pack the highways around the fairgrounds with their Volares and K Cars, El Caminos and Eagles, to make their way back home to West Covina, Riverside, Canoga Park, Ontario, El Monte and Bellflower.
Later that night I stood out in front of our hotel on Hollywood Boulevard and watched the busses roar by, the bums dig noisily in garbage cans, the local “characters” wearing sandwich boards and Batman costumes and scuba flippers, a never ending parade of embarrassing dreams squashed into the gritty roads by the coke-fueled Lexuses and Mercedes.
Tonight, I thought, if I had to trade places with any of these would-be stars and starlets sleeping on carpet remnants or in pee-stained walk-ups, or with Al Rocha of Chino, tonight I’d rather be Al. Al has something these people lost long ago, I thought. Al’s got Next Time.