In a back lot at the Orange County Fair, near the beautiful California coast, several wrecked cars sit under a perfect evening sky. Not a single one appears functional, yet alone safe for a competitive event—more like forgotten junkyard scrap, waiting to be neatly pressed into unrecognizable stacks. Being in such close proximity to the perfectly manicured opulence of Newport Beach, the sight is utterly horrifying.
This is what it's like before the demolition derby has even begun.
Around me are medical tents and fire marshals; drivers and their pit crews. There's a surprising lack of activity—some stand with arms crossed, others relaxed in off-white plastic picnic chairs. One driver, dressed in a full red jumpsuit, is casually seated beside a deformed hunk of metal, which has been haphazardly spray painted black. He has a look, I think, of absolute reverie.
The Orange County Fair is an annual 23-day summer event that consists of every American thing imaginable: livestock, music, fried foods, suspicious carnival games, all in excess. There are also concerts, pig races, art exhibits and small tented markets where vendors attempt to sell cheap infomercial goods, where you'll find smartphone accessories, campy tie-dye shirts, carved wooden wall decorations, and even luggage. It's like every backyard barbecue, swap meet, garage sale, Fourth of July celebration and main street, U.S.A. rolled into a single pageant of gluttony. Not even Football is more American. The people who attend are exactly as you'd imagine: stuffed, sunburnt, lost.
My concept of a demolition derby is a group of cars assembling in a muddy ring and smashing into each other. The truth, as I found out, is that there's a lot more to it; the experience, the atmosphere, and the lurking danger are what make these events so unreasonably enchanting. It's a terrifying and freakish spectacle, an inexplicably fascinating exhibition of violence—not any different from most American sports. Flip on a television and you can easily find something similar. But that's the whole point. I imagine watching a bull fight, per Hemingway's suggestion, isn't much different.
Heading through the backlot, on a kind of extended golf cart, I get a brief glimpse of what the peripatetic lifestyle of a carney is like: RVs, portable storage units, basketball hoops and bikes everywhere. I feel, in a way, like I'm peering at a zoo exhibit, somehow removed from who and what I'm seeing. It looks like a weird new-age urban campsite; foldable chairs are arranged in neat circles, umbrellas are perched, and towels hang from clothes lines—all inside a sectioned off parking lot, where there are more farmers tans and discarded party cups than a Duck Dynasty-sponsored NASCAR race.
We drive by what looks like a security building, around some parked trailers and past another security fence where the derby cars are sitting dormant. The small lot, which sits just behind the sports arena, is crowded with first responders; tow trucks and safety officials are waiting on the sidelines as drivers quietly prepare themselves for the main event. Each derby car, maybe eight or so in total, are in various states of disrepair—bumpers are crushed, fenders are cracked, doors are dented. There's a thick smell of rubber hanging in the air, olfactorily contrasting the aroma of fried twinkies and chocolate-covered bacon. Off in the distance, the sun is beginning to dip behind the arena's grandstand, giving everything a look of ethereality.
Demolition derbies are inherently about destruction, with one very simple goal: smash into everything that moves. That's the quick summary. From an outsider's perspective, the motorsport isn't particularly complex, though as we learned, a lot of effort goes into preparing a car for competition. It's not like you can just purchase a junker from a local dealer and enter—there's a lot more to it. Windows have to be taken off, doors need to be welded shut, the inside reinforced. Derby cars look more like the result of some grotesque science experiment gone wrong. This is the farthest thing from a beauty competition. They all protrude with rusted engine parts, and proudly wear faded sponsors decals like Scout merit badges.
We meet one of the drivers, Ryan Nichols, who we're interviewing for our Driven segment. He's sitting by a jetblack "Frankenstein" car, as he fondly referred to it, working on a few last minute adjustments before it's competition ready. Words are spray painted white on the driver and passenger doors, and there's a small metal grate on the driver's side to protect him from debris. A motorcycle helmet sits on the car's hood next to a drill, and there are GoPros zip-tied throughout the car's cabin.
Ryan has a face that looks deeply passionate and excited about the macabre grandeur of demolition life; but also about what comes before the event itself, picking out and putting a car together, making sure it's good and ready for big event days. For someone who's about to become a crash-test dummy, Ryan is unmoved. As a spectator, I'm completely mortified and anxious, overwrought with anticipation. He just smiles like he's about to go cruising down the California coast.
All American motorsports have a hint of strangely acceptable lunacy—NASCAR, dirt bike riding, monster trucks. The violence, the way these vehicles wildly herd like rabid cattle is oddly mesmerizing. Wrecks are often the most exciting part of any motorsport, and demolition derbies are dedicated to that very thing—people get a thrill from the mayhem. The Roman Coliseum atmosphere seems to trigger that nascent warrior-like instinct suppressed in all of us.
"Participate in any communal spectacle and you'll experience a similar atmosphere. The fair is a perfect example."
The basic rules of a demolition derby are fairly simple, though they do vary by each event. All drivers, naturally, must have a valid drivers license, and must be 18 years or older to drive. Decorations and themes are acceptable as long as they're suitable for a family event; helmets are required, as is eye protection. Drivers are asked to avoid hitting other driver-side doors, and it's also against the rules to deliberately avoid contact—known as "sandbagging"—for more than two minutes. Both are grounds for disqualification.
Ryan explained to us that, aside from trying to put other cars out of commission, the primary goal is to protect a car's front end from damage. Failing to do so can easily disable a car. Because of this, drivers strategically smash into opponents rear-bumper first, aiming for a car's most vulnerable parts, such as axels and radiators. The way he describes it makes me think of how I would imagine a boxing coach would train someone before a fight. Aim for the mid section, protect your face. Move your feet.
You won't be surprised to learn that the demolition derby idea was born out of our desire to witness wrecks. ESPN highlight reels don't focus on the mundanity of a 500 lap race; the good parts come when there's a ten care pileup. Or at least that's the only part people remember. There's some disputing information as to who, exactly, held the very first derby, and where. But since rising to popularity back in the 1950s, demolition derbies have become as much a part of county fairs as fried foods.
It's about an hour out until the demolition derby starts, so I make my way toward the arena's grandstand, which is white and blue and has a look of history and timelessness; it's the only seating area where paying customers can sit. The other seating areas are old wooden bleachers available on a first-come, first-served basis. Up just beyond the arena's entrance sits the Orange County Fair's biggest landmark, an enormous ferris wheel that provides a terrific view of the entire fairgrounds. Frankly, it's the only ride at the Orange County Fair, aside from the harmless kiddie slides, that doesn't scream certain death.
People are already filing in, arms full of drinks and food and carnival prizes. There's an eerie silence about the place right now, slow and boiling like a volcano ready to erupt. I make my way up the grandstand's steps, taking pictures, until I'm up at the very top where I'm able to take everything in. The pit itself is a muddy oval that's surrounded by a wall of dirt maybe four feet high. And there's a wall around that, and then a guard rail protecting a cement pathway. In the stands, the smell of stale beer and popcorn lingers from years of debauchery, but that only adds to the allusion of vehicular ruination.
To my left, in the middle and at the very top of the grandstand, sits a rickety loft with a mustard yellow Sunny Promotions sign attached to it. An older gent whose hair is slicked back and perfectly combed, is sitting at a foldup table just before the loft's railing, where he's prodding a stage microphone in preparation for the event. The table is full of wires and electronics and lined paper, and there are a pair of faded red headphones—the kind you'd see on an airport runway—that look as though they haven't been touched in years. Two women, who I found out are there to judge the event, are up there as well. I introduce myself and step out of the way as they get settled. I'm particularly drawn to the man, though, who looks sleek and regal with years of county fair experience. He sets down the PA mic and introduces himself as Larry. He has a fantastic radio voice straight out of an old Buick.
The arena is starting to fill up, and I'm surprised to see how many families have come out to witness the mayhem. Despite the motorized brutishness, and the very real possibility that someone can get seriously injured (or worse), the atmosphere and locale suggests more of a high school pep rally; there's an odd sense of community, like we're all somehow connected by the event. And the derby is just a messy metaphor for everything else just beyond the fair walls. The destruction, the unpredictability. The competition.
I'm now down by the pit's edge, waiting for the event to start. An enormous, bulbous trucks, like a derby Zamboni, is in the arena's pit spraying the mud down with water, giving it a lacquered appearance. I can hear Larry confidently and playfully speaking to the crowd, his voice projecting through a series of tall speakers down by the pit. "Get together. Pack together as close as possible." We all herd in without resistance.
The crowd seems eager with anticipation, a palpable buzz creating a terrific atmosphere. Promptly at 8:00 p.m., Larry's voice comes back over the loudspeakers as he introduces a foursome of identically dressed gentleman, who are there to sing the National Anthem. They all look incredibly relaxed, sophisticated, with matching black fedoras, bowler shirts and sunglasses. As dusk slowly fades to night, the arena's lights shine down above them like little moons. It's beautiful, an inimitable moment.
"Ladies and germs, please help me welcome tonight's contestants," Larry announces over the PA.
Each driver is given time to make their own grand entrance—they all perform burnouts, donuts, their engines roaring like military jets. This brings the crowd into an epileptic frenzy; people of all ages and gender hoot and whistle and shout uncontrollably as each derby car lines up around the pit's infield, tail ends pointed to the middle. Already the derby cars are caked in a thick, gelatinous mud, which attaches itself to their underskirts like a southern barnacle.
After a few last minute words of encouragement from Larry, the drivers fasten themselves inside their jagged rides, helmets on, engines loud, crowd maniacal. The noise is almost too much to bear. Track dust is now hovering above the small arena like a coastal fog. Officials are lined up around the pit, and an ambulance is sitting at the far corner, with first responders waiting in anticipation. One of the officials nearest the PA system controls, down by the middle of the pit just to my left, has a row of flags—red, green, black and checkered—jammed into the track's retaining wall. He holds the green one up as a signal, and Larry starts counting down from five. The crowd joins in.
The scene erupts when the countdown reaches zero as each car slams on the gas; every one of them moves in unison, like a team of synchronized swimmers. There's a terrific collision of wheels and metal and mud, much to the crowd's delight; everyone gasps; the derby cars unravel from the vehicular dog pile, only to repeat the same thing. The scene is like a junkyard horror movie, the cars hulking monsters, all of them spinning wildly. They almost glide across the muddy surface, as though they're skating across a lake of ice.
It's only been thirty seconds and already a car is stuck in one of the corners, unable to escape a firing squad of hits. One car down. And it goes on like this, near misses, direct hits, the crowd flipping out. In the midst of it all, I happen to notice a carney walking up the grandstand directly behind me, a rack of popcorn, soda and other teeth rotting treats strapped around his neck. Nobody in the crowd breaks their forward gaze, hypnotized by the destruction before them. Yet he remains steadfast, resolute, holding up a wad of neon blue cotton candy like an opulent trophy. For a moment the derby doesn't even exist. And then the crowd lets out another simultaneous scream.
About ten minutes in, one of the cars, severely damaged on both ends, begins gasping plumes of paper white smoke. This, I imagine, is like a universal signal for other derby drivers to attack. Larry says something to the effect that the injured car is vulnerable, and just as he says this, the other drivers start circling in. It's like watching a wounded animal, and there's only one possible outcome.
The injured car gets pummeled a few more times, and the crowd cheers in approval. One last blow causes its right rear tire to come wobbling off—it almost unravels like an orange peel. The rear bumper is smashed so far in the driver is practically sitting in the trunk. After a few slow, unbalanced circles, the car finally comes to a sad, pathetic stop. So much smoke is coming from the hood I figured a blue genie might come popping out. Destroy him, I hear someone from the crowd yell out. I look up toward Larry, half expectedly waiting for him to give a thumbs up or thumbs down.
From then on the derby is more or less blur, with big buildups often resulting in disappointing near-misses. Once the field is whittled down to just a few remaining contestants, the chaos turns into more of a ballet; the last remaining derby cars gracefully gliding across the muddy surface, jabbing and moving like sparring boxers. There are a couple cars in particular whirling around the pit, dodging and ramming into their opponents, almost untouchable.
The crowd appreciates the display of showmanship, and the drivers reciprocate by driving faster, around and around.
In the end, one of the blue cars, which still looks passable as an actual four-wheel vehicle you might gift to a teenager, is declared the night's winner. The crowd is uproarious, mad. Larry is jubilant, impassioned, his voice going up a few pitches. "Can you believe it?" he shouts. Feeding off the arena's energy, the winner performs a quick victory donut. He gets out and holds up his arms in triumph. Some of the other drivers are standing on their cars's hoods, and one is already walking solemnly to the pit's far corner, which is opening up to a line of boorish tow trucks. Behind us, on the grandstand side, backyard fireworks start popping off in brilliant colors of red and blue and white. It caps off my first demolition derby perfectly.
The arena is almost empty, with a few hypnotized fairgoers still slowly staggering out, stunned and wide-eyed. Trash is strewn everywhere, left as a reminder of mankind's firm ascendancy in the animal kingdom. Destruction punches you in the face whether you're participating in the derby or just sitting in the crowd. A couple of young kids come bounding past in a fit of excitement. Did you see when… I want to do that… The noise of engines and excited squeals still rattles in my brain. I can barely walk.
Inside the actual fair now, walking aimlessly in a direction I'm told is the exit. Fair attendance is a hive of swarming flesh. People with food, people standing in lines, on rides, mesmerized, stuffing their faces with immense sodas and corn dogs taller than wedding bouquets. Lights burn with overwhelming neon color, and the aroma of fried foods demands you consume everything in sight. Everywhere you look there are enormous steel grilles splayed open like funeral caskets, and each is filled with meat large enough to necessitate heavy construction equipment. We pass a Queen cover band singing a song by Bruce Springsteen. Overhead, there's a dingy ski lift slowly moving riders across the night sky, their legs dangling perilously.
Then I witness perhaps the most terrifying thing all night. Near the exit, there's this massive plastic blow up kiddie pool, roughly the size of a volleyball court, next to a series of old construction site generators, and it's setup in this kind of fenced off display. In it, there are maniacal little children inside what look like sterilized plastic see-through domes, and the kids are just floating around in a few feet of water, aimlessly bumping into each other while their parents look on. Faces are down in smartphones, mouths are full of food.
The exhibition is just as jarring as the derby itself, and probably the most reckless thing I've seen all night. The fair, which itself is a temporary kingdom of gluttony and ecstasy, seems to encourage the courtship of danger. Enclosing children in plastic blowup balls while they float on water sounds like a tragic late night news story waiting to happen. The threat of injury (or death) seems alarmingly imminent—one small puncture could be trouble—but the parents show a surprising lack of concern. They almost stand with an air of nonchalance. I don't know what to make of it.
I notice a crowd starting to gather—ten, twenty, then maybe fifty people watching on, staring with a strange intensity of people at the DMV. Nobody says a word, and some have even taken their phones out to snap photos. A few of the kids, probably seconds away from suffocation, try standing up in their death trap enclosures, but they give up after a minute of struggling. Nobody reacts. I find it difficult to look away. There's a mysterious silence among our tiny congregation. We simply look on, waiting for something, anything, to happen, utterly mesmerized, relishing the quiet moment of pure horror.
In just a few weeks, the Orange County Fair will be gone, rides dismantled, the last fried Snickers eaten. Even the Kiddie Pool of Death will be deflated and moved elsewhere to terrorize more young thrill-seekers. But the raucous crowds will find some other violent spectacle to worship. If not at a local fair, all one needs to do is flip on the TV.
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