Car racing was a different kettle of fish when I was a kid. No fancy air- conditioned garages, spare engines or well-rehearsed pit crews. There were no big paydays for car owners either.
Racing in my small hometown in mid-Missouri meant jalopies on a fifth-of-a-mile dirt track at the county fairgrounds. Most often, the drivers drove their own cars from their back yard garages to the track, and then home again after the race –
if they were still running, of course.
Races were held every Sunday during the summer. Despite periodic laps by the town water truck, dust was so thick you could barely see the cars as they roared by. The big winner took home a hundred bucks.
Labor Day weekend marked the end of the racing season with a different kind of race – a demolition derby. The “derby” was held on a large pasture at the edge of the fairgrounds, encircled with orange construction fence. Portable bleachers were set up along one side. General admission was a dollar.
Derby cars were mostly heavy sedans and station wagons –
cars with strong frames and bodies like Sherman tanks. At least half of the entries had been rusting in the junkyard the week before, pulled out of retirement and suited up for one last hurrah.
The concept was simple: crash into the other cars as hard and as often as possible until they were disabled. The last car running was declared the winner.
All car windows were removed, while roll bars and safety belts were installed in the name of safety. The field was drenched with water to make it muddy and slow.
Demolition Derby drivers got to be really good at driving in reverse since the rear of the cars could take more punishment than the front. In fact, if you could ram the front of another driver’s car and puncture the radiator, it was over.
One enterprising driver challenged that concept one year, however, by removing the radiator from the front of his car and welding it to the roof. The other drivers screamed in protest, which caused a delay in the race while officials perused the rules to see if any of them had been violated. Finding none, the race commenced and the enterprising driver won in a walk. The next year all the cars came to the race with radiators on the roof.
Most derby aficionados say the demolition derby was created in 1958 by race promoter Larry Mendelsohn in upstate New York when he observed, “Hell, most people would rather see a wreck than a race.”