Crash, Slam, Boom!

The demolition derby is an American institution— or something like that

Competition at the West End Fair Demolition Derby, Gilbert, Pennsylvania
Competition at the West End Fair Demolition Derby, Gilbert, Pennsylvania Wikimedia Commons

In a conventional auto race, the winner is the car that finishes first. In a demolition derby, the winner is the car that finishes. Period.

Each year what writer Richard Conniff calls "the unspeakable charm of destruction" draws enthusiastic crowds to demo derbies at more than 750 fairs across the country. The spectators see showers of sparks, smell burning rubber and hear the din of crumpling metal as the manic contestants bash each other to smithereens. To appreciate a demolition derby, one aficionado told Conniff, you don't have to understand racing. "You don't have to understand anything."

To find out what it's like to drive in a derby, Conniff recently entered a car in one at the Riverhead Raceway on Long Island; the contest supposedly was invented on Long Island nearly 40 years ago. The derby is always the last event of the night at Riverhead after a full schedule of races. Getting ready for his ride, Conniff became acquainted with a number of regulars. People like Bobby Benison, who rebuilds junked cars for demo drivers. "I'm just the idiot who works for the idiots in the sport," he says. People like Joe Palmeri, a home-improvement contractor who has been driving in derbies for years. "When Joey gets in a demo," his wife says, "he puts his brains in a box."

On the night of his race, Conniff put his own brains in a box and got behind the steering wheel of the car Benison had delivered to the track for him. A Saint Christopher medal was pinned over the dashboard and a target was painted on the driver's-side door. The crowd shouted the countdown, Conniff hit the accelerator and the battle began. Alas, our intrepid correspondent did not win, but at least he survived to tell the tale.

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