Any culture worth its salt these days has an unwritten list of rites of passage that each of its members must pass in order to achieve social nirvana. There are the standards, like getting a drivers license (and getting the subsequent first ticket), and there are less common ones, like eating a "slider" (White Castle hamburger) for initiation in the Illinois Chicago Mission. There are unseemly ones, like riding the bull naked at USU to become an "Ultimate Aggie", and there are creepy ones, like walking over the little stair-bridge as a Cub Scout to get my Arrow of Light while two white 14-year-olds in full Native American gear looked on.
For anyone outside of a major metropolitan area (IE, no Starbucks), the Demolition Derby has to be on the short list. By itself, an event that featured guys in cars smashing into each other would be little more than a display of male machismo gone awry. The fact that guys bring their girlfriends and pay money to watch it makes it a cultural phenomenon, kind of like the Chia Pet.
For years I had managed to avoid the event, less out of intention and more out of logistics. About three years ago I got talked into attending a truck pull at the E-Center, truly one of the lamest events I've ever witnessed. And that was without getting stuck for $17 a ticket. I sensed that the Demolition Derby would be the true vehicle of wanton destruction I had missed at the truck pull, so when my friend Alicia recruited me early last week for this year's Heber City event, I couldn't turn her down.
Apparently this year's gig was the 35th annual Demolition Derby in Heber City, sponsored by Wasatch County Search & Rescue (does anyone else find this sponsorship a little ironic?) The big event was held at the Wasatch County Fairgrounds in the heart of downtown Heber City, Utah, a true mecca of non-metropolitan culture if there ever was one.
But see, that's just what I love about living in Utah--Rocky and his friends can do their best to turn Salt Lake into some sort of sophisticated cosmopolitan ville, and Bob Redford will continue to lure Hollywood A-Listers to the Park City cultural phenomenon of Sundance, but deep down, under all the posing and aspiring, Utah will always have a bunch of guys with tank tops tucked in their jeans at its heart. The bulls will always be running at the Gateway.
And so I felt a strange ambivalence as I took my seat at the top row of the fairgrounds that evening and noticed the "termites holding hands" condition of the accomodations. It was a classic setting, but I wondered if it would still feel classic when the whole structure collapsed under our combined weight.
Thanks to a quick stop at Pizza Hut (probably the first time in ten years I'd eaten inside one), our little group made it to the big event midway through the first heat. A dozen or so local entries, driving around in the dirt in reinforced vehicles that looked like they had been stolen off the set of the original "Mad Max", banged around and revved their engines like gladiators making heroic stands. In some sort of poor man's Nascar fashion, each vehicle had spray painted the names of its various sponsors at random places on its soon-to-be-crumpled body. One minute, "Joe's Garage" shone forth in brilliant white paint, the next, it was a pulverized fender over a blown tire.
The sponsors were appropriately blue collar in every instance. No Ken Garff Jaguar here, thank you. It was all local mechanics and Quick Pay Day Loans, getting the kind of publicity Sigfried and Jensen could only drool over.
The one drawback to competition was the fact that to win, a guy had to keep his car running. Therefore, instead of a menage of bonecrushing head-on collisions, cars would often chase each other around or hit each other at angles in order to avoid crippling their own chances at victory. Most often, seasoned veterans would drive around in reverse the whole time, pounding their competition in the same manner Charles Barkley used to clear the lane for the Philadelphia 76ers.
I was a little disappointed at the lack of fires and explosions, coming from a background of "World's Wildest Police Chases" and all. I wondered if it would be more effective to have a derby made up entirely of Volkswagen Bugs or Ford Pintos, vehicles that could truly light up the night. My anticipation heightened at the news of the "Herbie Derby" round, but was deflated when none of the entries were really VW's.
Lest I become too despondent, the Wasatch DD supplied a healthy dose of socio-cultural side entertainment, courtesy of the other 5,000 ticket holders. Chief among them was the guy sitting right in front of me, a chap I dubbed "Goodman Guy" after legendary high-intensity actor John Goodman.
Goodman Guy attended the event with his girlfriend and a few buddies, and provided enough misdirected enthusiasm to keep the rest of us well-entertained during the slow parts of the evening. (After each heat, about twice as much time was spent clearing out the last rounds victims with wrecking trucks).
Every event has several guys that scream and bellow at the unfolding action as if it depends entirely on their presence. The Denver Broncos had Shirtless Guy, for instance. But Shirtless Guy didn't match the sublime versatility of Goodman Guy. Goodman Guy transcended his traditional apeman role of loud yelling, and added "YMCA" dancing and unprovoked Air Supply "All Out Of Love" solos to his routine. Capped off with a confederate flag belt buckle and an Army T-Shirt, Goodman Guy's standard screams of "DID YOU SEEEEE THAT!!!!" and "WILL SOMEBODY HIT SOMEONE PLEEEASE!!?" were a real treat.
Sad to say, even Goodman Guy mellowed out as the night wore on, and he and his friends even left before the true highlight of the evening. The promoters scheduled a full four heats, two grudge matches, the Herbie Derby, and a Powder Puff round in addition to the big finale, all with the monotonous towing in-between. Unlike a baseball game, there wasn't much room or opportunity to get out and wander the festivities. You were pretty much stuck with a sore butt on hardwood planks for three full hours. Only the Monster Truck Rides seemed to provide any entertainment alternative.
Yet by the time the field had been narrowed to twelve finalists, the crowd still had enough energy to manage an enthusiastic reply to the PA announcers meager pleas for energy. Up until then, the most action we'd seen had come via a few smoking engines and the occasional freak hood mount, but we held out hope for some serious carnage in the last round.
Our hopes were fulfilled. By the last round, even the previous winners were so knocked-around that it didn't take much to fill the arena with engine smoke, and the desperation to claim the $2100 prize purse seemed to move the competitors to intensify their violent behavior.
It was in the middle of this final frenzy that the action reached its climax. Midway through the round one big black pile of junk was hit so hard by another big pile of junk that it completely flipped over on its roof. A mighty cheer went up from the bloodthirsty crowd as a panicked security crew dashed over to make sure the driver was OK. A moment later Brandon Rose emerged unscathed, arms in the air triumphantly as he jogged off the course, secure in the knowledge that his was the one name the crowd would remember when the night was over.
Not only was the overturn the event of the evening, it also presented the quote of the night as well. As Rose lay trapped underneath his car, the PA announcer completely ignored the obvious cheer of the crowd and uttered his contractually obligated message:
"Well folks, this is one scene we hoped we wouldn't see tonight."
For another five minutes the remaining entries bashed their way around the arena, dodging the steadily increasing numbers of former competitors that became mere obstacles as their engine compartments caved in or their tires locked up.
In the end, two guys were left, a green car with a 33 and a blue car with a 23. Somehow they knew they couldn't top the dude that got flipped over, and eventually they settled on locking front bumpers in an engine revving stalemate that finally prompted a split decision from the judges. A scattering of cheers and boos flowed through the crowd as 5,000 patrons fled the scene, completely ignoring the final trophy presentation.
As we staggered off into the night, I realized the root fallacy of the entire event: why on Earth would you entertain 5,000 people with wanton car wrecks for three hours, then turn them loose in a crowded parking lot? Walking to the car was a more frightening experience than navigating the Viewmont High parking lot in 1993. Somehow we made it out OK, and spent the next hour reflecting on the cultural phenomenon we had witnessed during the ride home.
Let them have their Gateway. Let them flaunt their Sundance Film Festival. Even the Olympics felt a little pretentious in the face of the unabashed Heber City Demolition Derby. The event was in it's 35th year, and I'm sure it will be around for at least 135 more.