The Zen of demolishing cars

Derby: Muddy destruction makes for good, clean family fun.

August 27, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A trio of junkers gang up against a station wagon, the kind with the wood paneling. They take turns smashing it head-on and crashing its sides, until the crumpled metal heap is pinned against a dirt wall.

Some local guys nose-dive their cars from a makeshift ramp into a dead man's limo, and a hair stylist blithely walks away from her burning Oldsmobile. An engineering student turns to the dairy aisle for an auto repair trick that he calls "egg drop soup."

All in all, it's the perfect setting, one man decides, to propose to his girlfriend.

Once a month through the summer, thousands come to rural northern Baltimore County and gather round a pit about half the size of a football field for the Arcadia Volunteer Fire Company Demolition Derby.

Families spread out picnic blankets and line up for face-painting and french fries, while motor-heads lounge in the beds of pickup trucks, emptying beer coolers as they enjoy the destruction.

Each Saturday spectacle - the next is today - is like a gladiator battle on wheels.

Burning rubber perfumes the air. Heavy metal guitar and country tunes scratch over the sound system - at least when the announcer isn't praising a pile-up or pondering the role of back tires: "Who needs 'em? Number 59's doing just fine without 'em. Oh yeah!"

"It's the smell. The sound of the engines. The people - the kids spinning around, the guys talking over beer. It's all of that, all at the same time," says Chris Miller, a 23-year-old psychology student from Monkton who was watching the July derby with a Yuengling resting in the cup holder of his folding chair.

Miller's cousin and one of their friends mock his lawn-chair analysis. But no one disagrees with his conclusion: that there's something strangely compelling about watching cars slam into each other again and again.

Skip Schildhauer, a Baltimore firefighter who has served as a derby referee for nearly a decade, puts it this way: "People like it when the radiators explode, when the engines catch fire and cars roll on their side."

The Arcadia Volunteer Fire Company, which owns 45 acres in the farmland between Reisterstown and Hampstead, has been staging fundraising demolition derbies for about 15 years, says Scott Boose, the station's chief. Organizers expect a crowd of about 3,000 for today's event, which begins at 4 p.m.

"Everybody has carnivals. Everybody has bingos," Boose says. "This is something unique."

`It's how you hit 'em'

On a hot July night, Leroy Schaefer is behind the wheel of a '74 Chevy Impala with the gas tank where the back seat once was, a wire screen for a windshield and a chain holding the hood down.

"It's all about how you hit 'em," says the 27-year-old Carroll County native, who paves roads and parking lots for a living. "You want to snap the tie rods, pop the radiator and keep watching so you don't get hit."

The derby pit is hosed down to slow the cars as they ram into each other. Tires spin, engines rev and mud flies. Within seconds, the entire pit is a blur of cars going every which way, shrouded in dust and smoke.

Heather Graf, 23, is a fixture on the edge of the pit when Schaefer, her boyfriend, or her brother, Dan, is racing. She leaps in the air like a cheerleader but yells like someone watching a bar fight: "Get 'em! Take 'em out!"

After each race, the driver's crew works furiously to make repairs, pulling out soldering guns and blowtorches. Schaefer and other drivers often have a spare car on hand that they can strip for parts and tires.

John Leatherman, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of Maryland, has his own way of dealing with a mechanical problem.

With the radiator busted in his 1967 Mercedes-Benz, he decides to give an urban legend a try and sends his girlfriend to a nearby convenience store for a dozen eggs.

Leatherman and his derby mechanic, Matthew Geiger, 24, open the cap and crack the eggs, letting the yolk run into the radiator.

"The hot water cooks the egg and plugs the holes inside," Leatherman says.

It's a temporary solution that might buy them three or four minutes in the next round, Geiger says.

The car lasts about 60 seconds.

Scattered derbies

Arcadia is one of the few places in Maryland where you can intentionally total a car.

In Southern Maryland, demolition derbies are held in June and September at the Potomac Speedway in St. Mary's County. In Western Maryland, the Allegany County "Demo Derby Challenge Series" runs June through September. Elsewhere in the state, demolition derbies are occasionally held at some county fairs.

Demolition derbies are also staged across the country, from the Western States Racing Association's summer season at fairgrounds in Utah and Idaho to the Dixie Speedway's derbies in Georgia.

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