Sunday, August 18, 2013

Day 98 - Demolition Derby!

I have never been to a demolition derby. While watching a group of cars slam into one another in an effort to be the “last man standing” is not an event that normally appeal to me, I have always been curious about the events. Although the smash and crash elements of demolition derbies do nothing to pique my interest, the surge in popularity they have experienced over the past few decades intrigued me. Additionally, every passing remark I have heard about demolition derbies has been expressed with outright enthusiasm, and the claims of massive crowds at such events indicated there must be something to the experience. As a result, I figured I would eventually have to attend a demolition derby to understand their appeal, which set me to work researching the easiest way to gain the experience. Luckily, the end of summer setting in meant a variety of choices for my first demolition derby was on the table. As a staple of most county fairs in the area, several demolition derbies were scheduled during this week. After weighing my options, I settled on attending the nearby Dodge County fair demolition derby, which billed itself as one of the best in the state. With my plans set, I recruited Rachael and another friend of ours, Mike, to accompany me on what was likely to be an interesting experience.

The fairgrounds
My first experience with a demolition derby began with a trip north of Madison to the Dodge County Fairgrounds just outside Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Upon arriving at the fair, Rachael and I wandered the grounds for a short while as we looked for a quick bite to eat and attempted to track down the location of the forthcoming demolition derby. As we walked up and down aisles of fair rides and carnival games, I was reminded of the summers of my youth. The sounds of bells ringing, ride engines whirring, and children playing cut through the air like echoes from the past, which made me feel contented and a bit nostalgic as we continued through the fairgrounds. In that moment it dawned on me it had been years, certainly well over a decade, since I had last visited a county fair of any kind. While I couldn’t pinpoint how or why I had not attended such an event for so long, the familiarity of the sights and sounds was enough to make me glad we made the trip.

The stands filling up
Eventually, Rachael and I met up with Mike near a series of food carts at an intersection of two main paths running through the fairgrounds. There Rachael grabbed a quick bite to eat before Mike pointed out the location of the demolition derby grandstand, which was surprisingly a little more than 50 yards away. In turn, the three of us walked toward the grandstands, grabbing a few beers before we entered to the trackside of the tall concrete bleachers. As we rounded the corner into the stands, I was stunned to see the two massive flanks of seating nearly full. Hundreds of people milled about the stands nearly 45 minutes before the start of the demolition derby, which left little open space for us to locate available seats. After several failed attempts to claim a spot to sit, Rachael, Mike and I made our way to the far side of the stands and narrowed our focus on “the cheap seats” off to the side of the demolition derby pit. Fortunately, we were able to tuck in a little more than half way up the stands, which gave us a decent view, albeit obstructed by a poorly positioned light pole near the track.

Ready for demolition!
With our seats located, Rachael, Mike, and I engaged in conversation for some time as we waited for the event to begin. Eventually, a set of announcements blasted over a nearby loudspeaker indicated the event was about to begin. On cue, a set of small, shoddy, and brightly spray painted cars began lining up outside of a long, rectangular space on the track in front of us that was surrounded by large concrete blocks. One by one the cares entered the small opening between two of the concrete blocks and parked diagonally along the wall facing the grandstand. Moments later, the announcer directed the crowd in a short countdown, which set the cars into backward motion away from the wall. Immediately the cars began ramming one another at slow speed as they jostled for a position in the open spaces at the corners of the derby pit. With the cars scattering across the dirt space, chaotic movements of vehicles smashing together in forward and reverse occupied every inch of the ground between the concrete blocks. The smells of automotive fluids, oil, and smoldering rubber began filling the air as the vehicles began to show signs of wear from the constant battering they were receiving at the hands of other vehicles. Side panels crumpled, hoods folded, and axles bowed with each collision on the course, which sent the crowd into a flurry of jubilant responses. The entire affair was a sight to behold, and I was surprised to find my eyes fixed on the events unfolding before us. While I wasn’t exactly enthralled by the competition, I was definitely entertained, and that was more than I expected from the event.

The first derby heat concluded with three hobbled cars left functioning, which were labeled as finalists for another round of demolition that was scheduled to take place later that night. With the first heat finished, a crew of heavy vehicles entered the derby space and cleared the wreckage as another set of slightly larger vehicles land up on the left side of the track. Once the space was cleared, the new line of vehicles entered the concrete rectangle and parked along the wall in the same fashion as the participants in the first heat. Following another countdown led by the announcer, the new set of vehicles immediately began attacking one another in much the same way as the same heat. Drivers battled for positions and speed to crash into their opponents and did their best to keep their cars running as long as possible. Eventually, their collisions sent debris scattering across the pit and smoke into the air until three cars were left (barely) running. As with the first heat, a lot of persistence, some lucky collisions, and a few big hits permitted three drivers to emerge victorious and gain a berth into the demolition derby finals. The action roused the crowd and sent enthusiasts into cheers at the conclusion of the event.

The "light truck" heat
This pattern continued as progressively larger vehicles competed in several more heats of the derby. The three of us watched on as full sized sedans, light trucks, and 4x4 trucks battled in separate classes inside the derby pit. Nearly two hours into the event, the action began to wear thin a bit, but I knew I needed to stay for the full experience. As a result, Rachael, Mike, and I agreed to stay to the end of the event, which let us experience a few memorable moments and a lot of what we had seen in the first few heats of the event. From that, I learned demolition derbies are good for brief entertainment but lose their luster after extended periods.

This guy made it to the end of the heat...

Ultimately the event concluded at the end of the 4x4 truck derby, which spurred Rachael, Mike, and I to gather our things and prepare to head home. After parting ways with Mike in the parking lot, Rachael and I chatted briefly about the demolition derby experience. While the event didn’t appeal to Rachael’s tastes, I must admit I found it mildly entertaining. The action on the course was enough to keep me stimulated, and the crowd offered plenty of quality people watching opportunities. That was more than enough to keep me entertained for a few hours. After my first demolition derby, I can say I wouldn’t go out of my way to attend such an event in the future, but I wouldn’t turn down an invite to have a few beers with some friends and watch some cars smash into one another if the opportunity ever presented itself. After all, experiences like today’s demolition derby are what rural Wisconsin summers are all about, and whether I like it or not, that’s where my deepest roots remain. 

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