Why you need to go to a demolition derby

Smashing things can yield good results. Grapes for wine, potatoes for dinner, and cars for demolition derbies. Especially the cars.

This past week, a demolition derby in Cadillac, Michigan, made my Saturday night. Throughout the evening, cars line up in a pit, a green flag waves, and drivers mash their cars into one another. Rinse, wash, repeat. To the aficionado, however, the multiple events throughout the night couldn’t be more distinctive, each vehicle class carrying different notes of bent metal, spilled coolant, and burnt rubber.

The first tasting to appease our appetite for destruction is the Bump-n-Run. In a snot-slick mud pit, competitors make haste around two tractor tires. First one to complete 10 laps, wins. Opponents’ aggression, turned to 11. Everything is fair game and nothing is fair. Wrecking, blocking, and actions that would merit a penalty in most motorized competitions are encouraged. Formula 1 is great, but have you ever seen Lewis Hamilton intentionally take out a 15th-place car because he felt like it?

full sized demolition derby car
Cameron Neveu
crashed demolition derby car smoking
Cameron Neveu

demolition derby battle scars
Cameron Neveu
dirt track racing
Cameron Neveu

Up next is a set of three demolition derbies. Participants orchestrate their cars along the wall in front of the grandstands. The marshal unfurls the green flag and they careen down into the mud bowl like a group of mosh pitting punk-rockers. And the epic contest isn’t over until there is a sole survivor. Think Mad Max in real life.

While I chugged my Mountain Dew and watched a duel between two Dodge Caravans, I fell into introspection. Why did I love the derby so much? Was it because the derby is a tragedy of destruction and broken dreams that Shakespeare couldn’t even fathom? Or was it because I only paid two dollars for a hot dog at a sporting event where I got to watch something get destroyed? A clod of dirt dislodged itself from one of the Caravan’s tires and clobbered my face, jarring me from my pensive haze.

demolition derby car profile
Cameron Neveu
demolition derby beat up
Cameron Neveu

Tim Wahl in his demo derby car
Cameron Neveu

I turned to a competitor to figure out why there were more than 80 race cars on the property, when a series like NASCAR struggles to get 40. What is the draw? Tim Wahl, builder-driver of a 1973 Cadillac, said, “It’s the challenge of building a car that will outlast your competitors, and then driving it smart enough be the last car running at the end. I love the sights, sounds, smells of the roaring engines, mud flying, and bending some old school iron. A lot of the cars are destined for scrap either way, so we give them one last shot at glory under the lights.”

The best part about the derby is the warm feeling you’re left with when it’s over. Whether it was grandmothers serving as ticket takers, free hot chocolate, or meeting up with some old friends in the grandstands, I’ve never felt cozier than in a packed-down mud pit in northern Michigan.

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