The Fair's derby had four "heats." Each was a 26- or 27-car event, designed to cull all but the four best drivers from the heat (where "best" means "last with operable cars"). Each heat contributed its four winners to the grand-finale event and possible glorious victory.
The first heat made it clear to me that "demo" derbies are highly entertaining. This wasn't a TV re-enactment. This was serious, loud, and metal crunching. Parts flew. Black fumes gushed. Tires melted and blanketed whole quadrants of the arena in blue-white smoke as drivers tortured them on crushed wheels. As I watched, amazed, some deeply secluded portion of my mind contemplated whether what I was seeing was safe and actually legal. After a while, even that part of my mind lost interest in legality and other trifling concerns and instead focused on the modern medieval contest unfolding before me.
The second heat was notable because we saw the first standout car. We called it "The Lavender Shark" because it was a light purple junker which had a pair of fins attached to the front hood. The Shark's driver was aggressive and attacked everybody he could at high speed. Unfortunately, he got hung up on a barrier about half way through the heat and was out of the running prematurely.
In the third heat, we noticed team behavior. A few cars were painted black and had Confederate flags on their roofs (nice tip of the hat to the Duke Boys). After a while it became clear that the Confederate Flags were working together. They were not attacking each other and, when possible amid the chaos, they collaborated on attacks. Their drivers were pretty good, and one in particular drove a big station wagon. It had a rack of deer antlers painted on the rear, accompanied by the annotation "Point Blank," so that's what we called the car. Point Blank and two other Confederate Flags were among the four winners of the heat.
The fourth heat was amazing. The B, I, J, T and W cars were driven by some determined folks, markedly more skilled than the drivers from earlier heats. Within a few minutes they had destroyed all of the other cars and then turned upon each other. These five cars were locked in fierce battle because each driver knew that he had to take out only one more car to reduce the pack to the magic number four and to advance to the grand finale.
The T and W cars were black station wagons. The rest were luxo-barge sedans. T had the best tactics and control. He would race to the edge of the arena, hammer the brakes to stop a few feet before the barriers, and then throw the car into reverse. Then he would race backward, aiming to slam his car's rear into the side of another's engine compartment.
The engine is a derby car's heart and the obvious target. Hits to a car's front do damage to the engine, but not as much as hits to the relatively unprotected sides. The best hit of all is to the side and front, right into the engine compartment. After a good hit, you'll see great clouds of coolant erupt and mysterious and vital fluids gush from the victim's front grill. Soon thereafter, the victim will stop moving, dead or dying.
Another good target is the rear wheels. Again, the best attack vector is from the sides. A good hit can destroy a wheel or even knock out the rear drive-train.
The worst place to hit is the back bumper, straight on. It's well protected and the trunk is a massive, energy-absorbing shield between the attack and the victim's vitals.
What most drivers attempt to do, then, is drive backward so that their cars' back ends go straight into their victims' vulnerable points. And this is what T was great at. He was consistent and conservative. When the rapidly shifting playing field changed so that his intended victim was no longer easy to hit safely, he slammed on the brakes, threw it in forward, and drove back out to the edge to pick another target and make another attack. Other drivers would get greedy and pursue sub-optimal attacks, but he made sure that he survived to fight on. Every time he hit, he took minimal damage and dealt out the maximum. Over time, the benefits of that strategy became apparent. His opponents fell, one by one, and even in the end game, his car was largely intact.
T's opposite was B. A real wild man. B seemed to take every possible attack with berserker abandon. He hit with his back and front! When an attack went bad, he kept on charging. The only thing that made his fast-and-furious stylings competitive is that he was damn good at them.
And the fact that his car was apparently Detroit's version of the undead. Nothing could kill it. That ugly yellow beast was crinkled and smashed like a paper bag filled with dog crap, set afire, left on an angry old man's porch while the doorbell rung, compelling said angry old man to stomp on it repeatedly. Toward the end, a nasty head-on collision with a jersey barrier bent the whole front end of the car – everything fore of the passenger compartment – about ten degrees up from the ground, like the Concorde's declined nose but in reverse. And the freaking thing kept on running! I don't know how driver B managed to see anything in front of him, but he kept up the attack. Hard Core. B was the crowd favorite, and I can assure you that the honor was earned in full.
Finally, the crippled B took more grueling damage, and the judges called him out, and that ended the heat. I, J, T and W advanced to the grand finale. J, however, was so badly destroyed that he was unable to make the finale.
After a heat, four skid loaders entered the arena to assist or push out damaged cars. For the truly destroyed vehicles, a CAT wheel loader provided the necessary housekeeping. Most cars, however, were partially operable and just needed a little push. Some even managed to limp out of the arena under their own power.
Of course, when the clean-up crew came to B, the zombie car chugged to life and steamed out of the arena, seemingly oblivious to its state of complete and utter destruction. Ever the showman, B left the arena driving backward so that the driver's side of his "car" faced the grandstand. From this vantage he waved triumphantly to the roaring fans as he backed into the pit area. While the other cars may have won the heat, he had won the crowd. (Given the low-money stakes for this event, he may have had the best prize of the lot.)
After the cars were hauled out, the skid loaders patrolled the perimeter, righting tipped or displaced jersey barriers. And then the show went on.
Before the finale, there was a "jackpot round." In this event, the drivers who didn't make the cut for the grand finale could compete against each other for a money prize. The entry fee was a whopping $5, and that went toward the jackpot. The other price of admission, one that many drivers could not pay, was that the drivers had to be able to hammer their defunct cars back into a semi-operable condition before the round started!
In all, about forty (!) jackpot cars were crammed into the arena. (We were disappointed to note that The Lavender Shark had not made it to the arena in time to enter. Late, he drove up to the arena, but the judges waved him off.) In the congested arena, the action was slow. After about twenty minutes, all of the cars were inoperable except for two. This pair battled amongst the wreckage for another ten minutes before one of the cars gave up the metallic ghost and a victor emerged. The Jackpot: About $125.
And then, the grand finale! Sixteen cars, the best of the first four heats, went bumper to bumper for the big prize (about $500). Because the arena was relatively empty, the speeds were high and the hits hard. Skilled operators I, T and W were back in the mix, and they were slowly taking their toll on the others. But the others weren't such easy prey as in the earlier heats. In particular, The Confederate Flags were present and working together. Point Blank was particularly efficient at hammering other cars into submission.
Even so, the Flags were eventually worn down. In the end, it came down to T, W, and three other cars. In the relatively calm and empty arena, T was devastating. He ran to the corners, halted, and came out as a backward missile. When he hit, the deep crunch told of skeletal damage to his targets. Once, he hit so hard that his victim's car launched on top of another car! (For this, the red flags came out and the driving was halted until the cars could be disentangled and everyone's safety verified.)
And then there were three – T, W, and one other car, also a black station wagon. The three black wagons fought hard. Surprisingly, T went down after a seemingly light hit. W and the other battled on. Eventually, W had backed the other wagon into a corner, where it seemed to get hung up. But the car was still operational and struggling to get free. The judges didn't rule it out, and so W drove off and came hurtling back to deal the coup de gr
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