Totaled carnage

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Repairs are part of the strategy during the demolition derby. And, like the derby itself, the repairs that keep vehicles in the running from one heat to the next are loud, dirty and reliant on brute force.

Popular event puts bragging rights — and heavy metal — on the line

There are two schools of thought when it comes to choosing the perfect car for a demolition derby.

The first, and perhaps more obvious, is to get the cheapest, most readily available set of wheels to be found on the theory that it will be all but worthless by the time the event is over.

There are those, however, who hold to the idea that a greater investment is required.

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Either way, don’t expect to get the car insured, and don’t make any plans that require it to be driven away at the end of the night.

One of Suffolk’s favorite annual events is the demolition derby that takes place during the city’s annual Peanut Festival in October. The bleachers fill up well before the evening event, and folks line up a dozen deep around the orange plastic fence that marks the safety zone around the field of battle.

Spectators come from all over the area, and participants come from places all over Virginia and beyond.

They’re all there for the same reasons — to revel in the din of crunching metal and thundering engines, in the smell of smoke and fumes. They come to relish the controlled chaos of a pastime legal only within the confines of this dirt-floored arena bounded by low concrete walls.

“It’s just the thrill of getting out there and smacking everybody and getting smacked,” says Staunton’s Greg Lafferty, who has come with a group of friends who make it a habit to be in Suffolk for the derby. “When they drop the green flag, there’s gonna be a whole lot of hittin’.”

Lafferty, a supervisor for F.R. Drake of Waynesboro, a manufacturer of industrial food processing equipment that sorts, conveys and loads hot dogs into packaging, is a 15-year veteran of the Suffolk derby. He is an adherent of the “invest-for-success” school of thought.

His orange and green car with a lighted stop sign perched on the roof, was painted and lettered by his wife in honor of his son’s 10th birthday. It sports a different engine than it did when he bought it, something he hopes will give him the power to push it and the opposing vehicles around the arena.

Lafferty and seven of his friends and family from the Staunton/Harrisonburg area have come to Suffolk with four different cars, and they spend their time before the derby tinkering under the hoods, getting engines in their best condition, tying down parts and making sure their vehicles were ready to get smashed in the safest possible way.

Nearby in what passes for pit row on the Peanut Festival site at the Suffolk airport, Suffolk native John Branch laughs about what’s really important in the demolition derby.

“We’ve got the best-looking paint job out here,” he says.

His old black station wagon features a pink ribbon design with white accents. But the 12-year derby veteran knows that even a crowd-pleasing paint job won’t keep the car moving if someone scores a couple of solid, well-placed hits during the competition, so he quickly corrects himself.

“It’s all about ‘runability,’” he says.

Branch once finished the derby in second place, and his pride has him wanting to try to better that record. A back injury that’s bothering him on this day, however, has him wondering if he should let a friend substitute for him in this particular event.

Derby drivers wear helmets and safety harnesses, but there’s no getting around the fact that they’re smashing into — and being smashed by — other cars. Over and over again. Until only one car is left moving.

Whoever drives Branch’s car in the derby will wake up sore the following morning.

But whoever walks away the winner will have bragging rights for the whole year. And for those participants from Suffolk, that means a lot of opportunities to gloat around other Suffolk competitors.

“It’s about being able to talk junk to your friends later on,” he says. “I know about half the [drivers] out here. We’ll be trash-talking all the way to the end.”

Even among friends who show up at the event together, the competitive spirit reigns.

Branch is another “investor” when it comes to choosing his derby car.

“The cars, I buy,” he says, “usually, somebody is driving it when I buy them.” He’s willing to pay well over the event’s total $1,500 purse for a car with enough weight and power behind it to punish the competition.

His brother, Craig, however, has a different philosophy. Driving in the compact class, Craig Branch is less worried about the size and weight of his car than he is about the impact it will have on his wallet. Something cheap is great. Something free is perfect, as long as he can get it running for the event.

The federal government’s cash-for-clunkers program has made it harder to find cars to use in the derby, contestants agree. And sometimes it’s prudent not to tell a current owner that her beloved vehicle could wind up broken and busted with bent wheels, stuck inside a demolition derby arena waiting for a bulldozer to pick it up and carry it to a field where a flatbed tow truck will load it and carry it away to be scrapped.

Whatever a derby contestant’s philosophy on choosing a competition car, one thing is sure: It will need repairs if it’s going to stay in the event through more than one heat.

In the demolition derby, “repair” is a relative term, and fixing a broken car requires, as often as not, sledgehammers, pry bars, saws and grinders.

Contestants are often not mechanics, but they usually have a fair bit of mechanical know-how, or at least, as John Branch puts it, the ability to do some quick “red-neck engineering.”

While they await the final event of the night, setting winners from previous heats against one another, those winners are hard at work back in the pit area prying metal away from tires, grinding down broken parts and doing their best to give new life to engines that have been pressed beyond their limits.

In contrast to the throaty roar of engines over in the arena, the pits are a cacophony of grinding, pounding, banging and the occasional curse word. Cars, flatbed tow trucks and bulldozers do their dance here without impact, while back in the ring it is an altogether different story.

The drivers in the pit area are either celebrating their epic losses or hoping for a win of even greater proportions. The atmosphere mixes genial competition with what feels like an almost giddy sense of release as the adrenaline wears off following each heat. There are plenty of smiles to go around, even from those forced to watch their cars hauled out of the arena by the heavy equipment on hand for the job.

It’s a spirit that had been predicted by one of the event’s organizers during a pre-derby drivers’ meeting.

“This is about having some fun and wrecking some cars and not going to jail at the end of the night for it,” he said. “If you came out here tonight to have anything but fun, you picked a [poor] sport to be involved in.”