Posted on July 2, 2011

I have always had a fondness for county fairs, far out of proportion to how much fun they really are.  I don’t like the rides (why put your life in the hands of a carnie just to have a fifty fifty chance of throwing up?), the food is usually pretty terrible, and I don’t have any livestock to show off.  But!  I do enjoy petting zoos.  A lot.  Once, when I was a child, I visited the Odessa fair.  Odessa is a little “town” just outside of Kingston.  Fully one half of the Odessa metropolitan area is made up of its fairground.  While there I took in one of the best sights of my young life:  a demolition derby.  I had no idea how any of it worked, who the competitors were, or what the prize was.  I saw cars smashing the hell out of each other and the locals whooping it up.  I loved it.

But life sometimes takes curious turns, and directs us away from the ones we love.  In the intervening years I attended numerous county fairs but no more demolition derbies, though there were a few close calls.  Every time I would find myself taking in the cow judging contest (what they were being judged on I still have no mortal idea) and during a spare moment I would peruse the fair program to discover that the demolition derby was yesterday.  Damn it!

For some reason, though, demolition derbies have remained in my mind as a little nagging post it note kicking around next to “visit the arctic” and “send thank you notes when people do you favours”.  One day demolition’s number came up, and the google and I did some searching.  As it turns out there is an organized Ontario Demolition Derby circuit, with over fifteen events at various fairs, and what do you know, there was an event that coming weekend in Maxville.  I’d never heard of Maxville, but it’s only a little ways outside of Ottawa.  There was no way I’d be denied.  I rented a car the next day.

I mentioned my plans to some colleagues and was met with:  “you’re going to a demolition derby by yourself?”  Yes!  To write an article.  “That’s kind of pathetic.”  Huh.  Some folks don’t appreciate life’s beauty.

I did a little more poking around and discovered a Facebook page dedicated to the sport.  I posted a message saying that I’d be in Maxville, and wondering if anyone would be interested in doing an interview for an article I wanted to write.  A day later I got a terse message back from a fellow named Kevin Noel saying:  “what kind of article?  would be interested”.  I replied and explained a little, and he responded with “sure thing look for the pink ford #101”.  And that was that.  The derby was one day away.

I pulled in to Maxville under ominous skies.  I didn’t have to wonder where the main event would take place, as there were grandstands set up around a parking lot ringed with big concrete blocks.  A completely smashed up car was positioned in the middle of the lot as a portent of things to come.  I parked behind the grandstand and got out hesitatingly.  Here is the scene:

Behind the battlefield

The derby area was almost completely empty, except for a few guys wearing matching red official-like shirts drinking diet coke.  I walked along the row of cars, toward the midway area, and noted that there were people in many of the cars, just sitting there waiting (including two old men in an old Chrysler minivan who looked like the guys from the muppet show).  The petting zoo was okay, mostly goats.  I didn’t get bitten.  There were two little ponies tied up to a stake that kids could ride on.  Fair ponies always look so sad.  No one took a ride while I was there.  I’m not sure if that’s good or bad for the ponies.

The midway was small by typical fair standards, and flooded with little kids running everywhere and exasperated moms yelling at them.  A fat kid tumbled into the funhouse.  Here are some scenes from that area.

Prizes to be won. Dreams to be shattered (by carnies, after the fair, in the truck...)

More midway fun

The steed for your trip to hell

At this point I remembered that your average fair, as darkness encroaches, is supercharged with sex.  Gangs of teenaged boys and girls roam around the scene endlessly, strutting, whispering, giggling, posing, and generally checking each other out.  A little punk wearing aviators actually stared me down as I ambled past him and his gang.  I felt very alone, as I am pretty certain that I was the only lone person in attendance that day, a fact which was noted by everyone who observed me.  Fairs just aren’t the sort of places you go solo.  I wanted to justify myself and mention to everyone “hey, I’m a journalist”.  Or “I’m pretending to be a journalist”.  Imposter syndrome crept into my psyche.  I wondered what I was doing.  Circle the area again.  Demolition derby area still dead.  More time to kill.  Keep moving.

I wandered to another area which, I later pieced together, is the main venue for the famous Highland Games held on the site every year since 1948.  There is an enormous permanent grandstand, overlooking a pristine lawn.  There wasn’t a soul to be found nearby.  It was impressive and a little eerie.  I imagined it filled with people in their Sunday best, sipping lemonade or iced tea, watching some spectacle or other.  Here is that scene (minus the projections of my imagination):

Empty rural stadium

I then wandered back to the concreted-ringed gladiator arena.  There was a yellow car proudly displayed there with something written on the hood.  Here it is:

Win a chance to die a fiery death

The hood says “WIN ME CAR” and that is just what it was.  Every single fair entrant received one entry in a raffle to win a chance to enter the derby in a professionally set up car.  I wanted to win more than anything I have ever wanted.  I asked if I could go behind the security rope – okay, they said, eyeing me with high suspicion – and I got a good look at the car.  The inside is gutted.  Anything that could possibly detach and sever one of your arteries is gone, only a rudimentary metal husk remains.  You won’t be needing cup holders on this ride, boy.  I imagined the random winner as a feeble lamb offered up for slaughter in front of the writhing masses.  Surely the professionals would take this poor sap apart mercilessly.  I noticed an older, larger fellow leaning on a pickup truck.  He wasn’t wearing the uniform that everyone else was, but his eyes darted across the scene purposely.  Clearly he was someone in charge.  I asked him if the person who wins the car has any chance.  “Sure!” he spat at me contemptuously “a guy won the car here two years ago and won the whole thing”; and so it went with most of my subsequent questions.  The fact that I didn’t know the answers to these obvious queries clearly marked me as an outsider and probable ironic infiltrator (I’m not, by the way, in spite of what you might think).  Nonetheless, he humoured me and answered my questions, all while never really looking at me or really acknowledging my existence.  Turns out that he himself built the WIN ME CAR up from his son’s old college car.  In fact he had been building cars for a long time.  Way back he was building cars for a guy, and the guy kept losing.  The guy blamed the cars, so the builder entered a derby to prove him wrong.  And he won.  And kept on winning for twenty some years.

I asked him for some insight.  What is the secret to good driving?  He replied “Me?  I was Wayne Gretzky out there.  Vision.  Saw everything.”  Other guys get fixated on one car, a main rival or easy prey, and suffer for it.  He was a wheeled panopticon, raising hell and ending the lives of weaker cars.  I respected him.

I asked about cheating.  Sure, sometimes people will reinforce things they’re not supposed to or install other illegal parts.  The best thing he could think of was a guy who stuffed his doors with straw to lessen the concussive impact.  Woops!  The straw caught on fire.  As we talked he alluded to the “figure eight”.  I asked him what it was.  “Well, you’ll see!” he snapped at me, and refused to budge an inch.  That was the last stupid question he could tolerate.  He basically stopped talking after that.  Some dude in a souped up Mustang showed up, and mistakenly drove into the wrong parking lot.  Someone let out a loud “fuck!” and turned to a compatriot, bellowing “did you see that?  there’s just no end to stupidity”.  He was absolutely incensed.  The Mustang driver (who was mercifully out of earshot) realized his mistake and parked in the correct area.  I have no idea what was so terrible about this, aside from the fact that he was driving a ridiculous Mustang.

I walked back to the grandstand, wrote a few notes, and spied the unmistakable pink hue of the #101 Ford.  I walked over.  At this point self doubt was welling up and pooling in my sinuses.  I had prepared no questions.  I was pretending to be a reporter.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I had no official looking equipment, just a small black notebook and a pen that I didn’t even like very much.  Go.  Do it.  That’s why you came.  So I did.

I came up to the car and there was Kevin, his lady Laura, and one of his kids.  They were looking at the car, ensuring that things were in order.  Laura was edgy.  Kevin was ice cold.

Kevin and Laura, my gracious guides into the world of demolition derbies

He is a bit shorter than me, with close cropped hair, the makings of a serious beard on his cherubic face, and the build of a man who does not spend his days at a computer reading wikipedia entries on famous battles and reviews of films he will never see.  He was wearing a Budweiser hat and a red checked coat.  I almost wore my green checked coat.  It would have been perfect.  I introduced myself and we shook hands.  His hands were tattooed with a fine mix of dirt and motor oil, and he didn’t hesitate or vainly wipe them on his pants.  I liked that.  I was ashamed of my soft hands.  He was very shy, looked down, and gave curt answers punctuated with nervous laughs, and I was a little surprised that amongst all of the alpha macho outgoing types there, this was the guy who agreed to do an interview.  He seemed to have no self aggrandizing agenda, and nothing he really wanted to get off his chest.  I liked him immediately.  I learned some essential facts:

Kevin got into derbies about 15 years ago, through some friends who were into it.  He tried it and caught the bug, as happens to pretty much everyone involved.  He has been in about one hundred derbies and he was emerged victorious twelve times.  He lives in Glen Robertson Ontario, where he works on a farm, about 80 hours a week, and builds his cars in the evening with the sometime help of his family.  It can take up to a month to get a car ready.

I asked him what’s it like out there.  His eyes sparkled a little and he answered simply “You can’t describe it”.  He paused for a moment, searching for more words, but his initial assessment rang true and he could say no more.

The car he’ll be driving tonight…

Kevin's Death Mobile

…is a 2001 Ford Escort.  Or at least it used to be.  He buys cars from all sorts of folks, say for five hundred bucks, and then modifies them down to derby standards.  This consists of stripping pretty much every non-essential part, installing some meagre safety measures, and making a few other important changes to protect vulnerable components.  It also includes painting the car up in some expressive way.  In fact there is a plaque at each derby for the best decorated car, decided on by fan applause.  Think about that, rough and tumble country badasses are competing in a twisted metal arts and crafts contest.  And they take it seriously.  Fold that into your view of who Kevin and the rest of the guys are.  Kevin tells me that he always paints his car pink, and shrugs by way of explanation.  The crowd often boos him.  He’s never won the best looking car contest yet, but maybe one day.  I look a little closer and notice that the car is covered in Disney stickers, placed there haphazardly by a child.  The fuel switch cover is emblazoned with an image of Tigger.  The back bumper reads “Tinkerbell is coming for you!”.  Kevin doesn’t like to tell people exactly what he’s going to do with the cars that he buys from them.  Often they’re perfectly good, albeit older, cars that have been babied by their elderly owners.  They can’t understand why anyone would willfully destroy them, or as Kevin puts it: “sometimes they don’t like to hear that I’m just going to smash the shit out of them”.

Kevin tells me that a good driver has to be one thing:  fearless.  I don’t get the sense that Kevin is even one little bit afraid of what’s about to happen, in stark contrast with Laura who paces and is generally anxious.  Kevin’s goal for the event is to smash the back half of his car into the backseat.  He doesn’t even seem to really care if he wins, he just loves this crazy sport, and the spectacle, and the chance to do something with his family in the stands and the guys in the pit area, who will help him fix a flat tire and swap tales, even after he’s ruined their own chances of victory.

Laura tells me that “you just pray that nothing happens”.  She’s worried.  She’s always worried before an event, but at the same time it’s obvious that she’s proud.  She wants Kevin to succeed, probably more than he does.  Laura finally explains to me how the whole things works, thank god!  First is the figure eight race.  Four cars compete, and the first car to complete ten laps wins.  Simple.  However!  The race is in a figure eight shape, around two concrete blocks, meaning that the drivers cross at the mid point, heading in opposing directions.  Contact, is of course, hardly discouraged.

The derby proper is a simpler event.  Three or four cars start together, and the last one running wins.  Pretty much everything is legal except:  1.  Hitting the opponent’s driver’s side door; and 2. Not smashing your opponents.  If you don’t initiate contact you will be disqualified, so laying in the weeds and letting the other guys beat the hell out of each other won’t work as a strategy.  Still, some drivers sandbag it, lightly tapping the other cars at the beginning, while avoiding the big hits.  It’s cheap.  There’s no honour in sandbagging.

The weakest part of the car is the front end, where the engine and other good things are.  The true achilles heel of a derby car is its transmission.  Hit just right the transmission coolant system will break, eventually paralyzing the car.  Once you see the telltale white smoke you know you’ve only got a short amount of time to make hey before you’re toast.

We walk over to the registration area where Kevin pays his $60 entry fee.  Apparently if your opponent does something untoward during the derby and gets away with it you can complain, but it will cost you another fifty dollars.  No one files any official complaints.  We walk back and I snap a few more pictures.  Then an authoritative type appears, shooing everyone without a pit pass away (that there are passes for a pit area which is just a field with a bunch of derby cars and trucks with trailers parked on it amazes me; these guys are serious!).  He bellows “enough picture taking!” at me, and I bitterly put my phone away and slink over to the stands thinking up snappy comebacks too late.

There are now hundreds of people ready for action.  They’re keyed up and excited.  I find a seat and settle in.  The MC for the evening comes out and says hello to everyone, and then we all rise while a local tenor sings O Canada.  The MC thanks the fire department and ambulance crew for being on standby for the event and people clap.  Then Kevin and another driver pull into the ring, engines raging.  It’s time for the best decorated car contest.  But before the voting can occur the man I was talking to earlier appears, and actually takes the microphone out of the MC’s hands.  He first wants to draw attention to the WIN ME CAR, and specifically to ask the crowd how they like it.  “Look at this beautiful car!” he screams, and people cheer.  He will ask them how they like it a second time, noting again how good it looks.  He never admits that he is the one who painted it, but I know.  The MC scurries off to find another microphone.  I don’t think this bit has been planned.

Kevin is pitted against some guy whose car is so bland that I cannot remember it at all.  It was red and black.  The crowd is charged with cheering for their favourite car, and sure enough people really do boo Kevin, just because of the colour of his car.  He pumps his arms up and down encouraging abuse, I finally get it.  He’s a modest and retiring man but I think he likes playing the heel.  I should have asked him.  Every good drama needs someone to wear the black (or pink) hat, and it’s him.  The other guy wins the best decorated car contest.

The WIN ME CAR is then awarded.  After a lengthy process of drawing tickets belonging to no one in attendance a 15 girl wins the right to drive the car.  She is forced to give away the prize to a companion, as she is too young.  I can tell you that I would be pissed if I were her.  I hope she received a sizeable present of some type afterward.  So Ritta comes out of the stands and shimmies into the car (the doors don’t open).  The fellows confer with her briefly and explain what the hell is going on and what she is supposed to do, and then they turn her loose in the figure eight race.

The four cars lined up to begin the race are Ritta the Amateur, Kevin, the #69 cow-themed car, and the nondescript #79.  Engines rev.  The rain holds off.  First to complete 10 laps wins.  The crowd counts down from five and they take off.  Except Ritta – she sits unmoving for a few crucial seconds while the other three take off.  Kevin gets out to an early lead – he cuts to the inside on the first corner and gets a precious car length on the others.  This expands to two car lengths until the slow-going Ritta crosses his path on lap two; he taps the breaks and lets her pass unscathed, while #69 and #79 make up ground.  On the next corner the #69 car gets a minor shot on Kevin’s back bumper (the same manoeuvre that has snuffed out the dreams of so many meth addicts during helicopter-videotaped police chases) and the pink Ford is knocked off course, but Kevin recovers and pours it on.  The aggressive move puts the #69 off course and he falls back, opening up a half-lap lead for Kevin.  Already the gap is perhaps too great to bridge through normal racing, so #69 changes tack and almost stops at the figure eight intersection, waiting for Kevin to come through.  He crashes into Kevin’s rear again, but again fails to deter him.  Half a lap later he tries the same tactic, and this time it works.  He catches Kevin clean and sends his nose into the concrete block.  The #79 car jumps on the opportunity and is right on Kevin before he can straighten out.  Ritta is still steadily making her way around the course.

Kevin tries for some payback on the next lap but misses, allowing #79 to pass him.  On the next corner he hits #79’s rear square and sends him into the concrete.  I scream “yeaaahhh!”.  #79 gets things under control and comes right back, passing Kevin on the next corner.  Then they go through the middle again and from nowhere…  Ritta the amateur slams into Kevin’s nose (in a gesture of gallant but poisonous chivalry he actually hesitated, allowing her the shot), slowing him enough for #69 to hit the back half of his car from the opposite direction, spinning him out and into a concrete block, facing the wrong way entirely.  The car stalls.

Kevin gets it started and backs up gingerly but the news is not good:  his left-rear wheel is at a thirty degree angle.  It’s not rotating, it’s just dragging along the asphalt.  He soldiers on, but he’s become a lamb among wolves, moving at half speed.  They gang up on him, and send him into the concrete again, just for good measure.  The #69 car wins.  They present him with a trophy, which he hangs onto awkwardly out the window.  It’s impossible to tell if he’s happy with his victory; he doesn’t remove his helmet.  Kevin nurses his battered machine back to the pits, and I assume his night is over.  The wheel is completely screwed to my eye.

Here is a video compilation of the race, featuring the death blow.

A few more events come and go.  I take it in, genuinely enjoying the spectacle, and then the pink #101 Ford is back for the big show:  the demolition derby.  Once again Kevin goes up against three opponents:  #69 and #79 from the figure eight race, and the #02 car, which has “Happy BDay Miranda” spray painted across it.  The cars line up side by side, facing the concrete barricade.  The crowd counts down and the official waves a green flag, triggering mass carnage.  Kevin takes off immediately and backs into the side of the #79 car, loops around, and rams into #69.  There is a small tie up, #69 drives off into a safe corner, and Kevin and #79 get a perfect opportunity:  #02 is stalled, just sitting there.  CRASH.  The two aggressors hit #02 in almost perfect unison.  There is a terrific smashing sound and the cars bounce on their suspensions.  It’s over for number #02 already, maybe fifteen seconds in.  How’s that for a happy birthday, Miranda?  The driver just has to sit there for the rest of the proceedings, trapped in his car, boiling with murderous rage.  I have to think that this would be incredibly frustrating, and would make me want to quit the sport outright.

The drivers don’t have time to consider these matters, of course.  They take off and continue the battle.  It quickly becomes apparent that driving backwards is a very useful tactic in this event.  The front of the car has all the important stuff in it, and therefore being hit there – or even hitting other cars with the front of your car – can be catastrophic.  Much better, then, to drive in reverse and wallop people with your trunk.  Kevin and the other two drivers are now whipping around the arena in reverse, almost dancing around each other.  Each is looking to make big contact.  Each is halfheartedly looking to avoid getting hit too hard.  After scraping up against #79 in a corner #69 comes in on a direct collision course.  Kevin sees it coming and deftly spins his Escort 180 degrees and continues on.  It looks like an incredibly skillful move, executed perfectly, with only milliseconds to spare.  I’m impressed.  His rear bumper is now hanging off the back of his car and scraping along the ground behind him.

Now the cars whirl around, using the dead #02 car as an obstacle, sort of like my brother and I chasing each other around the kitchen table.  There are hits.  And more hits.  And close calls.  #79 slows down and Kevin barrels into his passenger door.  The driver frantically tries to restart the machine.  Click.  Click.  Nothing.  #69 comes in with a head of steam and destroys the front left side of the car; #79 is done for.

Now it’s Kevin and the cow-themed #69, old foes from the figure eight race.  Kevin makes good contact and then, sure enough, there it is…  a thin trail of white smoke is leaking out of #69’s hood.  He can’t last long.  Yes!

Kevin could take it easy now, run out of the clock, and let the inevitable happen.  But he doesn’t.  Of course.  Instead he pours it on, and the two drivers go at each other relentlessly.  Think Ali-Frazier, rather than Ali-Foreman.  Vicious.  Brutal.  No quarter asked, no quarter given.  Hit.  Stall.  Restart.  Swerve.  Smash.  Hit.  And so on.  Smoke continues pouring out of #69.

Eventually Kevin pushes his opponent around the remains of the #02 car and up against the concrete block enclosure.  He’s trapped, caught on the ropes, with no escape.  I take a deep breath, waiting for the coup-de-grace, but the tricky bastard gets out of it.  Kevin comes around and mashes his front side again but then he makes a terrible mistake.  He goes in too aggressively, spins, and finds himself facing the corner, with his enemy behind him.  As far as I can tell it’s the worst possible position to be in.  Kevin tries to escape, and almost does, trying to thread the needle between a downed car and the wall, but #69 is too quickly on him.  He comes crashing in, folding the pink hood like dot matrix printer paper.  Smoke clouds #69’s field of view, worse now, but Kevin is wounded.  He retaliates, pushing his opponent across the ring; he runs into the downed #79 and the right side of his car leaves the ground.  It’s an awesome sight.

Now smoke is billowing from both cars.

They circle and hit each other again and again.  Then Kevin stops.  Click.  Click.  Click.  Nothing.  The #69 car comes to a stop nearby and revs his engine menacingly at Kevin.  A derby official appears on the track with a red flag, mercilessly counting him out.  Go thirty seconds without contact and you’re out.  1…2…3…24…25…  The #69 comes around hard and smashes into Kevin’s front, hard, for good measure.  And then it’s over.

The two drivers wiggle out of their cars – triumphant #69 through the window, Kevin through the windshield – and shake hands against the smoking backdrop of the destruction they have wrought.  Kevin circles his car looking at the damage and he seems satisfied.

A giant backhoe drags the fallen cars from the battlefield, inconsiderately dragging one over a concrete block.  I lope off to the pits to see Kevin, and find him being escorted away unwillingly by St. John Ambulance personnel.  Laura has forced him to go with them for some attention.  He’s cut his foot and bled through his shoe.    The car is a mess.

The agony of defeat.

Laura surveys the damage, calculating whether or not they can get it running for the final; Kevin has placed second in his heat, meaning he gets a berth in the final, if he can get his car running.  Medical attention is wasting precious time.  Laura looks at the front of the car and points out the problem to me:  the transmission coolant.  Just like she told me.  It’s blown, but the car can be repaired.  I mill around waiting for Kevin to return but feel like a third wheel.  I know nothing about cars.  I would offer to help, of course, but have no value here so I leave them and return to the stands.

The next heat is good, but not as good.  The final comes and only three cars emerge.  The organizers stall, with the MC asking kids in the audience about their favourite fair rides.  They’re doing what they can to give Kevin a chance – sportsmen that they are.  But it’s not enough.  The final starts with only three cars.

I’m sitting beside the wife of the guy who wins.  She cheers loudly for him.  I want to spit.

At the end of the night I see Kevin again.  His foot is okay.  He seems happy with his performance.  He should be.  He drove like a maniac, and with courage.  I thank him and Laura as the patio lanterns around the fair rides light up.  It’s dusk now and the teenagers filter over to the midway while the track crew cleans up the mess.  The old men squeeze into their minivan.

I ease onto the road leading back to the highway, turn up the music and floor it.  I want to get into a demolition derby.  Badly.

Posted in: The Obscure