No one’s asleep at the wheel at the derby

The days are shorter now than they were a month ago, but if you’re a fan of a slowly turning, kaleidoscopically lit Ferris wheel, that’s a good thing. It’s county fair season in Vermont and the Addison County Fair and Field Days opens this Tuesday. Soon we’ll be hearing the judges commend a cow for good dairy quality and telling ourselves that an angioplasty is a small price for one more Frisbee of fried dough.


And among the most enchanting sounds of the county fair is the unmistakable crunch of metal on metal as two dying cars careen into one another at a demolition derby. There’s nothing like the distinctive scrape of door upon door as two junk heap wannabes jockey for position or the growl of an engine as the remnants of four all season radials spin frantically for traction in good old-fashioned Green Mountain muck.


Until recently, I thought that everyone who belted themselves into a piece of scrap metal with wheels and did this was certifiable. But then my friend Amanda Bull took part in the demolition derby at the Addison County Field Days and I realized that certifiable is a relative term. Amanda is 28 and by outward appearances completely sane.


“A demolition derby is actually a pretty safe way to let your inner daredevil out,” she told me, and then proceeded to explain all the terrifying things that she and her father did to make her vehicle safe before the 2006 competition. “We took out all of the interior except for the driver’s seat, so the car would be lighter and it would be easier to get me out of there quickly – you know, just in case something happened,” she said. “And it’s a requirement that you place the car battery in the car with you, and that’s another reason we removed the passenger seat. It meant there was less fabric and stuff that could burn if the battery caught fire.” They also removed the glass, the molding, the bumpers, and the radiator coolant – again, requirements.  


The automobile that she and her father were breaking down was a 1991 Chevy Lumina Eurosport, a car that had been purchased new a decade and a half earlier and had been a part of the family ever since: “By 2006, there were dents and dings everywhere and the paint was chipped. But my brother and my sister and I had all driven it at one time and we’d all had accidents in it. And so sending it to the junkyard just didn’t seem like a good way to say goodbye. We wanted to give it a proper sendoff.”


With the help of her sister and a friend, she decorated the car, spray-painting the name of her late brother on the roof. And though in hindsight her night at the derby seems safe, she admits she was nervous before the first heat. She was house-sitting my family’s home and feeding our cats while we were away, and she recalls that among the last things she did before climbing into the Chevy was telling her father where she had left the keys to the house and where my wife and I had left copies of our important papers and passports – again, “just in case.”


Then the adrenaline kicked in and she was slamming into cars in the pit. And, yes, being slammed into. A lot. It was sort of like bumper cars for grownups. She was oblivious to the cheering crowd and focused only on maneuvering her Chevy Lumina. And while she didn’t win the $1,400 purse, she did well and had a wonderful time. The only thing that prevented her from registering again this year is that her family sold their ancient minivan days before they learned that in 2009 the derby will have a heat for minivans.


“It was too bad,” she says. “That van would have been perfect.”


But that’s the great thing about county fairs and demolition derbies: There’s always next summer.


(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 2, 2009. If you are even considering entering a demolition derby, be sure to read all the liability waivers and release forms. It can be very, very dangerous and serious injury can occur.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.