The bread and circus of the demolition derby

Thursday night, my wife and I were at the #1 Auto Parts Demolition Derby at the Addison County Fair and Field Days in New Haven, Vermont to cheer on our good friend, Amanda Bull. She and her family had taken her ancient Plymouth Acclaim and gotten it ready for the competition. That meant removing the windows, bumpers, and the radiator coolant. It meant taking out all the seats but the driver’s. It meant making it less likely that she would be skewered by shattered glass or burned beyond recognition if the car caught on fire.

Finally, it meant painting a huge #18 – her entry number – on the sides of the vehicle. This was second time that Amanda had climbed into a helmet and an old junker car and sped into the fray. She was in the derby in 2009.

Unfortunately, this year her time in the derby was cut short. Within seconds of the start of the first heat, another vehicle slammed into the driver’s side door of her Acclaim. It was an illegal hit and that driver was disqualified, but Amanda harbors no ill will: Another car was pushing her across the pad as she was restarting her vehicle when she was hit. Nevertheless, her car was out for the count and so was Amanda: Badly bruised ribs was the technical diagnosis, but it was actually badly bruised everything.

In the second heat, one of the cars was flipped onto its back, a turtle upside-down on its shell. That driver had to be pulled from the vehicle by EMTs and carried via body board into the back of an ambulance.

There were easily a thousand of us watching the derby Thursday night, despite skies that looked ominous and dark. But the rain held off.Derby 2

I chatted briefly before the first heat with Alice Coburn and Dave Minard of Middlebury. They had gotten to the grandstand an hour before the start so they would have good seats. As they’d waited, they’d enjoyed the fair’s goulash, fried dough, ice cream, and some fudge. “We watch for the crash-bang,” Alice told me, explaining why they go. “It’s better than wrecking your own car on the street,” Dave added.

I spotted Bay Jackson a few minutes later. Bay is a neighbor of mine from Lincoln, a mom of three young children now, but I’ve known her since she was in middle school. She was watching with her family from the grass. “I’m a fan of the whole scene. It’s so different from what you typically see in life,” she said. But then she grew meditative and added, “This is a part of where I live and where I grew up, so it’s a part of who I am.”

I was tweeting pictures of the mayhem – the violence simultaneously primal and mechanical – and it was fascinating to me how polarizing the images were. People either loved or hated the bread-and-circus nature of the carnage.Derby

The next morning, I spoke with Amanda to see how she was feeling. She was sore and disappointed that her night had been cut short. She thought this year’s derby was violent because of the weather this week: “The problem was that usually during field days, it rains and softens up the track. It’s hard to build up speed. I remember in 2009, I was covered with mud from my head to my toes. But this year it was dry out there. I knew it was going to be different. The first hit rocked my whole body forward. There was just no mud to slow you down.”

I told her that my tweets from the night before had led some people to suggest I was crazy even to watch. Her response? “I try not to judge what other people do crazy-wise. It’s a calculated risk for me – and it’s a good time out there.”

Indeed. The other day a friend reminded me that we had hit 52 miles an hour on our bikes on a steep downhill slope east of Lake Placid. Last winter I gave a speech in Anjar, Lebanon, the sounds of Syrian shells near enough that they sounded like distant thunder. I’m not one to judge. Next year if Amanda is in the derby, my wife and I will be there, too.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll be there even if she’s not.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 11, 2013. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published last month.)

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.