The Zen of demolishing cars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A trio of junkers gang up against a station wagon, the kind with the wood paneling. They take turns smashing it head-on and crashing its sides, until the crumpled metal heap is pinned against a dirt wall.

Some local guys nose-dive their cars from a makeshift ramp into a dead man's limo, and a hair stylist blithely walks away from her burning Oldsmobile. An engineering student turns to the dairy aisle for an auto repair trick that he calls "egg drop soup."

All in all, it's the perfect setting, one man decides, to propose to his girlfriend.

Once a month through the summer, thousands come to rural northern Baltimore County and gather round a pit about half the size of a football field for the Arcadia Volunteer Fire Company Demolition Derby.

Families spread out picnic blankets and line up for face-painting and french fries, while motor-heads lounge in the beds of pickup trucks, emptying beer coolers as they enjoy the destruction.

Each Saturday spectacle - the next is today - is like a gladiator battle on wheels.

Burning rubber perfumes the air. Heavy metal guitar and country tunes scratch over the sound system - at least when the announcer isn't praising a pile-up or pondering the role of back tires: "Who needs 'em? Number 59's doing just fine without 'em. Oh yeah!"

"It's the smell. The sound of the engines. The people - the kids spinning around, the guys talking over beer. It's all of that, all at the same time," says Chris Miller, a 23-year-old psychology student from Monkton who was watching the July derby with a Yuengling resting in the cup holder of his folding chair.

Miller's cousin and one of their friends mock his lawn-chair analysis. But no one disagrees with his conclusion: that there's something strangely compelling about watching cars slam into each other again and again.

Skip Schildhauer, a Baltimore firefighter who has served as a derby referee for nearly a decade, puts it this way: "People like it when the radiators explode, when the engines catch fire and cars roll on their side."

The Arcadia Volunteer Fire Company, which owns 45 acres in the farmland between Reisterstown and Hampstead, has been staging fundraising demolition derbies for about 15 years, says Scott Boose, the station's chief. Organizers expect a crowd of about 3,000 for today's event, which begins at 4 p.m.

"Everybody has carnivals. Everybody has bingos," Boose says. "This is something unique."

'It's how you hit 'em'

On a hot July night, Leroy Schaefer is behind the wheel of a '74 Chevy Impala with the gas tank where the back seat once was, a wire screen for a windshield and a chain holding the hood down.

"It's all about how you hit 'em," says the 27-year-old Carroll County native, who paves roads and parking lots for a living. "You want to snap the tie rods, pop the radiator and keep watching so you don't get hit."

The derby pit is hosed down to slow the cars as they ram into each other. Tires spin, engines rev and mud flies. Within seconds, the entire pit is a blur of cars going every which way, shrouded in dust and smoke.

Heather Graf, 23, is a fixture on the edge of the pit when Schaefer, her boyfriend, or her brother, Dan, is racing. She leaps in the air like a cheerleader but yells like someone watching a bar fight: "Get 'em! Take 'em out!"

After each race, the driver's crew works furiously to make repairs, pulling out soldering guns and blowtorches. Schaefer and other drivers often have a spare car on hand that they can strip for parts and tires.

John Leatherman, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of Maryland, has his own way of dealing with a mechanical problem.

With the radiator busted in his 1967 Mercedes-Benz, he decides to give an urban legend a try and sends his girlfriend to a nearby convenience store for a dozen eggs.

Leatherman and his derby mechanic, Matthew Geiger, 24, open the cap and crack the eggs, letting the yolk run into the radiator.

"The hot water cooks the egg and plugs the holes inside," Leatherman says.

It's a temporary solution that might buy them three or four minutes in the next round, Geiger says.

The car lasts about 60 seconds.

Scattered derbies

Arcadia is one of the few places in Maryland where you can intentionally total a car.

In Southern Maryland, demolition derbies are held in June and September at the Potomac Speedway in St. Mary's County. In Western Maryland, the Allegany County "Demo Derby Challenge Series" runs June through September. Elsewhere in the state, demolition derbies are occasionally held at some county fairs.

Demolition derbies are also staged across the country, from the Western States Racing Association's summer season at fairgrounds in Utah and Idaho to the Dixie Speedway's derbies in Georgia.

The origin of demolition derbies seems a bit murky. A PBS documentary pointed out that a race promoter in the 1920s claimed to have invented the sport. Others say it evolved during contests at county fairs. Either way, by the 1960s, derbies were gaining fans through exposure on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

The 1970s sitcom Happy Days might have been the best advertisement for the sport, and hardly anyone who cares to discuss derby history fails to mention that one of Fonzie's girlfriends, Pinky Tuscadero, was a professional demolition derby driver.

Some derbies feature "powder puff" races, but the female drivers also gladly battle the men. Wendy Sparks, a 27-year-old Hampstead native, is a regular in the Arcadia pits.

With long blond hair and perfect makeup, she looks more like a model or the hair stylist that she is by day. Her favorite car is a '77 Chrysler Newport that she has painted pink with specks of glitter.

Flash and fire

"I made it my bling-bling car," she says, laughing.

At the July derby, Sparks drives a white 1988 Oldsmobile Delta; it catches fire in one of the early rounds. It's not always obvious to a derby driver when the vehicle is on fire, but eventually you know, Sparks says.

"It feels," she says, "like there's a fire inside your throat."

A broken arm is the most serious injury suffered during an Arcadia derby, says Boose, the fire chief. Still, volunteer firefighters stand ready along the sidelines. Bulldozers clear the defeated cars from the track.

Hitting a driver's-side door is a big no-no, but almost anything else goes. In short-track racing - or "roundy-rounds" - drivers race around the track, bumping into each other as they go. The car that has completed the most laps and is still running after six minutes wins.

In a derby heat, there is just smashing. Cars are matched with similarly sized models. A heat can last anywhere from a minute to 15. The last car running, if only in reverse, wins.

Even intermission packs a wallop.

A local auto mechanic had a white stretch limousine sitting around for years because its owner had died. Familiar with Arcadia's monthly rituals, the shop donated the luxury vehicle.

The derby drivers will jump over it, Dukes-of-Hazzard style.

"Attention in the pits," announcer Scott Timberman shouts. "If you think your car can jump our limo, we challenge you to bring it on down."

Several cars make the leap, but others seem to intentionally flop into the limo's windshield. The crowd loves it. Last year, the fire station let the drivers ram through a camper.

After a few jumps, the competition comes down to "Pyscho" Steve Hollingsworth, a 37-year-old construction worker from Laurel, and Bucky Friend, a 51-year-old mechanic from Eldersburg.

Friend's jump is flawless, with just the right amount of height. But in the end the judges determine the applause is louder for Psycho Steve, who claims the $70 pot.

Psycho Steve - the nickname bestowed on Hollingsworth by his 12-year-old son - has become something of a brand at the Arcadia derby. Some relatives and friends compete in cars spray-painted with "Psycho Steve's Racing" on the side.

In five years, he has wrecked more than 60 cars. At the July derby, he raced headfirst into a burning Volvo, just for fun.

The neck brace isn't for show, he says. It's for protection.

"It's definitely a high," Hollingsworth says. "Sitting on the hill, waiting for the race, I get so pumped up. You get out a lot of aggressions."

Between heats, 44-year-old John F. Holmes leads his girlfriend, Brandee Martin, to the edge of the pit, supposedly to look at "a wreck." But a derby organizer holds up a huge banner with the words: Brandee will you marry me?

A few seconds later, the announcer tells the crowd that she said yes.

Ring in an urn

Martin, who, like Holmes, is studying to be a mortician, says she's still in shock. "My daughter, his son, everyone knew about this but me," the 31-year-old Waverly woman says.

Holmes, who lives in Hampstead, presented the engagement ring in a small urn.

A few of the regulars in the pits, where the cars are parked, smile at the romantic gesture. They've celebrated anniversaries and birthdays at derbies.

The Arcadia Demolition Derby is something of a marathon. The heats start about 4 p.m., and the feature races don't usually get going until after 9 o'clock.

After nearly five hours of watching cars slam into each other, Tiffany Wdzieczkowski's 2-year-old son is wriggling on her lap. But her husband and the couple's 6- and 4-year-old sons are awed by the crashing cars. It is their first derby.

"I heard about this from someone on my son's football team," says Wdzieczkowski, an administrative assistant from Dundalk. "We figured it's cars crashing. The kids will love it."

She says she's certain the boys in her family will want to come back, probably again and again: "They're already saying, 'Next time.'"

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