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Demolition derby shakes Speedway

September 13, 1999

Demolition DerbyBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photos: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




The final event at the Hagerstown Speedway Sunday night was not so much a race as a contest of concussive collisions, snarled steel and endurance.

As the sunset became a dull glimmer behind a swollen dust cloud, 31 daring drivers joined in the 13th annual Tommy Thompson Demolition Derby. Once the flag flew, each car crashed until it was kaput.

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All day long, spectators watched races that tested typical driving skills. The derby measured an ability to take a thrashing and keep on bashing. It was ram or be rammed.

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"He's making a sandwich with that car," the emcee quipped at one crunch. The crowd gave a combination of moans and cheers showing sympathy and delight at the hardest of impacts.

Still attached to half an axle, a wheel flopped off. A bumper splintered and flew above the fray. The engines chugged, gurgled and roared and the crippled cars kept on. "That'll rattle your chain," the announcer jeered.

The derby isn't pure chaos. Drivers don't all have death wishes and they must abide by a healthy list of rules. For example, one was disqualified before the derby began when his seat belt didn't fasten properly.

They fill out applications and sign insurance releases before getting jarred and jostled. Drivers must wear approved safety helmets and only certain cars are allowed. They are inspected before the race.

It is easy to tell "demo" cars because their decorations are noticeably less slick than race cars. Spray-paint slogans bear intimidating messages such as, "Ain't Skeered" on a trunk or a smiley face on a hood.

Many bear the tell-tale signs of past competition: Crumpled, scored, rusted frames and dents the size of boulders. They don't have street-legal luxuries such as headlights, windshields or back seats. Chains and cables secure doors and hoods in case of sudden disassembly.

They each paid $40 to enter and get a shot at the trophy and $500 top prize. Four other winners get $100, $75, $50 and $25. The winners were Rodney Monroe, Herb Cassidy Jr., Tom Slack, Nick Rosenberry and Tracy Abbott.

"It's just a hobby, I guess," said Jeremy Wimer, who could not remember how many derbies he's driven. The 26-year-old Cumberland, Md., resident has won four of them in his hometown, he said.

"Mister Twister," his 1970 Chrysler Town & Country, stood upon its trailer with its trunk pushed up, arched from past impact. "It's Crunch Time," was painted in orange on its black body.

Wimer doesn't worry about injury. "The worst I've ever had is a bloodied nose," he said.

Chris Holland, a 32-year-old Jefferson, Md., resident, was driving in a derby for the first time. Entering was something of a stunt for his rock band, "Shrunken Headbangers," which owns the 1985 Ford LTD that bore its name.

The band didn't want to re-register the car so it decided to give it a makeover, including painted warnings like "Please Drive Gently." Holland, a drummer, volunteered to participate in the percussion.

"I am the only one either daring or stupid enough," he said. "I won the honors by default." His strategy was to just protect the engine if possible, but he wasn't optimistic about winning.

"It's such a piece of junk I don't think it's going to last long," he said.

The cars kicked up a thick wall of smoke and dirt as they pounded against each other. Some were disabled quickly or boxed in by piles of unmoving metal. Some tore on, crippled with tires missing or bumpers trailing like broken limbs.

Dale Ashwell, a spectator from Mount Airy, Md., said he used to drive in derbies 40 years ago. But back then drivers used the whole track, not just a marked-off section. "I guess it's okay," he said. "There's less chance of people getting hurt."

Mark Vegh of Frederick, Md., described the contest in one word: Crazy. "It's cheap fun," he said.

Peggy Hoffman of Winchester, Va., didn't like the violence involved. "I don't approve of this thing," she said. "I think it's ridiculous."

Eventually, spinning tires met with silence and only two drivers remained mobile among the stilled machines. Rich Brimm of Fairplay enjoyed the carnage. "I like it. It's pretty interesting. You see a lot of busted up cars," he said.

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