Derby days

August 8, 2013

Augusta, New Jersey

By Mike Segar

When I was growing up I remember each summer looking forward to visiting the Barnstable County fair in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where my family spent the summer. A tradition from coast to coast, the summer county fair is a purely American event and my family never missed it.

GALLERY: JERSEY’S DEMOLITION DERBY

What I also remember fondly from the fair after the cotton candy, rides and games was going to see the evening demolition derby races – watching as groups of salvaged and homemade cars called “beaters” or “wrecks” slammed into each other over and over on a dirt track until the last car still moving was declared the winner. It was always a fun event with lots of laughs.

As a Reuters staff photographer based in New York I am always looking out for quirky, uniquely American events and stories which can bring with them their own set of characters and atmosphere that make for interesting images and the opportunity for visual storytelling. Demolition Derby is certainly one of these events. When I found out that the Nation-Wide Demolition-Derby company was holding a two-day competition, one of the largest on the east coast, I knew I wanted to shoot it.

The first documented version of a race in which the destruction of cars was the intended goal, involved Larry Mendelsohn, a stock car driver from Long Island, New York. He began promoting demolition derbies around the area in the late 1950’s after he and others realized that the spectators at the races enjoyed the wrecks as much, or more, than the race itself. In Wisconsin in 1950, a used car salesmen named Crazy Jim held a demolition derby to promote his business using old Fords. He later became a demolition derby promoter in the region. Other sources say that the demolition style of racing was happening in Chicago also as far back as 1950. The sport grew in popularity peaking in the 1970’s with national television coverage. Now the events are mostly held at the local level at fairs and carnivals.

Despite being just 70 miles from New York City, the largest metropolitan center in the United States, Sussex County, New Jersey, is farm country – rural and open. The New Jersey State Fair Sussex County Farm and Horse show reflects that farm culture, and is typical of summer fairs held around the country. But as the sun begins to go down and the stands around the Derby track begin to fill with spectators, competitors in the demolition derby take center stage. Auto mechanics, body shop owners, welders, tire guys, metal fabricators, junk yard owners and auto dealers are all there. Men and women, young and old come to have some fun, see their friends, get some food at the fair and crash their cars. If they’re lucky maybe they win a trophy and a bit of cash. Most have built their own cars from junk with parts salvaged and scraped together which they hope can outlast the competition in a few minutes of punishing crashes.

The cars are unique and hand-built, stripped down to their bare frames with welded-in reinforcements, with most sporting a mishmash of parts. No frill vehicles lacking anything except a strong motor, gears, brakes, a few hand painted decorations, and lots of rust, compete in heats divided by car type. The largest full-size sedans, some dating back to the 1960’s, are the most traditional and deliver the hardest crashes. But the compact cars are fast and exciting to watch as they tend to fall apart more quickly as they crash into each other.

I spent the early part of the two evenings there when the light was best, wandering and photographing around the pit area. It was just an open field next to the dirt track, where competitors worked on their cars, revved their engines, hammered out dented and partially wrecked parts and offered to help each other prepare for battle as they gathered with friends, family and co-workers. Many knew each other and it was a fun atmosphere with plenty of joking and good-natured back-and-forth ribbing going on.

The images I wanted to concentrate on were mostly of the people attending the demolition derby – competitors and spectators. As much as they want to win, the event is just as much of a gathering of friends and family on a warm summer night around a common interest and passion: cars. I wanted to document this for what it is, a uniquely American event repeated around the country. It’s a gathering of common people enjoying themselves and applying their skills with cars for fun and friendly competition.

But when the cars get onto the track and the flag drops, it’s all business and no mercy. Cheers go up and the heats begin. As many as 20 cars on a small dirt track plow into each other with reckless abandon in each heat. Hitting another car in reverse is the preferred method of attack, but pretty much anything goes until there is only one car still moving and he or she gets the checkered flag. The air is filled with smoke and the smell of leaking radiators and the sounds of crushing metal. It takes only a few minutes and it’s all over but the damage is done. It’s PURE automotive carnage and the crowd loves it.

The disabled and crushed “victims” limp off the small dirt track, most dragged off by a team of farm tractors at the end of each heat where the pit crews of friends and family get to work with sledge hammers, wrenches, chains, pry bars and spare parts trying to see if they can get the car ready for another run.

“Gentlemen start your engines… If you still can!”

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