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.
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.