Exhibit A: Tony Long, a second-generation derbier, drives up in a suspiciously high-riding 1973 Lincoln. With Gary Hart bravado, he dares the crew to find something: "You can look all you want. Cut it in half. It's as legal as can be."
When the inspectors find something, Long drives away with a snarl of his 350 Chevy small-block engine, returning to his flatbed trailer to jiffy-fix his car. Tim Clark, Jeff Jr.'s uncle and the chief judge for this derby, seems unconcerned. "He'll cool down," Clark says. "But when I seen it sit so high with those factory springs in it, I knew it had to be welded someplace."
Hidden welds are to derbying what loaded gloves are to boxing: They make a normal hit harder than it has any right to be. But checking boxing gloves is easy. Checking for extra iron in a Nixon-era land yacht out of Detroit—all those old Impalas, Caddies, Caprice Classics and Malibu wagons—is like finding a needle in a junkyard. It takes somebody who knows the latest hiding places, which is why this week's inspector often is next week's opponent. Does this add an intriguing element of secrecy, conflict and disinformation to the derby circuit? You bet. It's like the cold war all over again, with louder motors.
Still, not every jalopy gets the Checkpoint Charlie treatment. Besides the powerful cars, there's a parade of colorful rust buckets with no hope of surviving their heats. One driver spends the entire inspection period spitting tobacco juice straight through his rotted floorboards onto the grass.
The paint jobs are not quite showroom. One guy has painted KILL where his speedometer used to be; another, JESUS on his door handle. The names of loved ones are painted everywhere: DEB, JIMMY, CHRIS, ELMER. And all cars must have large identifying numbers; 69 is a popular choice.
To the entries with no chance—the first-timers and "beaters" that every derby needs—the inspectors speak in a gentle death-row chaplain's tone. As one overmatched car putts up to inspection with a woman walking beside it, the inspector asks the driver, "This your wife's car?"
"The wife don't have a car no more," he answers.
"He ran mine last weekend," she says.
The driver hasn't wired his doors shut. The inspector explains the necessity of this safety precaution, first to the husband and again to his wife. He tries to put it in the simplest terms. "I want him to see his kids," the inspector says.
"They ain't here," the wife says.