"No, I mean I want him to see his kids tomorrow."
"Oh, well," the woman says as she walks away, "he's well insured."
Pretty soon, Shawn Allen drives up in a '74 Electra 225, number 4667 (his birthday). Allen teaches phys ed, but during summer vacations he dedicates himself to derbying, spending a lot of time in the shop whipping his rust-free collection of see-America-first cars ('74 Custom Cruiser out of Georgia, '76 Cutlass from Tennessee, '75 Impala out of New Mexico and so on) into tip-top demolition-derby shape.
In his garage the day before the Union County Fair derby, Allen pointed out a few of his secrets. For instance, his rear bumper sat at the regulation 22 inches off the ground, but he'd fixed it so that after a couple of hits the whole back end, with its three-quarter-ton-truck suspension, would spring up. Once the derby got rolling, he'd be ramming the sheet metal on other cars instead of trading blows on their bumpers. He also predicted that the inspectors would find something they wanted him to change. He hinted that it would be what he wanted them to find. Sure enough, after a few minutes of lying on the grass poking around underneath Allen's Buick, one judge says, "All right, Shawn, come here."
"Aw, Lordy, here we go," Allen cries with as much acting skill as you're likely to see in a gym teacher. Moments later, at his flatbed, he says contentedly, "If they don't send me back, they think they haven't done their job. It makes them feel good."
Out on the derby field, steam billows from broken radiators, and rooster tails of mud shoot in every direction; axles bust and drivetrains snap; wagons crumple, engines seize, tires wobble on busted ball joints, and one Pontiac climbs the four-foot mud wall and hangs there; rims hit and sparks fly; mad-dog drivers take full-track shots for no reason other than a love of impact and a taste for the grandstand roar. Amazingly, through all the blindsiding and rear-ending and T-boning and head-on hits by 46 drivers, through three heats, a consolation and the feature event, everything goes exactly according to Allen's plan. After the first few hits, his rear end does, in fact, spring up, and whenever he drives backward (the forward of derbies everywhere) his car turns into a battering ram. You can hear the roar of his motor over all the others to the very end, when number 4667, the last car running (with its $1,200 drivetrain, $2,000 engine and $300 drag-race axles), doesn't look all that different from how it looked at the start. It's not about the money: Allen wins $540 for his trouble. Nobody makes money at the demolition derby.
BEATING THE HIT MEN
PREBLE COUNTY FAIR, EATON
"This fairground is vital to the community," Marty Bresher explains as she drives past the swine barn in her golf cart. Bresher—the sort of big, loud older woman who encourages grown men to call her Mom—is a tireless fair booster. She introduces one official who rattles off the fairground's year-round schedule: "We got hog sales, cattle sales, weddin's," he says. "We have the antique tractor show, and after that there's the pork festival."
It's the day before the derby, when the 4-H shows end and the little kids have to sell their prizewinning hand-raised pigs, cows and sheep. "It's the saddest day of the fair," Bresher says. "There's always a lot of tears." But she can't stay downbeat for long. "Animalwise," she says, "this is really quite a big fair."
Demolitionwise too. At Preble, in 1999, some 200 cars ran in 12 heats, and the feature didn't finish until after 3 a.m. Recent turnouts have been smaller because, frankly, Ohio is running out of derby cars, but Bresher expects well over 100 entries this year, with heats for full-sized and compact cars, and a "powder-puff" heat for women.