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The Preble County Fair is known for big derbies and hard, heavily welded cars. It's also notorious for its derby teams: the gangs of red, black or yellow cars that take out strangers first and then start on each other. "A lot of people don't want to come up here because they know they'll get teamed up on and destroyed," the chief derby inspector, Joe Deaton, says. "It's a county-pride thing."
Although Preble's posted rules clearly state NO TEAMING, Deaton ticks off the lineup: In red there's PCHM (Preble County Hit Men); in yellow, BRMD (Boys Race Men Derby); and in black, TBMF (Totally Bad, well, MFs). The most successful team, PCHM, began when Mark Hibberd and Paul Petro recruited people to run red with them. The tactic worked: Hibberd won the Preble derby six years straight before giving it up.
Here's the problem: Successful teaming makes for boring derbies. In the early '90s PCHM drivers used to eliminate everybody else, then shut off their engines in order of team seniority, splitting the prize money and saving their cars. Derby fans hate that. Preble needed a reckless glory-above-all derby savior to take on the Hit Men. What it got was Shannon Pugh, a tall, sad-eyed semi trailer mechanic who sees red, then hits it. "I started nailing them from the get-go," he says, "and people realized they weren't as tough as they thought they were."
Pugh is many things: the child of a split family, a dog lover and wrestling fan, a habitual loser of friends, and a fiercely devoted uncle who says he'd "go to jail over my nephews." One-on-one, he can be achingly confessional, but out in public he seems eager to have others think he's crazy. As Jason Whisman, his former best friend and current No. 1 enemy, says, "He's got a charisma that it's like total chaos when he shows up."
On the day of the derby Pugh shows up early. His pickup truck says PSYCHOTIC across the windshield, and the '74 Impala wagon on his trailer is painted with tombstones bearing the derby numbers of enemy drivers. Inspectors okay the car, and Pugh takes his heat assignment and heads over to the lineup. The lines grow in the afternoon heat—the Dayton weather bureau has issued a heat emergency—but the drivers, worried about somebody sabotaging their engines, stay pinned to their vehicles, checking out the competition and forming on-the-spot alliances. The sun bakes the drought-hardened track, making it much faster.
Just before the first heat, the Eaton Fire Department hoses down the track, a safety measure to cut the pace a little. As a result the heat, which is loaded with red cars, including Petro's, is sloshy and slow, like water ballet. By the end, the crowd is booing as four Hit Men gang up on a lonely, spunky sedan.
The second heat is faster, but the last four drivers, including Whisman, get penned by a line of wreckage into one side of the derby field. They circle each other in tight quarters in a complicated choreography of feints and doughnuts and sudden braking that give away exactly who made alliances with whom. The third heat, Pugh's, looks more like rugby, full of scrums, with cars bashing together and then bulling through the pileup, followed by long end-to-end runs and full-track hits. In the fourth heat, after some brave kamikaze shots from flimsy cars, the surviving drivers turn cautious, and the judges stop the competition to warn everybody about sandbagging, or intentionally avoiding contact to save the car. The most compelling sight during the fifth heat is a drunk who climbs a trackside cherry picker, then falls off right in front of a pair of state troopers.
Before the feature (the top four drivers in each heat qualify) Petro complains that the track hasn't been watered since the derby started. "The wetter the better," he says. "That way I can take my car someplace else afterward. If it stays like it is now, somebody's going to get hurt." Sure enough, as soon as the feature starts, Pugh slams Whisman—in the driver's door! Whisman's red running mates surround Pugh, smacking his car around in the corner, while Pugh's brother, Deron, takes over the feud with Whisman. The two drive their wagons to opposite ends, throw them in reverse and slam each other, dead center, wayback to wayback. Both drivers bounce like crash-test dummies.
Moments later Deron Pugh blacks out, and Deaton, the closest judge, stops the action. The emergency squad runs out with the Jaws of Life, but the men can't cut Deron free, because there's a hidden axle welded into his roof supports. During the long delay the drivers get out of their cars and curse the fast track conditions. Sensing rebellion, fair officials have the fire department water the track again. After the restart (without the Pughs—Deron leaves on a body board, Shannon under sheriff's escort after someone accused him of illegal welding and he threw a fit), the derby looks like ice hockey in penny loafers. The cars slip and slide rather than bang and bounce. Still, the result is familiar: In the end four Hit Men, including Petro and Whisman, are left to gang up on one car.
But this time the outnumbered driver is the savvy veteran Wes Monebrake, who teamed with the Pughs during the rough early going. Monebrake keeps slipping away, Jackie Chan-style, and the Hit Men slam into each other. The few times Monebrake gets caught in what Zizelman calls "the good old hold 'em and hit 'em," he waits it out and powers away.