One by one the Hit Men fall, till it comes down to Petro and Monebrake. Petro, on three wheels now and with his transmission smoking, knows his car is too beat-up to chance it in the open, where a fresher, faster Monebrake could waste his wagon in one shot. So he hides amid the wreckage, dodging Monebrake in a peekaboo duel at parking-lot speed. It's a fascinating matchup of strategies: Monebrake, deprived of his speed, aims at Petro's wheels to break an axle, and Petro takes shots at Monebrake's midsection, hoping to disable the engine's electrical system. But after a long struggle Petro pays the price for his slowdown defense: His gas runs out.
As for the Pughs, both feel fine by the next morning. Three weeks later they drive in a Dayton derby. Shannon wins.
HOMETOWN DERBY WARS
MERCER COUNTY FAIR, CELINA
But first a beer break. And after you open that cold one, pop the hood of your car. (It would help if you could take out the engine too.) Now observe the many natural cup holders—not just on top of the fender but on the cowl of the wheel well, across that core support. Beer just goes with derbying. Not during the derby itself (no, that would be illegal), but just about any other time: during the wee-hours welding, the afternoon parts run, the weekend tuning. Sometimes you might even throw a couple of cases into your truck and just drive around town, seeing who's doing what to his derby car. People work all hours.
Zizelman, a Budweiser man, sure does. "You see people's shops," he says, "and you know it's a poor man's sport." Pure bluster: Ziz's garage is a derby temple, with a herd of Chevy wagons from Georgia and Alabama, a cluster of trophies resting on a hood, a lending library of Chevy small-block engines along the wall, his Sunday derby car up on a hoist, and enough welding apparatus to build a small aircraft carrier. "That's pretty weird," he says with a grin. "I have the most welding equipment, and you're not allowed to weld."
Ziz thrives on the gamesmanship in demolition derby. He's a big guy with a basso chuckle, full of bully bonhomie, and he admits that he "likes to stir up havoc." Even his friends seem wary in his presence. This can help: At Metal Mayhem, a stock derby in June, the other drivers were so busy worrying about Ziz that they didn't notice he lost his steering halfway through the feature. By calculating his caroms and protecting the middle of the track, Ziz managed to win the first-place $15,000 paycheck. That's high-impact bluffing.
Ziz's skill at mind games keeps people guessing in Celina, where the hometown derby is a year-round obsession. Couples watch derby tapes on double dates, and everybody seems to know whose dad built him a new shifter and who's driving with whose rear end. Speculating about what Ziz is up to is a favorite local pastime.
When Ziz hears that a reporter is going to visit his archrival and former buddy, Trent Braun, he mentions that he dated Trent's wife, Jeanelle, in high school. "Whoa, he brings that up," Trent says, laughing. "We weren't going to get into that." But when he hears that Ziz also claimed to have taught Jeanelle how to drive, Trent's mood turns ugly. Jeanelle says she has no idea what Ziz could be referring to.
Jeanelle drives in the Celina derby too. ("I actually won a derby when I was pregnant with Joey and we didn't know it," she says.) Unlike Zizelman, who derbies everywhere and builds a lot of cars, the Brauns run only in Celina. Trent builds two identical hard black wagons, number 13 for her, 31 for him. They make a cute couple, the sort that goes off-roading in the mud on their first date. The day before the derby they test their cars, doing doughnuts around each other in a dusty field. They look fearless and athletic and romantic, like ice dancers.
On derby night the Brauns and Ziz get through the heats and make the feature, as they have for years. Before the countdown Ziz and Trent take positions at opposite ends of the track. When the action starts, it's as if the two men are in their own private derby, and the other drivers steer clear of them. Ziz Bajas straight at Trent, bouncing full bore over the ripped-up derby field, and Trent honors their annual appointment, racing toward Ziz with no letup. A crash is inevitable, and everybody in Celina tunes in: This is choice gossip at road-rage speed. The two men hit, as they say in the sport, ass-end to ass-end, and the front wheels on both wagons leave the ground. Ziz gets the worst of it, but he backs up and hits Trent again—Ziz's car crumpling, in his opinion, way more than it should in a collision with a legal car. Moments later Ziz's drive-train snaps, and he's through.