SI Vault
Kevin Conley
November 11, 2002
For nasty rivalries, earsplitting noise and bone-rattling collisions, nothing beats the mud-caked, low-staked, high-speed, steel-and-horsepower free-for-alls of demolition derby
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November 11, 2002

Crash Course

For nasty rivalries, earsplitting noise and bone-rattling collisions, nothing beats the mud-caked, low-staked, high-speed, steel-and-horsepower free-for-alls of demolition derby

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Here are the directions you'll need to find the best demolition derby drivers: "Go about four or five miles; there's a dairy farm and a church. Take a right. It's the first house after the stop sign. You'll see cars and a backhoe." And "Not to be mean or anything, but there's a junky house on the corner, and we're the second one after that." Or simply, "Go straight through town. If you cross the railroad tracks, you've gone too far. You'll know you're in the right place when you see all the cars." � You drive on straight and flat two-lane highways between one-sign towns (Dadsville, Germantown, Gratis). The land on either side is green and open, the miles of soybeans, sod farms and corn interrupted by the occasional quarry or salvage yard or state reformatory for women. Wherever you're going, you've probably still got a ways to go. Everything in this part of the world seems to be an hour and 10 minutes from everything else—or, as the old-timers say, "a 12-pack away." � But let's face it. You can think only so long about soybeans. The road's empty. You floor it.

You're not the first. The pavement in front of many farm turnoffs is tattooed with black snakes: 40-yard-long side-by-side ess patches of barely controlled acceleration off a dead stop, or burnouts. The city may be full of cars, but it's the country that's full of drivers, and these marks on the road are signs of practice sessions off to a rip-roaring start. The marks say "bye, Ma" and "beware" and "arrest me" all at once. One driver—O.K., the driver, Scott (Ziz) Zizelman of Celina, Ohio, the 1999 DENT (Demolition Events National Tour) champion—says that as a young man he used to put on a new set of tires just to bald them, completely wearing out the treads in a few hours of tricks and burnouts on a Friday night.

"We used to take cars out and Baja [off-road wildly] through the fields," Ziz says. Or he'd do doughnuts, five or six of them in a row, in the middle of an intersection. Or—and this is where he and his gang separate themselves from the mere race-car enthusiasts he calls roundee-rounders—"we drove into bridge abutments," he says, "just to see what would happen."

This smash-it-yourself brand of intellectual curiosity is the mark of a demolition derby driver and the sure sign of an Ohio driver in particular. Out here they fix it so cars improve with contact—so a couple of good hits at the start of a derby help wad up the car's rear end to fully weaponize it. " Ohio county fairs, especially in the southwest or mid-central region, they're your hammer shows," says Todd Dub�, the president of DENT. Dub� knows Buckeyes: 60% of the starters at this year's national championship, and four of the top five (including first, second and third), were Ohio drivers. As Zizelman puts it, "This whole area is pretty derby-warped."

Smashing the family car is wholesome entertainment out here, and the demolition derby is always a county fair's hottest ticket, outselling other events such as tractor pulls, monster-truck shows and even Garth Brooks concerts. Of course, smashing the family car is even more entertaining when there's family in it. Jeff Clark Jr., who edged Zizelman to become this year's DENT champion, says the day his mom beat him at the Morrow County Fair was the proudest moment of his derbying career: "I asked Dad before I went into the feature, 'How do I beat Mom?' And he said, 'Well, hit her as fast as you can in the ass with your front end.' So it came down to three cars, and there was a fire, and I was clear down at one end, and she was clear at the other. So I hit her as fast as I could go."

Jeff Sr., winner of more than 100 county-fair features before he lost his leg in a truck accident, smiles at the memory. "It just pissed her off," he says.

"It didn't put a dent in her wagon," says Jeff Jr., who's known as Fatty, putting an arm around his mother, Alice. "And man, she just let me have it after that. Everybody throws it in my face that my mom beat me. But I don't care. The crowd loved it."


Derby driving rules are pretty simple: no driver's-door hits; a minimum of one hit per minute required of every car; last car running wins. But before you get to drive, your car has to pass inspection, and that's not so simple. Old-timers talk fondly of the days when all you had to do was kick out the windows and go. "Back when I started," Jeff Clark Sr. says, "if I bought a car for 15 bucks and it ran, we derbied it. That's when derbies was derbies." But later in the conversation he gives a sneaky, smoky, profane little laugh that tells a different story. "You do half the s—- we did then now" he says, "and you'd end up in jail."

That is why, on the day of the show, a brain trust of derby mechanics gathers on the infield lawn to look over, and under, the cars. Mostly the inspectors perform safety checks: Doors must be wired shut so drivers don't fly out; holes must be cut into the hood so the fire crew can put out engine fires; and so on. But whenever a trophy-level driver checks in with a well-built car, the inspection crew—all veteran drivers with their own mechanical secrets—gets excited. As one inspector says, "It takes a cheater to know a cheater."

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