Travel: Voters Get the Demolition Derby They Deserve

By | March 21, 2019

A five-minute read.

[Todd’s note: I wrote this piece a year-and-half ago. I have periodically submitted it and choked down the rejections. Fine, I’m used to that. But then in February of 2019 Wisconsin suffered the embarrassing news that the FoxConn plant near Beloit decided it wouldn’t be needing any local employees after all, but thanks for all your money anyway. That report, and the tie-in to the Badger State’s crumbling infrastructure, rendered part of this essay 180 degrees wrong. I decided the essay as a whole wasn’t good enough to merit the effort of re-jigging the now-erroneous bits. So here it is, self-published. And ironically, I find the middle bit funnier now that Wisconsin has proven me so naive.]

The 10-day Illinois State Fair wrapped up with “Redneck Weekend”. The demolition derby on Saturday night probably inspired the label, though the headliner across the fairground that evening was a heavy metal band who might also bear some responsibility. I was at the fair with my seven-year-old son, so we took a pass on the musical stylings of “Five Finger Death Punch”, and went to the derby instead.

As a warm-up to the main event, 50 youngsters saddled up in little Power Wheels cars and competed in their own mini-derby. It was slow and boring, but also a shrewd move by the organizers. A beat-up 1990 Buick Electra with a shark fin taped to the roof wouldn’t ordinarily look intimidating, but the contrast with the children’s innocence, aided by the revving of an unmuffled engine, gave it an air of menace. The Buick had my attention.

The announcer called the adult contestants to the line and I had that first guilty tingle – similar to what the Roman plebeians must have felt when they watched the lions pacing back and forth in the coliseum, waiting for dinner to be served. The drivers skidded through the watered-down infield to the start. Engines in need of lozenges roared. The announcer counted down. The green flag waved and seconds later my senses were overwhelmed by the endorphin rush from hearing the first metal-on-metal collision.

Witnessing the destruction of that most sacred of taboos – that cars must never touch – was exhilarating. With every crushing impact, and no subsequent exchange of insurance information, my primal desires only grew stronger. Steam and smoke wafted across the field. I smelled the burning engine parts, and breathed deeply. The crowd cheered louder when a car found room to accelerate and take a victim unawares. Never once did I hear anyone waste breath on “That was a pretty hard shot to the driver-side door. Do you think he’s okay?” We had blood lust.

~

The last demolition derby I attended was several years ago, in Wisconsin. There, the cars attacked in reverse, to protect the engine. Here in Illinois, head-on was the charge of choice. I spoke to one of the drivers afterwards and asked him about that. He agreed that driving forward puts the engine at risk. “But,” he continued, “you can’t direct the same force into your opponent’s car using your back end. First off, the back end usually has more surface area, so the energy of the impact is diffuse. Also, at contact, the attacking car tends to rise up in the air a little, which makes the strike much weaker. If I go in forwards, my car stays down and, with less surface area, creates a more focused point of pressure.” Then he smiled and added, “I just hope I don’t wreck my own engine when I’m doing it.”

Who would have thought Redneck Weekend required so much physics? But his explanation made sense in another way. In Wisconsin, the competitors used tactics designed to keep them viable for as long as possible, whereas in Illinois the drivers didn’t plan for a future beyond the next ten seconds; they just assumed that everything would somehow turn out okay. In an eerie parallel: Wisconsin’s state finances are solid, here in Illinois, less so. It’s an open question why each state’s legislators approach the budgeting process with the same tactics as its demolition derbyists.

~

Some of the drivers decorated their cars, but most just spray-painted their numbers on the door. While lining up for the third heat, car #45 got a chuckle out of the announcer. The driver had added “Trump” next to the 45 (Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States, for anyone not counting).

Still laughing, the announcer asked, “Do we have any Trump fans out there tonight?” He got a tepid response. The crowd’s exhaustion for politics was palpable. For both the pro- and anti-Trumpets, this arena, with its 90 drivers hell-bent on reducing their competitors to motionless hunks of twisted and smoldering metal, was supposed to be a safe space, from politics. I think the announcer realized his transgression, and didn’t mention it again.

Meanwhile, I watched #45 take his position on the start line. It occurred to me that, while the driver certainly could be a Trump supporter, it was also possible that he had chosen the name ironically. I considered the following analogy: if I were to buy an old, ugly car, paint my wife’s name on it, and then bang it into 29 other cars until it didn’t run any more, all while a crowd cheered me on, I would be, as they say, in trouble. So I’m not sure christening the car “Trump” was a clear sign of reverence.

Trump the car did pretty well. Of the 30 cars in his heat, only eight of them were still in contention when he conked out. He sat motionless on the infield, along with the 21 other vanquished, while the survivors battled on.

Two minutes later the referees were furiously waving red flags, bringing the competition to a temporary halt. Trump’s engine had burst into flame. Firefighters drove onto the infield and extinguished the fire. Then, for everyone’s safety, a forklift arrived and carted off the battered and smoldering wreck bearing the President’s name. So, again, whether the driver meant it sincerely or not, naming a demolition derby car after a president (or a spouse, presumably, though I’m not going to test my hypothesis) is not particularly flattering.

~

After three hours of mayhem my son and I left. When only a few cars remain in a given heat, the survivors are pretty beat up and can’t get going fast enough to do a lot of damage in one shot, so the rounds drag on for a bit. We walked back to our car happily recounting the evening’s highlights. Then, while maneuvering in the irritatingly tight parking lot, and still chatting with my son about some of the great hits we had seen that evening, I had to remind myself that out here, despite how satisfying it would feel, plowing my car into another would mean the exchange of insurance information. Grudgingly, I followed Wisconsin’s lead and pulled – slow, crash-free, and rear-end first – out of the parking lot.

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