Nothing Says Good Wholesome Family Fun Like a Demolition Derby

Demolition Derby at 2010 Cummington Fair in Cummington, MA

I’m not a gear head. I’m not into monster trucks or auto races. But for the past few years, my husband and I have taken our kids (now ages 2, 4 and 6) to a real honest-to-goodness country fair,  complete with oversized pumpkins, livestock, pie tasting contests, antique cars, carnival rides, candy apples, and of course, the demolition derby.

A demolition derby, for those who don’t know, is a contest of guts, skill, and probably a little bit of stupidity, where 8-ish drivers of totally junky cars battle it out in a fairly small, jersey-barrier-enclosed “arena”. Firefighters and EMTs are on hand “just in case”, and the spectacle attracts a huge crowd.

I sometimes still find it oddly quirky that my family and I are so drawn to the demolition derby. Because, well, I don’t seem like the type.

Watching the derby this time, I found myself amused by the culture of the event, the “successful techniques” and some of the rules of the contest.


The cars were entering the arena one at a time, with a noticeable pause between each car coming in. The announcer explained that the pause was for a “safety check” where an official was making sure that the drivers had seat belts securely fastened, helmets on and safety glasses in place. “Safety is our most important concern,” the announcer said.

I couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly at the irony of that statement. Yes. I don’t doubt that seat belts, headgear and protective eyewear would be important. But I felt like he might was well be saying they were checking to make sure everyone had their shoelaces tied tightly. And with double-knots.

I mean, when they get going, they are ramming into each other.


The most effective technique for demolition derbying is to protect your engine by trying to avoid having other drivers smash the front end of your car. At the same time, you use the rear end of your own car as a battering ram, driving in REVERSE to hit the cars of your opponents.

So picture it. It’s a bunch of junky, battered cars, with spray-painted-on numbers, brokenly lumbering around in a potholed, churned-up-dirt-used-to-be-grass arena. They look like old granny cars driving backwards into each other. You can see why it’s a spectacle.


I learn something new every time. Last night, one of the car’s engine caught fire. (I admired the swift action of the officials and emergency crew. Air horn blown instantly. All competitors stopped on a dime. Firefighters pulled the driver out. Engine fire doused in an eye blink.)

What I didn’t know is that the derby rule says that if you have an engine fire, then once it’s put out, you can decide to keep competing. If you can get your, now soaked, engine to fire up again, you’re back in the game. But… if your engine catches fire a second time? You’re out.


When a car is out — be it because the engine caught fire twice, or because the car just won’t go anymore, or because the driver hasn’t hit anyone in the past 60-seconds which is another rule of the contest — then the driver is to remain in his or her vehicle and just stay put.

The drivers who are still competing are NOT to hit cars that are out. An accidental bump will be overlooked. But too many accidental bumps or a deliberate hit and THEY are out. So the cars that are still in are quite good at avoiding the “still” cars. They seem to politely go around them… and then ram somebody else.


I talked about how the drivers use the rear end of their car as a battering ram (to protect the engine). Well, another characteristic of the successful derby car is that it’s front-wheel-drive. In fact, often the rear wheels tend to end up non-operational from all the ramming.

I think the goofiest set of rear wheels we saw was on a car where the back right tire was sticking out to the side, perpendicular to the car, waving and bouncing, but hanging on somehow. Amazing that this car was still going.

… And speaking of wheels, in one car, the driver started out with steering wheel on the usual, LEFT, side of the car. But by halfway through, the steering wheel (and the driver) were both on the right side of the front seat and still going. Ridiculous and amazing!


I’ve described things that strike me as utterly silly. But somehow I also find this event to be entirely captivating with its antics. I’ll close by saying that one cool thing about the demolition derby is the spirit of the contest. The participants all play by the rules. They know if there’s dirty play, they’re out.

The players also seem to be good sports. Everyone wants to win it. But, I’ve even seen a contestant give a competitor a push out of some rough terrain so they could get going again when a car “went down early”.

And the crowd may have favorites, but they seem to appreciate all the participants. Almost gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Will I go again next year?

You bet.


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