MOUNTAIN SPRINGS ARENA
Mountain Spring’s Arena Demolition Derby
(A version of this article apeared in the current issue of Pennsylvania Magazine www.pa-mag.com)
A dozen cars move out onto the Mountain Springs dirt arena and position themselves in the far corners of the oval track. The loudspeaker booms, “Let’s count them down. 3-2-1 WRECK ‘EM!” The cars are all throw into reverse gear for the sole purpose of smashing into one another. The wheels scream and spit out smoke and there’s a horrific clashing of metal.
The crowd goes crazy expressing loud “Ohhh’s!” with every collision.
The drivers move forward and throw the vehicle into reverse again and again, aiming for a buddy. And I stand there with my mouth gaping open, finding it difficult to believe what I am watching.
“There is something very wrong about smashing on purpose,” my friend beside me shares, as if this were gladiator fights or early Christian lion-feedings or bullfights.
I had heard about the Mountain Springs Demolition Derbies for years but never attended and never felt the desire to…until I received this assignment. Already I am glad to be here. This is one of those experiences that you need to have in life, if nothing else as a reference point and a little insight into our American cultural pastimes.
One by one, the vehicles “die.” They don’t give up easily but go down hissing up steam and smoke from the spewing liquids sizzling over the engines. Some catch on fire and the announcer yells, “SHUT THEM DOWN! SHUT THEM DOWN! YOU’RE ON FIRE!” And the firemen that are standing watch race to the rescue with fire extinguishers. Sometimes the tires fall off but the cars run on the rims, shooting exciting looking sparks and more smoke and flying dirt. If you take a glance around the crowd, all spectators are staring, captivated, mouths open wide, bright eyes. For these few hours, they have left the troubles and cares of their own lives behind. That’s’ worth it alone.
There are multiple categories: Compact cars, 80’s & Newer, Limited Weld or Outlaws. In between each heat, a farm tractor comes in to attach chains to haul the dead vehicles out and up onto a flat bed. This procedure takes even longer than the actual smashing, although even this is interesting to watch.
Before the derby began, I got a pass to get into the “pit,” which is really a large lot where the drivers group together. You can mingle and chat it up with the drivers, ask them questions and study their vehicles up close. A feeling of pride exudes from each one and they are happy to explain their “works of art.”
Some have been involved with this “sport” for decades; others, only a few years. Some are so young they look like they just sprouted facial hair. The old timers are now the mechanics or the ones who buy the cars for the drivers.
Mike Aldinger, a supply tech at the Lehigh Valley Hospital, is driving a conversion van tonight in the 80”s & Newer Heat. In its previous life, the van was the a family wheels, transporting their rug rats to school, sports events, and many family vacations. Aldinger painted a Snoopy on the side and has made other changes that have taken place to make it wrecking worthy. They are excited to see it demolished tonight- a fine way to end its life. Strange, that wrecking brings so much joy to someone’s life.
Wrecking, to some of these guys, goes back to their childhood, when they did some serious damage to their hot wheels cars. They just grew up and began doing it at places like Mountain Springs Demolition Derby as grown-ups, only rules and regs.
Bill Gardener has been smashing for 11 years. When I asked him why, he replies,
“Because I don’t play golf.” Fair enough. These colorful guys, with their cut off sleeveless denim shirts to show off their tatooes, don’t seem the type to stroll the greens with their polos and chinos. One driver quickly unbuttoned his shirt all the way open when he saw me approach with my huge professional camera and notepad, to make sure I took notice to his chest pelt.
Mike Morse has a car in the Outlaw Division. You can have the most flexibility and creativity in this division, although the safety rules are stricter. You are allowed unlimited welding. That means you can attach whatever hunk of metal to make the car more like a Batmobile and much more indestructible than a normal car. More steel means stiffer frames, better ramming ability and the ability to withstand smashes. Mike’s car has up to 6,000 pounds of metal attached to it. It looks like hitting it would be similar to ramming a tank.
A driver’s personality can show off on the paint jobs too, like white skulls and cross bones painted on a black background. The words “Thanks Pop” written on a roof illustrates where the driver’s heart is.
When I ask WHY these guys do this, (my favorite question as a reporter) I get very similar answers.
“I love the rush.”
“It’s an addiction.”
You certainly could be addicted and rushing over more dangerous and unhealthy things in life.
Mike Aldinger explains his strategy on the demolition “field.” And I’m not surprised that they indeed have one. At least the ones who have winning consecutively, like Mike.
“I like to take “full court shots.” That means he begins all the way back in the corner, takes a runny, gains speed and hits hard. None of these short jabs at close range. That’s like a love tap.
Dyllon Kissinger likes to “save it towards the end and then put it flat to the floor. I’m not here to putz around,” he says.
They are out on the playing field for roughly 20-30 minutes. It all happens very quickly. Some of these guys dump $800 into a car and it has one day of its life (as a demolition derbiest). That’s a short lifespan. The Outlaws seem to go and go, however, for they are built so tough .
Most guys wear helmets. You get jarred a lot. I would imagine this sport could produce some head trauma and neck whiplash. On driver exits his vehicle after the heat is over wearing a neck and leg brace.
There are strict rules in the Demolition Derby. In the 80’s and Newer heat, chains wrap around doors, hoods, trucks. The gas tank must be moved into the back seat and the battery attached to the front passenger floor board. The Outlaw division must have safety additions like an attached inside door bar, and reinforcement added to the driver’s door. A cage around the driver and batteries is highly recommended.
Today, it’s more difficult to find the nice big older cars from the 60’s-70’s that work well in a demolition derby. After the government started offering “cash for clunkers,” many were no longer available. Plus, with high scrap metal prices, they are worth more.
The Outlaw heat is the last one of the evening. Only three cars compete. One particularly sinister looking car has its rear end sculpted into a long low point. It LOOKS evil. This design attacks the other cars right at their wheel height- slicing off tires and destroying their ability to move. This event goes on for a long time for the casual ramming seems to do nothing, for these cars are built like tanks. You can’t even see dents appear like you can in the other heats when they collide.
Drivers must stay in the car with helmet on and seatbelt fastened until the event is over.
You cannot play possum. If a car is dead and not moving after 60 seconds, it is disqualified. You cannot hide or stay out of the action either. That merits disqualification. Aggressive ramming behavior is not only encouraged but required.
The Outlaw cars throw huge clods of mud way up into the stands. This sets off an even louder string of “Ohhh’s” from the fans as they duck and hide behind the person in front of them in the bleachers. But they are loving it.
When the final winner is announced (the car with the long metal point ), the guys climb out of their vehicles to congratulate one another. They told me earlier in the pit, “If you can ram someone over and over but then shake their hand and even embrace them afterwards, that is good sportsmanship.”
We can all stand to learn a little more of that in life.
You certainly don’t need to be a motor head to enjoy this and I doubt that I will make attending the derbies a habit. But it never ceases to amaze me how many thousands of sub culture groups there are like this, in just America alone; where something so strange and foreign (at least to some of us) like smashing vehicles ON PURPOSE brings such tremendous happiness to an individual. And, to have a whole tribe of these comrades that share this obsession is remarkable, and their good fortune. It keeps them off the streets too, for they equate this pastime as “wheeled bull riding or off-road rage!”