Demolition Derby: My First Experience Driving in Crash Racing
Mud and Glory
I turned the ring on my finger, flashing with its eleven tiny diamonds. It was new, and still felt strange against my nerves. It glinted under the floodlights shining over the arena before me, flashing with cars in the September mist. The light looked diffused, and the cars glassy as the damp turned to drizzle.
As they raced in circles, crowding, backing, spinning tires, two cars nicked each other's headlight sockets, and the action paused as the flagmen declared it a head-on hit. One of the drivers, the offending fellow, broke the flag off the stick taped to his windshield frame, sneering in anger. The derby continued, but I had trouble paying attention, and afterward couldn't remember who won, because my husband-to-be was by my side, squeezing my newly ringed hand.
Just four months ago, he had been a virtual stranger, and three months ago, he had declared his interest in me with the gift of a car....
Subaru Derby Car
He had stood next to it, a black Subaru, while it sat on a trailer. I was in the driver's seat. He handed me a helmet through the windowframe, saying, "Here's your brain bucket."
I took it and strapped it on to make sure it fit well enough, then twisted and turned, as Will instructed, to make sure the seat belt hadn't been bolted too tight. It was alright; I could see all 'round me. I drew a deep breath, marveling at the fact that I was truly going to run with the big boys. No powder-puff wimping around for me.
I had watched the local demo derbies for the last two summers, rooting on the likes of "Mad Dog", # Double Ought, and "Psycho." The rev of a well-built engine aroused in me a burning for adventure, pulling at memories of my favorite drivers' victories, piled together with images of my father's shop roiling with blue smoke from yet another nearly-tuned engine, pulsing like a breathing animal, in my brother's eccentric truck. I had helped him rebuild several engines, and that pulse and revving meant fellowship.
So when Will had called a few nights after our first quiet date, saying he had a derby car looking for a driver, I had said yes, I would love to drive.
Now, not for the first time, the thought terrified me. I stared at the stick shift, remembering the 1955 farm truck that had been my training ground, and the memories got tangled up with emotions planted by Dad's hypersensitivity and constant, unreasonable yelling. I sighed. Anyway, a Subaru was a different animal than the truck.
Still, there was the matter of my physical condition, and fear slunk toward me again. Was this derbying really such a good idea? I had had lower back trouble throughout the summer - damages from working construction with my dad, and competing in feats of strength with my brother - and was just now getting back to a normal existence.
"Are you crazy?" my sister had asked when I told her over the phone about the car. "You just got your back fixed."
"I know," I'd said, shrugging. "But most of the time, people don't really get hurt in derbies. It just looks rough. It's not nearly as dangerous as bull-riding - or riding in Noah's truck, chasing coyotes, and drift busting!"
She laughed. "Yeah, you two have had some adventures, I've heard. Our brother doesn't have much respect for the rules of driving, does he?" She paused. "But you could barely walk a month ago, and it's not certain whether your back will stay fixed. So just don't do anything stupid, OK?"
"Don't worry," I told her, and felt her smile come though the line.
Now, Will leaned up to the car window again.
"Are you sure everything's alright? Once you go out there, I can't adjust anything."
"Everything seems good," I assured him, grinning.
Derby Debut and Bride-to-Be
Presently we were on our way to Ogallala, Nebraska, to debut my derby career. I found myself glancing across the old Chevy van at Will. He was greying, and I was nineteen. It seemed he really had chosen me. But why? Did he not realize that my back injuries made me no worthy lover, nor yet a wife? Yet he seemed undeterred.
Or was he toying with me? Was he just an old man looking for a young body? I would know soon enough.
I trembled a little, hoping I did not betray his seeming confidence in my potential with these thoughts. Already, he had given me this beyond-words gift of the chance to drive in a derby - hours and weeks of time put into the car; hundreds of dollars invested in making it competitive. All the stripping, welding, tweaking - it was the work of infatuation, and yes, it seemed, of love
We parked halfway down the pits, the Subaru unloaded without rebellion, and, trembling in my inexperience, I drove to the inspectors. They sent me away without comment, and Will and I perused our competition of eight other compact cars. Their drivers included the best from our county, and some of the very names I usually rooted for.
Two hours before show time, the skies began to leak, and bellowed fit to rival the derby cars. Will's nephew Clinton arrived, with a crew of five. I laughed covertly, thinking he would need them all. Clinton regularly set himself and everything else on fire, blew up engines, and made last-minute adjustments to his carburetor while in the start-up line, leaning far out through the windshield to do so. But his charisma and sheer good looks made up for his klutziness. His wife and two small children and I chatted amiably, and I watched this already-friend of mine to see what her opinion was of Will's chasing me. She held herself mum on the subject, but smiled twinklingly when Will and I secluded ourselves in his van, away from the rain, and left one of their crew without proper shelter. The crewman pounded pleadingly on the windows, but Will merely locked the doors and reached for my hand.
Half an hour before derby time, the rain still pounded. Clinton's crew and Will and I huddled like cattle for minutes at a time, watching the greening sky, and prognosticating. Would the officials cancel the competition? Fifteen minutes to line-up, the rainfall slowed. The sky showed a little yellow toward the south, then the rain stopped.
I climbed in through the windshield frame of the Subaru, settled next to the giant Bobcat battery, and drove into the line-up.
As I entered the arena, mud, exhaust, and glorious roaring filled my senses. My Subaru churned onto the track. A flagman stood pointing to a place between two other cars. Three times I tried to maneuver into it, and the car froze and died. Three times I cajoled it to life, under the flagman's unsympathetic gaze. Then I found myself staring behind me at the bonus flag planted in the slop at the center of the arena. I felt ready. But, slow to jump, I watched the flag topple under another bumper. No matter. My Subaru sprang to forward action, and my first hit came with a rush and a bash, then a fiercer jar as someone crushed in one of my rear wheel wells. I worked into reverse and went for another car. It escaped. "Keep going until your fenders scrape your tires," echoed Will's advice in my mind, "then use your front end. But we only have one radiator." A trip around the arena - another bash and victory. I felt dizzy as if delirious. Suddenly I was on the burm, someone doggedly hammering my flank. The mud held me prisoner, and I held my flag up in surrender, then sat back to watch the remainder of the battle. Almost in slow motion, the remaining three cars hammered and chased and scuttled through the mud, until one claimed the ultimate victory. It wasn't anyone I knew.
I saw Clinton near the center of the arena, dead in the water.
A loader towed me off the burm, out to where Clinton was crawling from under a geyser of oil spraying through a hole in his hood. He sprinted through the muck and sprang beast-like onto my hood, grinning.
"Well, how was it?" he rasped.
I relinquished myself to the stillness and adrenaline and damp black night. "Bliss!" I shouted.
He growled a laugh.
A loader towed my car, ill sounding, back to the pits, where Will waited with wide-flung arms. "Are you OK?" he asked, as I fell toward his embrace.
I nodded dizzily. "That was one of the best rushes of my life. I feel wonderful. That was better than buckin' horses."
"Good. Cause fifth out of those nine ain't bad," said Will.
As I rested against his heartbeat, I knew suddenly that I would marry him. Somehow, my back would mend, and I would be the wife he needed. We would work together, play together, and be lovers for life.
Those three months later, at the end of September, he proved he thought so, too, and we celebrated by going to the last derby of the season.
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© 2011 Joilene Rasmussen