In 1958, on Long Island, New York, a stock-car driver named Larry Mendelsohn put his grim theory -- that most race enthusiasts are more interested in wrecks than in the winner's circle -- to the test. There had been earlier "full contact" races, but Mendelsohn was the first to organize and promote a "demolition derby" where daredevil drivers repeatedly smash into one another until only one wreck is still rolling. The derby was a hit, so to speak, and in the thrill-crazed 1970s, when Evel Knievel was all the rage, the demolition derby leaped off the dirt track and into the public consciousness, helped by a cliff-hanging two-part episode of Happy Days. (The Fonz and his old flame Pinky Tuscadero took on the wicked Mallachi brothers in a rubber-burning, steel-crushing, slamming, jamming fight to the finish.)
Now -- in the era of Battle Bots, extreme sports, monster trucks, and Monster Garage -- the demolition derby has gotten bigger, faster, and wilder, but it's still high-powered bumper cars for big boys out to win a little dough.
Lynn Henson started driving in demolition derbies when he was a teenager in the 1960s. Three years ago, he gave up driving and became a promoter. His main event, the Mid-South Championships, will be held Saturday at the Tunica Arena and Exposition Center. It is one of the largest indoor smash-'em-ups on the circuit.
Flyer: How did you get involved promoting demolition derbies?
Lynn Henson: Where I lived in Arkansas, the county fair started having a good demolition derby. I got involved back in the late 1960s, when I was 12 or 13. There haven't been a whole lot of demolition derbies in [northern Mississippi], but since I was still participating in them and [Tunica] had gotten a new arena, it seemed like a good time to start something. And it took off right away.
Is demolition derby the same sport it was in the '60s?
It's become a huge sport. You can pretty much run in a demolition derby somewhere on any weekend. And the purses have gotten huge. Ours is a total of $15,000. First place in the stock cars pays seven grand. It's good family entertainment. You see people there of all ages. There are even drivers in their 60s and 70s. Just like a lot of other sports, once you get a taste for it, you get addicted to it. It's sort of like the professional wrestling of motor sports. It is the wrestling of motor sports. You have grudge matches. You've got good guys and bad guys, and there are teams. You're out to destroy your competition.
Are you a good guy or a bad guy?
Well, I don't play at all anymore. But I always played with the good guys. I played by the rules and built the cars the way they were supposed to be built and had a lot of fun. But there are surely bad guys, and we'll have some this weekend.
What do the bad guys do to get an edge?
They do what we call "loading" or "tricking" the frame where they add metal to the frame so it won't bend. They'll take three fenders, press them together, and make the fender 10 times stronger. Years ago, guys would get an old car that would halfway run and kick the glass out, and that was it. Now these cars are actually built. And they are built to knock the rear axles off -- to knock the wheels off of another car. Once you cripple a car, you can take them on down.
How long before we see cars with buzz saws and robot arms designed to smash the competition?
That could be a possibility. Now that I'm a promoter, we're looking every year for something new the crowd will enjoy. There are some things we're going to try next year.
Building cars just to wreck them has to be expensive.
It's not expensive once you've got your engines, transmissions, and rear-ends built. You can buy old bodies for between $50 and $300. You just keep moving your engine from body to body. Anybody can get into this for $1,000 and take a shot at winning $7,000.
Well, it's got to be dangerous.
Not really. I think the worst thing I've ever seen is a broken finger. You'll see these cars get rolled, and the driver just hops right out. And we just wear regular seatbelts. We don't even wear shoulder straps, because we have to spend so much time looking backward. n
Mid-South Championship Demolition Derby: October 9th, 6 p.m. at the Tunica Arena and Exposition Center. Adults, $15; children 3-9, $10; children under 3, free.