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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

Gentlemen, wreck your engines

Running with the demolition derby

Andrew and Steven Carmean

Last Sunday was hot and muddy at the Sangamon County Fairgrounds. In a field behind one grandstand sat row upon row of wrecked cars: 71 V-8 rust buckets from Detroit's golden age, and 33 compacts with their doors and hoods wired shut.

All of the vehicles had their windshields removed; batteries and gas tanks were reconfigured to operate from inside the cars. Some of the larger autos drew fuel from the kind of gas cans used on motor boats. Holes were cut in the trunks and hoods to make it easier to put out any flames.

"We've got a two-fire rule," explained demolition-derby promoter Rodney Webb, as he yelled into a megaphone. "If you catch on fire, stay with your car and the firefighters will put it out. If you can get the car started again, you can go on running. But if you start on fire a second time, you're out."

The Webb family has been staging car races at county and state fairs all around the Midwest since 1946. Sometime in the 1950s they started staging demolition derbies. "And believe me," Webb says, "until this day the demolition derbies are the top spectator draw."

While most of us fear collisions, the drivers who showed up here search them out. They've spent the last few weekends patching together these beaters just for the chance to smash them up again. The majority are veterans of the circuit, competing in a string of county fairs every summer.

Steven Carmean, a meat packer from Jacksonville, estimates he's run in about 75 derbies. He's the only driver I've found who's actually been hurt, and that only happened because his helmet flew off and its strap slashed his face. He needed 22 stitches, and his wife, Angela, made him quit for a year. But now he's back, bringing his whole family along to watch him compete: Angela; their 12-year-old son, Andrew; 9-year-old daughter, Tiffany; and their one-week-old baby, Donald. Carmean's in the compact derby, driving a 1987 Olds Ferenza. The compact races started because the bigger cars--the Chevys, Buicks, and Cadillacs from the 1970s--are becoming rare birds and their parts are expensive. But most of the hard-core derby drivers still prefer these bigger cars: "The hitting's better," explains Josh Greene, a 16-year-old from Lincoln.

And that's the goal, say most of the drivers. Ask whether they've ever won a derby, and they'll just smile, as if you've missed the entire point. There's a $700 purse for the winner, but, as Webb tells the racers beforehand, "Destruction is what the demolition derby is all about--if you're not a good sport, you got no business being out there."

The good humor is evident in the slogans painted sloppily on the vehicles: "If you don't like me, hit me," says one. Another done up to look like a goofy squad car says, "DUI Enforcement." Some drivers are more earnest: "Jesus Saves."

The end of the day finds Steven Carmean in a good mood. Out of a field of 33 compacts, he'd finished tenth. At one point, he says, he might have actually won:

"It's kind of hard to tell when there's 33 cars banging away, but my car fared pretty well. Then it got hot and overheated; I ran over something, and my tire blew. My car is still in fairly good shape, though. I'll try to bang it back and run it somewhere else. Maybe I'll go to the Virginia fair--that gives me three weeks to get it all straightened out."