An air horn calls the demolition derby to a halt, as firefighters dash across the Brockton Fair's muddy track and shove an extinguisher under the hood of one of the banged-up cars. It's a small fire, quickly doused, and the action soon continues, but not for John Francis Jr., whose late '90s Mercury Sable wagon's back, front, and sides are already caved in by collisions. "I lost reverse, couldn't turn right," the 21 year old from Randolph says afterward as the Sable, with its left rear wheel bent at an uncomfortable angle, is winched onto the back of a tow truck. "Then I lost the starter and the battery. Everything went wrong all at once."
It's a warm July evening as people in T-shirts and shorts crowd the grandstands overlooking the dirt track, ringed with jersey barriers and wet down to prevent cars from getting too fast. Dangerously fast. Yes, the thrill of demolition derbies is the multi-car pile-ups and, especially, when a car gets up a head of steam crossing from one side of the track to the other and wallops another vehicle. But so much of this survival-of-the-fittest competition, in which the winner is the last vehicle moving, is about failure.
Perhaps that is why demolition derbies seem like the perfect metaphor for our times.
Demolition derbies originated somewhere in the mid 20th century, tapping into two primal American passions: cars and destruction. They are legion in New England, particularly in Massachusetts (there's a big one this weekend at the Marshfield Fair). But in this season of great financial failure, when even Detroit auto makers are begging for handouts, demo derbies can feel like a symbolic re-enactment of our large societal breakdown. When all this economic destruction has been wreaked upon us and feels out of our control, demo derbies offer the cathartic satisfaction of fucking some shit up ourselves.
Even still, while demo derbies can seem like a renegade pursuit, it's actually a family sport — mostly local mechanics and auto-body guys and tow-truck drivers, and their kids. Other relatives watch from the stands. At the Brockton Fair's derby, which is organized by Lynch's Towing, many of the drivers are following a long-standing tradition. "My dad does it," notes Jenn Mann, 32, of East Bridgewater, who has been smashing cars in demo derbies since she was 16. "My grandfather used to do it. My boyfriend does it. My brother. Hopefully I'll pass the tradition down. I have a seven year old and she thinks she's a derby girl already."Speed and the big bang
By the time the fourth heat gets going, the sun has set and big spotlights illuminate the track. Soon eight of the original 10 autos are kaput — including Mann's '94 Ford Crown Victoria. Butch Epick of Brockton, in a 1992 Crown Vic, rounds one of the dead cars, and accelerates across the muddy field, straight toward a white, pink, and red 1996 Cadillac DeVille with "ouch" painted across the hood, his sole remaining competition.
"I saw one guy moving and I figured that was the guy," says Epick. It's a go-for-broke shot because, at that point, he has no reverse.