Mention contact sports, and most immediately reference American football, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, rugby, roller derby, or karate – contact is a major part of the game. Other sports qualify, too, like association football (soccer), field hockey, baseball, and NASCAR – contact happens.
Usually, contacting another racer in NASCAR or IROC might do more harm than good, but what if we just pulled out all the stops and went full-contact? The history is a little hazy, but one demolition derby origin story puts it exactly that way. Americans love a good crash, the one where everyone walks away safe, probably the reason we’ve been smashing things together for over a century.
A Reckless History of Demolition Derby
Crashing Steam Trains – From the 1890s through the 1930s, onlookers would watch a combined 800,000 pounds of boiling metal would splash together, head on, at a combined speed of upwards of 100 mph. Photo opportunities and shrapnel-souvenirs abound.
Crashing Old Cars – By the 1930s, some say, worn-out Model T Fords were being crashed into each other for spectator enjoyment at county fairs and racetracks. What better way to dispose of old cars?
Full-Contact Racing – One origin story puts the beginnings of demolition derby at Carrell Speedway, California, in the late 1940s. Speedway General Manager Don Basile hosted races where racers would indeed race but also try to disable other racers. Crowds loved it.
Crowds Love the Boom – Another origin story comes from the late 1950s at Islip Speedway, New York. Stock car racer Larry Mendelsohn came up with the idea when he saw how the spectators clamored for wrecks during legitimate racing.
The Spread of Demolition Derby
Demolition derby events became a popular fixture at racetracks, county fairs, and state fairs across the country, particularly through the 1960s. These would feature 10 to 50 cars at a time, everyone deliberately ramming everyone else, usually in mud. The object of the game was to disable everyone else without being disabled yourself. The last vehicle to run under its own power would be declared winner!
Demolition derby is most associated with county fairs, and mostly through the 1970s and 1980s, the peak of the sport’s popularity. Still, it did get its shot at the limelight. ABC Television’s Wide World of Sports broadcast the World Championship Demolition Derby from the 1960s through the early 1990s. In the late 1990s, TNN broadcast a modified derby, using a points system instead of last-car-running to fit into Motor Madness time slots (real-life derbies could last much longer).
Through the 2000s, demolition derby largely disappeared from broadcast television, but still features from time to time. Internet channels and cable channels occasionally run demolition derbies to this day, such as Spike TV’s Carpocalypse, a reality documentary, DerbyMadness.com, and occasional showings on The Speed Channel.
Today, we can still watch demolition derby events live or broadcast, though you might have to drive a bit to get to them. Of course, you could always get your own beater car and enter in a derby yourself! Why not change things up a bit and look for a demolition derby?