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Crash! The History of Demolition Derby

demolition derbyAuto racing has been around since the first horseless carriage pulled up next to a horse-drawn carriage. Demolition derbies are an entirely different breed of motorsport, and their history is shrouded in the pre-internet, pre-national news days, but we will try and shed some light on the subject.

The commonly accepted history is that 28-year old Larry Mendelsohn had an idea to enhance spectator interest during a 1958 stock car race. Mendelsohn noticed how some viewers only came for the wrecks, so he came up with a way to show them a race of just wrecks. Thus, the demolition derby was born in the late ‘50s, and spread throughout the country, and the world.

There’s just one problem, and it’s from Merriam-Webster. The 1953 dictionary had an entry for demolition derby, and it is the modern interpretation, of old cars slamming into each other until one survivor claims victory. In order for this entry to be in the dictionary in ‘53, it had to be in fairly common use for several years. This means derbies started in the 1940s at the latest.

Car demolition derbyHowever, due to the lack of centralized national news, a search involves local papers. One name that comes up with early derbies is Don Basile. Don was an event promoter for auto racing, and is generally credited with creating “banger racing.” He rigged the cars to take serious damage at the slightest hit, with parts flying off when there should have been only a scratch. The wrecking/racing was different from today’s derby, but after the race, the contestants would have a traditional derby to finish off the wrecked race cars. This could have been the true start of demo derbies, or have been lifted from earlier examples.

Evidence pointing to earlier derbies is thin, but the logic is there. The Ford Model T was cranked out in such numbers that the price of a new car eventually fell to under $300. With 15 million produced, a barely running Model T would have been essentially worthless. At which point teenagers get their hands on them, and the first logical thing they think of is to ram them together. Sure, that’s reaching, but the numbers support it. Also, in the 19th century, spectators could pay to attend events where obsolete steam locomotives were crashed at full speed, so maybe humans have always wanted to see metal get bent.

Regardless of origin, the demolition derby grew into a national phenomenon in the ‘60s, and could be found across the country at state and county fairs, as well as between heats at stock car races. With Detroit cranking out large numbers of huge cars year after year, the used market offered tons (literally) of suitable derby champions. By the 70s, ABC’s Wide World of Sports showed national coverage, and even professional racers wanted in. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and Bobby and Al Unser all participated in a live derby in 1972. And then there’s Happy Days, whose recurring Pinky Tuscadero character was a demolition derby driver. Derbies had entered the modern age.

With ‘60s iron now considered classic and too valuable or rare to compete, the derby crowd has switched to today’s dispensable car, the compact. Front-wheel drive and four cylinders are common these days, and with the drivetrain all up front, that means the hits and carnage to the rear of the vehicle can be massive, yet the car still competes. While the derby scene has changed over the decades, we’re like those 19th century folk that just want to see a wreck. Which means demolition derbies are here to stay.

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