Schilp, an incoming junior at Patterson High School, engineered enough bone-rattling hits to win her six-car heat driving a 1976 Lincoln Town Car, and then earned top honors in the finals of the Destruction Derby II: Metal Mayhem, with a first-place showing in the all-female Powder Puff Derby.
“The experience was a little scary, but I just wanted to go out and have fun,” Schilp said. “I’ve been coming out to watch (the fair’s derby) for years, and it was a thrill to be able to compete. I’m already looking for a car for next year.”
Before monster truck rallies, super-motocross races and the X-Games grabbed viewers’ attention, there was that progenitor of all mud-splattered, high-testosterone sports — the destruction derby.
The road warrior-meets-Roman Coliseum smash-’em-up careered into the Food Maxx Arena in front of a sell-out crowd on Friday, July 13. The annual Destruction Derby I: Traditional Turmoil was among the most popular events during the first day of the 10-day fair, said Don Kelso, who organizes derbies throughout the area.
“It’s a happening thing in Stanislaus County,” Kelso said. “We have people who run for the money (in other derbies). But these guys are just having fun. These guys just come to crash.”
The requirements are simple. Drivers must be at least 16 years old, and seat belts and helmets are mandatory. And, of course, each participant must have a car — preferably with no Blue Book value.
Entries must be American-made hardtops, typically manufactured after 1965 with no modifications. The most sought-after cars are mid-1970s Chevrolet wagons and sedans, especially the solid-framed Impala.
Crashing is compulsory. Drivers must smash into another car every two minutes or face disqualification. Head-on crashes and intentional driver’s-side-door hits are typically illegal. Avoiding contact — called “sandbagging” — is an affront to the other drivers and is strictly forbidden. The last car still running wins.
“Once you get in the car and you’re seat-belted in, everything you’re worried about totally goes away,” said Albert Silva, a derby competitor from Denair. “You might get butterflies before you go out. Some people do, some people don’t. You know you’re going to get hit.”
The primary goal is to protect the car’s front end — the engine, radiator and carburetor — from damage. Strategy demands that drivers slam into each other tail first at full speed, aiming for axles and radiators.
The weather, the composition of the track, even the make and model of a car will determine how a race will be driven.
“Everybody thinks it’s pretty easy to just get in a derby car and go. But there’s skill involved,” Silva said. “And luck. Definitely you have to be lucky.”
For all the rules and regulations, the competitions quickly degenerate into a kind of automotive anarchy, with several tons of metal and rubber smashing together at combined speeds of more than 30 mph. Qualifying heats typically last about 10 minutes, and the final may linger a few minutes longer.
Among the 15-odd drivers assembled last week was Jason Yamamoto of Westley, an 11-year derby veteran.
“You definitely prepare the car as you need — just making a real durable car that you know is going to flex and move to your advantage,” said Yamamoto. “You’re getting into a car that you know can take on damage and give damage.”
Action and adrenaline
And then the time came.
“Gentlemen, jump-start your engines,” the derby announcer proclaimed.
Chaos followed. More than a dozen cars thundered off in every direction, blasting into each other’s fenders in a growing percussion of gut-thumping thuds.
To the crowd’s delight, the destruction began.
“It’s very exciting. There’s lots of noise, action,” said Tom Lehr, 36, of Modesto. “I want to go out there, jump in a car, be a driver.”
“It’s like a rush,” said Sam Bostic, who was flanked by his wife and children as he watched the show.
Soon, smoke billowed from engines; rubber tires were shredded down to steel wheels that squealed as the competitors squeezed every last inch from their dying machines. Sparks flew in all directions as torn-off metal scratched the pavement and the odor of burnt rubber filled the air.
“Now are you happy?” the announcer asked the fans. “You came here to see what you wanted to see. Now you have it.”
When the competition was over, the dirt course looked like a stretch of interstate after a fog-induced chain reaction. The broken and battered hulls of nearly 20 cars littered the field, with steam pouring from the cracked radiators of some and others listing in the direction of flattened tires or busted fenders.
Yamamoto, who drove a 1978 Chrysler Newport this year, finished third in his heat before transmission problems eliminated him in the finale.
The mayhem was sponsored by the Turlock Lions Club, which offered a $6,100 purse in total winnings, with $1,500 given to the last car running in the finals. Traditional sponsor Thompson Chevrolet of Patterson hosted the event.
Turlock residents swept the top three places Friday. Dan Hicks bulldozed his way to a fourth-place finish in his heat before taking top honors. Mark Cabral came away with a second-place overall finish, and Fred Neto Jr. claimed third.