Checkered flag waving, an airhorn pierced the dust as dozens of brightly colored customized cars, part of the 2019 Rutland Summer Smash demolition derby, lined up, bumper to bumper, before the mud-covered battle ring.
“It’s all about bragging rights,” said 15-year veteran driver Kyle Bianci.
Before the derby began, the ashes of Christopher Guyette, who died in an October 2018 motorcycle accident and harbored a deep love for demolition derbies, were sprinkled in the arena as the crowd cheered for their longtime friend.
And then, the most fearsome bunch of them all took to the mud-covered stage in their electric jeeps and custom punch-buggies: the future derby drivers, ages 3 to 8.
Seven-year-old Juliana Hill rolled up in her black Jeep with bright purple accents, ready to clash with as many titans as she could in her self-modified custom electric car that she salvaged from last year.
“This is her second,” said Juliana’s mom, Jill Hill. “Last year when she did her first one, she started running into our cars. ... She lasted the whole time.”
Dozens of cars, from tricked-out derby cars to minivans with the bumpers torn off sat parked outside the track, each with custom-designed colors, spray-painted symbols and the names of family or friends. Messages included “Don’t Tread On Me” or simply a straightforward command: “Hit Me.”
“It’s peoples’ beliefs,” said event field superintendent and former derby driver Mia Hendricks. “Ours was a ‘cancer-sucks’ theme, because the guy who was our sponsor had cancer.”
The community of derby drivers — some who hailed all the way from New Jersey — were fiercely proud of their hits and victories, and many revisited the rivalries they formed year after year.
“They weld bumpers, slide steel in the core support, they put bar stock underneath to make the front end stronger,” said Ralph Meisner, inspector for Woodbooger Demolition Derby, who has been running demolition derbies in New England since 1988. “You have to look down the wheel wells for supports in the doors. You can’t have any welding whatsoever.”
The heats pitting four-cylinder cars against one another, Meisner said, always hung on the longest, but you can never tell how long a car is going to survive.
Veteran driver Cameron Eaton didn’t stop at one car. This year, he brought two, each for a different heat.
“Volvo wagon and a Honda,” Eaton said. “Seth Blaisdell (is the guy to beat).”
Blaisdell brought a Volvo, too, but a general consensus intimated that his second car was the unlikely tough guy: a minivan.
“The minivans are tough,” Meisner said. “Those mommy-vans, you won’t believe it when you see it.”
Mike Ciufo, now in his 12th year of driving, said the ‘70s Impala is the way to go, but his first year he entered an Oldsmobile wagon.
Rivalries aside, new drivers beware, Hendricks said.
“(Rookies) get targeted,” she said.
As faithful dads hauled their children’s fallen vehicles from the fray, the sharp buzz of engines rose with the dust, drivers itching for their turn and revving to show off their strength.
The stadium slowly filled, first by half, then almost packed full as families trickled in with lemonade and slices of hot pizza to cheer for their favorite car.
After their quick “handshake,” where the cars slowly back up and lightly touch the one behind them, mud sprayed the air as each vehicle spun out, plowed backward or carved sharply around the group, their target in sight.
With trunks crunched, dented hoods and some with gas tanks threatening to fall through the rotted floor, cambered tires kept spinning, pushing each other up against the cement blocks and plowing their passenger-side doors in where they crumpled like tinfoil while the crowd cheered.
Bianci said he travels far and wide to attend derbies and has driven for 15 years.
“I used to come watch them all the time,” Bianci said. “My dad used to do it. ... It’s just a big old family with smashed cars, everyone’s happy at the end.”
Only when the last car was left standing was a winner declared, and bulldozers entered the ring to haul the crumpled remains of the prized possessions of the generations of derby drivers who, if possible, would straighten them out and throw them back in the ring next year.
On its website, Massachusetts-based company Woodbooger Demolition Derby requires all participants to wear long pants and a helmet, use seat belts, and for the driver’s-side door to be painted bright, fluorescent green.
The cars cannot have any welding on them, unless the driver’s side is welded with a maximum of 12 inches on the seam. Drivers are allowed to install pipes and 6-inch square plates at each end for safety reasons.
Every driver must have a fire extinguisher in their front passenger seat.
All passenger cars are accepted into the automobile death match save for Imperials, Lincolns made before 1970, hearses and limos, and Brockton Fair cars must be 1980 or newer.
Only two-wheel drive is allowed, but those with four-wheel drive vehicles can choose whether to disable the front or rear axle.
Each car is required to hit another car every 60 seconds. Cars are not allowed to hit the driver’s-side door, and excessive smoking results in disqualification, as does sandbagging.
The derby has evolved with time, Bianci said, and will always be a family tradition in Rutland.
“Smaller cars,” Bianci said of the big differences. “Back in the day, we used to have V-8 cars, Cadillacs.”
“Dodge Monacos,” Meisner said. “Big Lincolns. ...The older cars are a lot tougher. ... You can’t bring a ‘67 Newport four-door in with a bunch of cars that are in their late ‘80s, early ‘90s.”