Rarely can the most beat-up competitor be the champion in a contest — except on a 50-by-30-yard stretch of dirt, mud and fumes.
One of the Napa Town & Country Fair’s best-attended attractions, and certainly its loudest, the 28th annual Destruction Derby showcased the aggression of some 20 drivers at the wheel of aged wrecks of cars with little remaining but the ability to absorb crash after collision after blow.
The stars of this show had once been mild-mannered Oldsmobile station wagons or sleek, boat-tailed Buick coupes. Now, denuded of windows, all but seats and safety cages, they were steel gladiators on four wheels, whacking one another’s bodies into scrap metal, their tires hurling gobs of dirt onto fans and nearly into their beers.
As competitors entered the Napa Valley Expo grandstand before Sunday’s derby heats, Kathy Reyes arrived in a flatbed truck bearing her vehicle: a Buick Riviera already dirt-caked from her winning performance the night before.
“My dad (Joe Reyes) has been driving these since before I was born,” the 45-year-old Contra Costa County resident said an hour before Sunday’s races, the second part of a two-day event. “He gave me a car one day in 1993 and said, ‘You wanna drive?’ and I said ‘Sure!’ And ever since, I’ve been hooked.”
Usually domestic cars 30 years or older, Destruction Derby entries at the Napa fair compete in either or both of the Saturday and Sunday competitions. In preliminary heats and then the main event, drivers score the most points not by having the last car running but by scoring the most hits and showing the most aggression.
“On the track everyone is fair game — just as I am to everybody else,” said Reyes, one of two women in Sunday’s field.
Across the derby track, another racing crew clad in identical purple T-shirts was fussing over another vehicle. But the matching purple Oldsmobile wagon they were preparing for Jonathan Rossi had a purpose far beyond the racetrack, one made obvious by the framed photograph of Montana Montez atop the roof.
A friend of Rossi’s since the eighth grade, Montez had planned to join Rossi’s pit crew for his Destruction Derby debut last August but had to pull out of the event. His promise to rejoin the next year would not be kept; Montez died in a car crash in September.
“This year I wanted to run a car for him,” said Rossi, a 21-year-old Napan. “His favorite color was purple; his favorite number was 59; his football (jersey) number at Napa High was 59.”
Demolition derbies may remain a fan draw, but the Napa race’s longtime organizer called them an increasingly scarce one in California, caught in a vise between a sagging economy and rising metal prices.
“When the economy took a dive, the price of metal was also going through the ceiling,” said Fran Holland, who promoted races with her husband, LeRoy “Dutch” Holland, and took over their promotional company after his death in 2009. “At the wrecking yards, people used to get a car for $300, $500. Nowadays you could pay $1,000 or $2,000 to get a derby car, and it’s hurt the whole industry.”
When one of her assistants at the grandstand’s rear gate made a quip about “taking out your aggressions from all week,” Holland nodded knowingly: “That’s what draws ‘em in.”
At the back bleachers of the grandstand, a mother was passing on the love of the crash on to her son — though she hardly needed to work at it.
“We went last year and it was amazing! I was like the best mom ever to a 9-year-old on the planet,” Lindsey Ragghianti of Novato recalled about last year’s Napa derby while taking in the pre-race preparations with her son Lucas. “So he wanted to go again and I went, ‘I’m not sure I can do another $200 day, hon!’” she said, laughing.
“There was this one orange car, looked like the General Lee (from “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show),” Lucas remembered, still excited from the experience. “Every time it got smashed up it looked like it was done for, but it just kept on going.”
And what were the chances that the young Destruction Derby fan might take the wheel as a grown-up?
“One out of zero,” he said immediately. “No, no, no, no.”
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