“It’s an addiction,” says Ed ‘Speedo’ Jager about the dangerous, smash-’em up stock-car demolition derbies in which he revels, “like nitro-methane through your veins.” And Jager, one of the demo derby tour’s top drivers — and one of its most controversial — takes to the track with all the demon intensity and quick-trigger aggression needed to win in the demo-derby world.
But Jager doesn’t need chemicals to fuel his competitiveness. As revealed in “Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story,” Jager is driven by a life-long passion for stock cars, the dream of becoming a “real” racing driver, and a simmering anger at whatever or whomever stands in his way. Off-track, however, the film discovers a different man, still intense but one wrestling with a failed marriage while determined to be a good father to his two sons — a man willing to compromise, “to make the best of what you have.”
Filmed in action-packed vérité-style, Speedo lets Jager do the talking and driving, while his wife, sons, and racetrack pals fill in the perspective. Moss followed Jager through the 1999 demolition-derby season, beginning with derbies at Speedo’s home track, Long Island’s Riverhead Raceway, and culminating at the National Demolition Derby Championship in Fellsmere, Florida.
One of the pleasures of Speedo is the inside look it provides at the quirky world of demolition-derby competition, a singularly American sport with few rules and less organization. It is also a sport of amateurs; cash prizes are too modest even to cover the costs of repairing and re-destroying wildly painted and progressively mangled stock cars. The drivers’ motivations seem to be an amalgam of the American love of automobiles, the thrill of smashing things up, and the “ordinary” grease monkey’s revenge on obscurity.
Speedo certainly fits the bill, with particular intensity. An inveterate repairer and modifier of anything on wheels since he was a kid, Speedo works long hours as a mechanic at a Long Island Exxon station to support his “hobby,” while also putting in extra time repairing his derby wrecks. On the track, Speedo’s demonstrative passion for smashing other cars into submission makes him one of the sport’s better showmen. But Speedo’s intensity has its dark side. Demolition derbies may have few rules, but one is that you don’t smash into the driver’s door, something Speedo is accused of doing on more than one occasion. Another rule is that cars can be repaired but not reinforced. Speedo, the mechanical whiz, stretches the envelope time and again.
Jager’s hyper-competitiveness and tendency to run at the rules angers some of the other drivers. At one “Figure 8” competition, the derby course that is most like a real speed race (drivers race a figure-8 course, but have to bump another car to pass it) some drivers want to forgo extra crashing and instead have a real speed race. Speedo’s refusal to join in causes hard feelings. Grudges and shouting matches lead one night to a physical altercation bad enough that Jager disappoints his younger boy, Michael, by not taking him to the next derby to shield him from seeing such outbursts.
At home in Levittown, the demon of the smash track is a responsible father who is close to his two sons. Speedo even turns out for 16-year-old Anthony’s debut as a punk-rock singer despite what he considers the boy’s over-the-top outfit. It’s normal parent-teenager stuff. But with Speedo’s wife, Linda, things are not so normal. What was once a love match has become an estrangement due, in part, to Speedo’s demolition-derby obsessions. (“The house don’t have wheels,” he says.) He has been sleeping on the couch for the last decade, believing it’s important that his sons have both a mother and a father.
During the filming of Speedo, the uneasy balances in Jager’s life started to fall apart. Linda files for divorce; Speedo decides to sell their house; the younger boy, Michael, is having difficulties with the changes. Speedo has that much more anger to bring to the track. Then the filmmaker is gifted with the best of plot points — Speedo falls in love. Liz Mallows, a racetrack employee in New Jersey, offers love, support, a sense of humor, and a shared passion for demolition derbies. Liz admits she loves seeing Speedo smash the other fellows up! And older son Anthony starts begging to follow in his father’s footsteps. “Pass the torch!” he implores. “Don’t let it die out!”
Love turns Speedo several times around. Will he bring the same ferocity to the track? Will he act on his dream of becoming a bona fide NASCAR driver? Will the boys be all right? Can Speedo find happiness in New Jersey?
“Legend has it that demolition derbies were born on Long Island, at the now-defunct Islip Speedway,” says director Jesse Moss, “so I went to Riverhead on Long Island one day where I met Speedo. I’ve always been fascinated with demolition derbies and the ritualized violence and intense rivalries that define the sport, and Speedo was a whirling dervish, a bundle of frayed nerves and manic energy. After the race, he invited me to visit the garage in Garden City where he builds cars and offered to build me one. I told him I’d like to make a film about him instead.”