History of the Demo Derby
According to the popular version of the sport’s origin, stock car driver Larry Mendelsohn is credited with organizing and promoting the first true demolition derby, in Long Island, New York, in the late 1950s. However, there are accounts of earlier events. One of the most interesting references to the sport comes from none other the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, which states that the term was added in 1953. (See sidebar.)
n. (ca. 1953) A contest in which skilled drivers ram old cars into one another until only one car remains running.
At issue: ca. 1953 in the Merriam-Webster’s definition indicates the term was in fairly common use well before the late 50’s, when demolition derby is generally believed to have begun. In order for the term to have been commonly understood by 1953, there must have been a significant number of demolition derbies around the country prior to this time. This is especially noteworthy in light of limited national media coverage of sports in those days. The World Series or a heavyweight championship fight would have received national coverage, but a demolition derby at a country fair would not. Thus it must have taken some years prior
to 1953 for the term to enter into common use by word-of-mouth and possibly local newspaper accounts.
The best-documented account of another early event comes from Kevin Baxter’s article “Going to Wreck and Ruin,” in the December 22, 1999 Los Angeles Times. Baxter’s account describes West-coast racing promoter Don Basile’s 1946 staging of a “full-contact” race among four drivers at Carroll Speedway in Gardena, California. In Basile’s event the participants’ cars had been secretly rigged to disintegrate upon impact. Purists may argue that the event was in fact a race and not a true demolition derby — in which the sole objective is to smash and disable the competition. Interestingly, the description of Basile’s event sounds very similar to what has become the popular sport of “Banger Racing” in England as well as several European countries and Australia.
Following his 1946 event, Don Basile went on to be a successful promoter of traditional races as well as demolition derbies for the next five decades. One of his more memorable events was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1972, where he promoted a nationally televised demolition derby involving Indianapolis 500 champions A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and Bobby and Al Unser. According to Basile’s son Bob, who is a present-day promoter, the Indy champs not only smashed beautiful new cars, but also destroyed Evel Knievel’s donated Rolls Royce.
Another early account of a demolition derby comes from D.E.N.T. (Demolition Events National Tour) promoter Todd Dube. According to a Boston Phoenix article, in searching old county fair records, Dube found that a used car dealer named “Crazy Jim” Groh promoted a demolition derby in Franklin, Wisconsin in 1950. The LA Times article also mentions earlier derbies “springing up at county fairs during the Great Depression,” but offers no further explanation. Perhaps someday additional primary source information will come to light to explain the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary assertion that “demolition derby” was in common use by the early 1950s.
In British and European banger racing, cars race around a track for a designated number of laps, as in traditional automobile racing. However, in banger events, drivers attempt to disable one another by crashing into opponents or running them off the track. This type of competition is known as enduro racing in the United States. At the conclusion of many banger events, all cars in running condition participate in an American-style demolition derby, in which the winner is the last car able to move.
Despite its uncertain beginnings, the sport’s popularity grew steadily throughout the 1960s, establishing a strong tradition as part of county fairs in rural communities and becoming identified as a quirky subculture on the national level. ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a weekly sports program with a vast viewing audience in the days before cable television, provided occasional national coverage of demolition derby in the early 1970s. Perhaps the best indicator the sport had “arrived” was when demolition derby became associated with Happy Days, one of the most-watched television sitcoms of the 70s. Happy Days’ main character, Fonzie, a loveable rebel without a cause, had an on-again, off-again relationship with Pinky Tuscadero, a professional demolition derby driver. The plot line of three related episodes in the program’s second season revolved around demolition derby, demonstrating that by the 70s the sport had entered mainstream American consciousness.
Although demolition derby’s passionate competitors, promoters, and fans do not seem overly concerned with the exact beginning of their sport, some are worried by its uncertain future. The unpredictable mix of technology, economics, and politics makes it impossible to predict whether the sport will be around a generation or two from now.