The thing about derby fans and derby drivers and derby organizers is that they are incredibly “in” on the joke, whatever jokes that can be made about them and their chosen vocation.

By Avery Gregurich

First you should know that demolition derbies don’t always need a reason or county fair to which to attach themselves. Sometimes they can appear as a one-off event, without all the usual pageantry, meaning here an actual pageant, of course, but also the requisite rusty rides and tucked-in 4-H kids and that pesky woman from the local paper asking just what it is you think about this year’s fair. Sometimes they occur all on their own, just because.

The one pictured here occurred because of sauerkraut.

Mostly I gather that the demo derby served as part of the celebration for the general making and eating of the stuff, and as this was the fiftieth annual Sauerkraut Days here in Blairstown, Iowa, there’s much enthusiasm for the fermented food, although I see very little homemade sauerkraut offered at any concession stand or open garage door potluck. It turns out it’s all been sponsored in part by Frank’s Kraut, has been for several years, those makers of the multi-green cans that are still coming out of Freemont, Ohio. It’s a comfort to know that even the Sauerkraut Days have gone corporate.

These days are comprised of a slow parade and street games and slowpitch softball and beer drinking and cow chip bingo and ribeye sandwiches and a strange local sport known simply as rolle bolle and most of all with a massive demolition derby that will for several hours bring several thousand people out to one of the few patches of flat ground for miles around that is not currently a cornfield to watch cars smash into one another until they can absolutely no longer do so.

I’ve grown up with this, best known as “Derby Season,” in my life for more time than not. It’s always been the social event of the year back home, and according to my folks, it still is. Perennial derby winners go on to become local myths to be pointed out at the fire department pancake suppers or at the gas station, some of whose names I can still remember to this day. Whole counties show up for derbies, and for a few hours it looks like one of those pictures that you see in old National Geographic spreads about the “Heartland”.

I arrived early so as to not miss Cow Chip Bingo. “He just shit in the trailer,”  the guy in his dress boots who’d led the cow from the trailer down into the double-fenced pen and onto the sidewalk chalk bingo board tried to tell the organizer quietly, but we all heard him. The organizer carried a clipboard with the names of who had purchased each square, cow chip bingo held always as part of a fundraiser. Usually this whole apparatus is constructed away from the bulk of the festivities’ action out in a field or park somewhere. This one was directly adjacent to the beer tent and cornhole tournament. The two fences are to discourage any gameful prodding by onlookers and to increase distance between bingo board and spectator from any eventual defecation. This proved to be vitally important, this distance.

If I know one thing in this world, it’s this: cow chip bingo is usually decided quick, and, despite that incident in the trailer, this held true at Sauerkraut Days. Regardless of one man’s desperate begging to the cow to stand somewhere else, it did not do so when it finally defecated, meaning that the man did not win the aggregated jackpocket, minus half to the Chamber of Commerce or Lion’s Club or Legion or something like that. For the record #61 won, though the winners were not present to celebrate properly, so everybody just sort of mosied on slowly, wondering why we’d even watched at all.

I bided the rest of afternoon between the rolle bolle and slow pitch softball tournaments. Jimmy Buffett had died in the night so he came through the speakers, sometimes. Mostly, both here and later on at the derby, it was the predictable decades-spanning country mix of “Roll On”, “Chicken Fried”, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, “1, 2 Many”, and  “Kiss My Country Ass.” Each song played several times, both in town and out at the grandstands, American affirmation songs all, the start of a real hot demo derby soundtrack if there’s ever been one.

The thing about derby fans and derby drivers and derby organizers is that they are incredibly “in” on the joke, whatever jokes that can be made about them and their chosen vocation. They know on some level that this is all completely ridiculous and at the very least dangerous, both for the drivers and the fans taking in the action. Signs are posted in all four corners of the infield warning of the dangers of flying metal.

The Facebook page for this very derby features several phenomenal memes, including “Demolition Derby: For Those Who Love To Work But Hate Having Money” and “Derby Cars…Because clean hands, free weekends, intact knuckles, and financial stability is OVER-RATED!!!” Before the first heat of the derby, when the uniquely painted cars are all driven out to be decided which is painted the best, the announcer says “Who’s ready to crash some cars?” and the crowd roars and also kind of laughs.

Predictably, a lot of tonight’s cars have “FJB” spray-painted somewhere on them, intentionally placed either on the hood or across the trunk where most of the damage is supplied or received. The chosen placement didn’t seem to affect the overall message. Other cars had kids’ names or hometown sponsors written on them in bright colors. My favorites were “GIVE HEAVEN SOME HELL” and a gender reveal derby car that was painted that specific and revealing metallic kind-of pink.

Demo derby is also serious business. All cash prices awarded tonight will range upwards of $12,500, which sounds like a lot though when parsed out over four heats to the last six drivers running, as well as the “MAD” or most aggressive driver, the most money awarded to any one driver tonight will be just under $1, 500. And there are a bizarrely specific set of rules, which of course vary from town to town and derby to derby, which specifies the modifications that can be done to each vehicle, right down to the acceptable materials that the tires can be filled with. There is a whole mechanical artform that allow these monsters to run with the least required parts that I’d like to be able to explain here, but my utter inability speaks to my own deficiencies as a reporter who considered it deeply but ultimately decided not to pay the extra $15 for an all-access Pit Pass. Suffice to say it takes a whole lot of ingenuity, some capital, and mainly stubbornness to make these machines as simple as they are, and force them to run as long as they do.

It is important that I tell you now that I missed the photograph that I’d been waiting all night to take. It’s a picture of a driver after accepting defeat and breaking the stick attached to the driver’s side door which indicates forfeit. The driver’s stuck out in the mess and waiting for it all to be over so they can climb out of the window and inspect the fatal blows to the car. Amidst this waiting, the offending party passes, or better yet, runs into them again, leading to that exquisite moment when the defeated driver raises to them one or usually both middle fingers and says the words too, though their mouths sometimes are covered with a helmet. For the record, I have the pictures of moments before and just after, but I do not have that shot. Imagine that it did happen, though, because it did.

Derbies, like most automotive sports, are only distinguishable in small variations to their ultimate sameness. The cars crashed. Then they crashed again, ad nauseam, until they finally stopped. I am unable to better relay the nuance and craft on display tonight because this is my first derby in at least a decade, maybe more. A familiar stranger now to these sorts of things, the announcer does his best to guide me along, but only he can do so much. I remembered finally why I stuck to the rides during them when I was a kid: I am unable to understand the attraction of demolition derbies.

I left about midway through the night, after the announcer interviewed a driver who’d been a fan favorite all night. He’d finished third in his heat after the second time that they had to stop the derby because his engine was on fire.

As a tractor was just then carrying his car away in its arms, the announcer asked who he wanted to thank, he said, “I’d like to thank my wife. I know you haven’t seen a lot of me lately. There’s been a lot of late nights out in the garage…”

He paused.

“But derby season is almost over.”

Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River and has never strayed too far from it. More of his work can be found at