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Demo derby

08/16/06 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) Last week commentator Caleb Daniloff found that nothing brings people together quite like watching a bunch of cars smash into each other.

(DANILOFF) At the Addison County Farm and Field Days in New Haven, there's an art to holding bleacher space for the wildly popular demolition derby. And Val Hastings of Bridport is a master. The hair salon owner has been coming here the past sixteen years ever since husband Kenn began competing at age thirty.

Last week, the stands were packed, the lower lawns a patchwork of blankets and folding chairs.

"Never squeeze up to the person next to you," Val said, "At some point, the announcer will ask everyone to shift right, but you must resist." In fact, she chided me and my wife for arriving a mere forty minutes before start time. "Wasn't sure I could hold your space much longer," she said. "It's getting a little ugly up here."

I saw that spots of bench were being held by popcorn containers, camera pouches and seat cushions. Val introduced her cousin, several friends and their kids, all strategically spaced. Her own three boys slipped into the stands through the side railing and from underneath. Val was right. The fans bumping and jostling for seats gets intense as start time nears, a fitting prelude to the main event about to unfold in the rectangle of wet dirt below.

After years of being a derby wife, however, you might say Val has become a wee bit jaded. "They even play the national anthem first as if this were a real sporting event," she quipped. But a couple times I caught her cheering a good hit and pointing out engine fires. Her boys are huge fans and she saves bench space every year while they rush off for burgers and fried dough.

Once the action starts, Kenn Hastings is easy to spot. The 47-year-old paints his cars white and straps an orange construction cone on the roof. "Hit Me" is painted across his back bumper. The names of his kids and, of course, Val, are scrawled across the hood and doors. As a veteran, Kenn doesn't come out swinging like a lot of the young bucks. Experience has taught him to protect his front end, and to team up if he can. "The key is not to let the adrenaline go to your head," he said. "There's an art to the demo."

The crowd cheered as metal crashed against metal and mud spattered the stands. Tires popped like gunshot, radiators spewed steam and the smell of burned rubber laced the air. Some cars stalled out, some got hung up on the concrete barriers; others were disqualified for inactivity or hitting a driver's door. The last two vehicles moving advanced to the feature round. Kenn, a defending division champ, was not among them.

Flecked with mud, Kenn took to the stands to watch the remaining heats. He talked his middle son through the action while oldest son Caleb chimed in excitedly. The 15-year-old spent hours stripping and prepping the '92 Bonneville Kenn had just driven. Caleb can't wait to get his driver's license so he can demo. In some families, the derby gets passed down like an heirloom, the legends of yesteryear kept alive.

After the heats, we checked out the demo car-lot behind the arena, a triage area of sorts. In the dashboard of Kenn's crumpled Bonneville, the security light kept blinking like a heartbeat. One of the front tires had buckled under and the sedan lurched when Kenn turned the key. Nearby, guys worked on their cars, cigarettes glowing as they considered whether their rides had another bout in them. "We're all friends here," Kenn said, looking around. "It's always a fun time. I'll be back next year." Overhead, a pale orange moon lifted over the trees and rising to meet it - the roar and rapture of the crowd, the sound of family.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.

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