Fact: The first motorsport event that I ever attended involved a demolition derby. It was 1986, I was 12, and I was invited along by one of my mates from school and his dad. I think the demolition derby part of the evening was the support act to the main event, but somewhere along the line I have forgotten what the main event actually was.
Given how much dirt was flying around the place, I have to assume it was something to do with speedway racing. What I do remember is that I was decked out head to toe in pastel green - a pair of pants and a matching polo. This, remember, was the era of Miami Vice, and being a 12-year-old of limited means, such gear was the closest I could get to dressing like Don Johnson. (And forget about the stubble part - 19 years later, I still can't grow a beard).
These were my coolest clothes, the threads I only pulled out for special occasions. And by the end of the night, they were absolutely trashed. We'd scored a prime viewing spot right on the fence, which meant that my iridescent snot-green gear was right in the firing line for all of the mud that dozens of spinning tyres sliced into the crowd like soggy golf balls. I was never able to wear the pants again.
I got over the loss of the green pants years ago, so that can't have anything to do with the fact that I have not been to a demolition derby since. I haven't been boycotting them or anything, but they just don't figure all that heavily on the landscape of motorised entertainment in Australia - I think that Demolition Derbies share a common ancestor with Monster Trucks, which we also don't see a lot of over here. But they feature semi-regularly on The Simpsons, which is one of the great barometers of American popular culture, so that is enough to convince me that Derbies have a kind of niche foothold in the US.
It will probably never become big enough to replace NASCAR on the nation's cereal boxes and pencil cases, but nevertheless secure enough to ensure that one is never more than an hour's drive away from a healthy community of people who like to kill old Chevrolets and Pontiacs. Apparently, there are as many of 2000 of these events held across the US every year.
Thanks to American writer and photographer Bill Lowenburg I now have some feeling for what has been going on while I have been looking in the other direction. The book begins and ends with a couple of insightful and well-written essays, but the bulk of the story is told through black and white photographs.
Given the subject matter, there are actually surprisingly few shots of old cars beating each other into sculptures. Instead, what you get is a collection of images that, when put together, reveals an amazingly vivid sense of what the Derby is all about.
The overriding message is one of camaraderie - of friends and families bonding over stripping an old car down to its bare minimum, destroying it, rebuilding it, and doing it all over again. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, or a bunch of friends getting together with a few beers in the backyard with a couple of sledgehammers and hacksaws, the Derby seems to be one of the great equalisers. For just a few fleeting minutes, ordinary Joes (or Janes) have a chance to become local heroes.
One of the quotes on the back cover seems to sum it up nicely: "Honestly, I do it for that group of 8-year-old kids sitting by the fence pointing at cars and waving." For a lot of the competitors, actually winning seems to be incidental to the whole evening. Lowenburg's shots also give a pretty good sense of the kind of atmosphere that I imagine pervades a Derby.
Flicking through the pages you can almost hear the omnipresent clanging of sledgehammers and screaming saws, and smell the mixture of grease, smoke, beer and french fry oil. And everyone looks like they are having fun. You could well ask where the Derby fits in to the spectrum of motorsport - or even whether it fits in at all.
Certainly, I can't imagine autosport.com creating a new section for it on the website. And for my part, I think I'll probably continue to exist in a diet primarily made up of open-wheelers, touring cars and rallying. But I'm grateful to Lowenburg for giving me a fleeting glimpse of something completely different. And whenever I am next in the US and go past a sign advertising an upcoming Derby, I'll make sure I'm right there up against the fence. I'll even buy a pair of green pants, just for old time's sake.