Northwest NEWS

February 15, 1999


Sanctioned mayhem at the derby


Steve Peters inspects damage to Battlewagon after a derby in the Tacoma Dome on January 16.
Staff photo by Andrew Walgamott.

by Andrew Walgamott, staff reporter

   Steve Peters and Brenda Wilder are among those lucky enough to be able to ram the driver who cuts them off, crash into the bozo who suddenly stops in front of them, or even just mash the fender of a guy in a goofy looking car--so long as Peters and Wilder are strapped inside cars at a demolition derby. That's where they can break axles and steering columns and crack radiators to their hearts' content--and not face arrest.

   "You just can't beat that kind of fun," says Peters, a 38-year-old Woodinville resident.

   "This is the chance you get to do what you can't do on the freeway," explains Wilder, who splits time driving a car named "Wildman" with her husband.

   For those who've never experienced a demolition derby, it's what might happen if President Clinton, Representatives Hyde, Barr, and Livingston, Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, First Lady Hillary Clinton, Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky, and Larry Flynt were chained into separate beater cars, positioned in a circle, and given the green flag.

   There are, of course, variations on the theme, but derbies are sanctioned mayhem, like football, except that both the victors and defeated end up as steaming, broken hulks. By the end of a match in the Tacoma Dome on January 16, cars had to be towed and forklifted off the demolition grounds.

   For Peters, derbying is an outgrowth of his love of competition, and his tinkering with cars. He is a one-time European downhill skateboarding champion turned race car driver and smash-up specialist. He got into the sport about nine years ago after being introduced by a roommate.

   Peters drives "Battlewagon." In its umpteenth incarnation several weeks ago, Battlewagon is ("was," Peters corrects) a 1973 Pontiac Granville he bought for $50 from a friend. Demolition cars are stripped on the inside to basically a steering wheel, driver's seat, and jerry-rigged shifter. Peter's original war wagon was his father-in-law's 12-person station wagon, which had "Battlewagon" carved on the steering wheel.

   His cars are camouflaged--green, black, and brown--and have a cutout tank on its roof. To please crowds, which are a big part of the fun for him, he shoots CO2 off at the beginning of some events.

   Peters also enjoys the sport for its camaraderie. "Other drivers who you smash up will help you out on parts," he said. At a British Columbia derby, he needed and got a radiator for another crew and finished third.

   Longtime readers may recall a February 1994 Woodinville Weekly article about Peters. Since then, he's bought the Kirkland Texaco he worked at, gotten married, and is preparing to move to Monroe from the home he's rented in Woodinville for the past 11 years.

   For Wilder, "it's a family thing." She has a pit crew in her husband, son, and daughter. They live in Graham, in south Puget Sound.

   Wilder got into the sport three years ago and once considered getting out. "But when I heard the cars start up, I had to get back in," she said. She'll tell you that while driving on the highway, she thinks about which way cars would spin if she hit them in a certain spot.

   It takes about 40 hours to outfit a car, Peters said. And it can take as little as four seconds to total one, depending on how aggressive the driver is. "I went through five in 1998 in nine races," Wilder said.

   Last year, she won most aggressive driver honors for the Powder Puff division. Her strategy: "When you see someone going, you just hit him."

   There's a little more than that, though. Peters says the best place to whack another car is on the back wheels in hopes of breaking an axle, or in the front end to get at the steering column, or collapsing the radiator. T-bone shots are off-limits, and a heavy steel beam across the doors protects against such a shot.

   While Peters says derbies are a chance to vent, he adds that it requires focus if a person wants to win. Winning is relative, though. The last car moving, or the last one to have made a hit, is declared the winner.

   Up close, a derby is quite a spectacle. Engines roar, tires spin, rubber burns, cars lurch, metal grinds.

   "It's awesome. It's pretty extreme, but as for safety, we go through inspections," says Peters, adding that drivers wear fire suits and helmets. Drivers are inside a roll cage, are harnessed with a five-point seatbelt, and have a fire extinguisher placed within reach.

   If the adage "don't try this at home" were ever more appropriate, it's for demolition derbies. Should a derby break out in, say, your least-favorite intersection, arrest is likely.

   "To start off with, there's reckless driving and reckless endangerment," says Sgt. Ken Wardstrom of the Woodinville Police. "Then it goes up to vehicular assault, and possibly assault one--aiming at someone and going at them." He compared derby cars to a deadly weapon.

   Like mega-fauna from the last ice age, derby cars are heavy and stout. The Chrysler Imperial, the "strongest car ever made," according to a race official, is outlawed. Today's light cars wouldn't do well against derby cars.

   "Some of those guys are amazing. They'll drive around in a car like a taco--front and back ends folded up," says Peters of derby drivers and their cars.

   As it so happens, Peters and Wilder derbied together Jan. 16 at the end of a long night of motorsports in the Tacoma Dome.

   In one regard, it was the anti-race. Where fine-tuned monster trucks growled, dirt bikes sailed over jumps, and arena trucks ground over hillocks as fast as they could, the derby was Frankenstein in a heavyweight title fight somewhere in the later rounds. Huge threaded shafts held derby cars' body parts down, and chains were wrapped around steering wheels and doors.

   But a sizable portion of the sold-out crowd had stuck around for the derby. And after a countdown, the slow-motion wreck was on.

   In all the smoke, it was unclear whether Peters and Wilder ever made contact, but Battlewagon was knocked out fairly early. Someone smashed the left rear quarter panel into the tire, and no amount of rocking back and forth helped to get the car rolling again.

   Wilder was more lucky and was one of the last two cars running, even though the hood and trunk of Wildman were smashed higher than where any dashboard had ever been in her 1973 Monte Carlo. Wilder had a British Columbian car backed into a mess of other cars, but slowly the other driver shoved her backwards and was named the winner.

   "I couldn't see," Wilder said afterwards. "I just kept going."

   She said adrenaline was racing through her. "When the fans start hollering, you just have to put your foot down," she said. Still, Wildman was toast. "My trannie was gone," she said.

   As for Peters, he felt that if the panel were cut away from the wheel well, this Battlewagon might be able to compete again.

   Peters begins a new season at Evergreen Speedway, his home track in Monroe, on March 27. To experience the sights, sounds, and smells of a derby, as well as figure-8 and other race action, take State Route 522 north to Monroe and turn right at Highway 2.