Eve of Destruction

Why create a car just to destroy it? Because it's fun to do while drinkin' beer and bullshittin' with some of your friends.

On a hot day in the Central Valley, Ken Olson exits Highway 99 in Lodi, passing a church with a plastic announcements board that declares JESUS IS THE ORIGINAL SUPERMAN. He cruises an industrial part of town, his eyes trawling the empty spaces, then pulls into a lot littered with ancient farm equipment and out-of-service semis. In a far corner against a barbed-wire fence is an old rusting car.

“There she is!” shouts Olson, a heavyset, dark-haired man whom everyone calls K.O. “That’s the one we want right there, baby!”

K.O. leaps from his pickup and hurries over to the car, a 1966 Chrysler Imperial with wings. Two of the tires are flat. The frame is massive, the interior sprawling. “Christ,” he says, opening the back door to a gang of spiderwebs. “Look at all that leg room.”

K.O. walks around the Imperial, taking notes: tags date back to the ’80s … dented right back fender … busted taillight … all good signs. He lies down on the concrete, wiggling his 260-pound body beneath the frame. It’s thick, he declares, solid, like they don’t make them anymore.

In a shop near the back of the lot, K.O. seeks out the owner, a guy in his seventies. He’s wearing blue overalls with a nametag reading “Jess” sewn onto his breast pocket. When K.O. enters, Jess is welding the side of an old pickup. Turning to face K.O., he pulls up the visor of his welding mask, revealing a hard and expressionless face. Wrinkles run north to south at the corners of his mouth like cracks in stone. He extinguishes the flame. “What can I do you for?”

“I’m interested in that Imperial out there,” K.O. says.

“That so? What’s it worth to you?”


Jess pulls a tobacco pipe from his vest pocket, closes one eye, and peers into the bowl with the other. Then, slowly and deliberately, he shakes his head. “No, sir,” he says. “The engine’s worth more than that.” Jess is going to retire soon. Maybe then he’ll have time to fix her up like she deserves. “You know how much a restored Imperial goes for? $30,000, that’s how much,” he says. “I bought her new. She’s from a time when they really built cars … not like today.”

Jess lights the pipe. An awkward silence settles over the two men as K.O. wonders if he should leave. Then Jess asks the one question K.O. most dreads: “What did you want her for?”

Pulling off his San Francisco Giants baseball cap, K.O. rubs a hand through his thinning, spiky hair. He never knows how to answer this question. “Well, I was, uh … thinking about entering her into a destruction derby.”

Jess’ stare turns cold. K.O. quickly amends his statement by adding a lie: “Either that, or I might’ve fixed her up.”

Back out in the lot, K.O. takes one last look at the rundown Imperial. “It’s like fishing,” he says. “Some days you catch the big one, and some days you don’t catch shit.”

K.O. has been hooked on the destruction derby since he saw his first one at the Stanislaus County Fair in Turlock a few years back. “It’s sick and it’s crazy, but I’m a freak for it,” he says. And he isn’t alone. In 2002, ten million Americans bought tickets to derbies. In Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and Ohio — where it’s called demolition derby, and where there are more than three hundred a year — it’s a religion.

In California, the derby is not yet a religion. But it is a cult. “It’s definitely on the rise out there,” says Todd Dube, president of DENT, the Demolition Event National Tour. In 1990, he says there were fifty derbies a year in California; by 2000, that number had doubled.

The derby’s popularity in California has been nurtured by its main venue, the county fair, which is still the most popular draw of the summer in the agricultural communities of the Central Valley. In years past, rodeos dominated the fairs. Now, however, “The derby is even more popular than the Village People,” says Pennie Rorex, publicity director of the Stanislaus County Fair, referring to last year’s Main Stage band. Rorex, an ebullient redhead, illustrates her point at the fairground’s outdoor arena: Hours before tickets had gone on sale, dozens of spectators were already lined up, hoping to score front-row seats to the derby. “It’s incredible how popular it is,” she says. “Look at me; I’m somewhat of a prim and proper gal, but I never miss it. I hoot and holler!”

The drivers are even more maniacal, K.O. says. But enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into success. You need know-how and a good car. When K.O. entered his first derby three years ago, he drove a Buick Electra, a poor choice. At a driver’s meeting, veteran rivals laughed outright at the car, dubbing it a One-Hit Wonder. And when the starting flag fell, Brandon Holt — one of four brothers who constitute the Derby Dynasty of the Central Valley — took aim. He battered the Buick with such force and ferocity that his car ended up on K.O.’s roof. “Not my hood — my roof,” K.O. says. “And when he was up there he started peeling out. He really tore up my vinyl covering.”

After that derby, K.O. solicited the Holts for advice. They have since become his mentors, drafting him a list of all the best cars, a list that — now tattered and torn from use — K.O. brings on all his shopping trips:

’73-’76 Chevy Wagon

’67-’72 Chrysler Imperial

’74-’76 Chrysler New Yorker

’73-’76 Impala, Caprice, Pontiac

On this day, the deal on the Imperial has fallen through. But K.O. still has leads in Atwater, Patterson, Stockton, and Delhi. He goes “shopping” about once a month, casing “shitty neighborhoods” throughout the Valley, finding LeBarons, Imperials, New Yorkers, and Galaxies pushed off to the side of fenced-off yards. Most are covered in dirt and have at least two flat tires. The owners — if they are the owners — often can’t recall the last time the engine turned over. “They’re just taking up space,” says K.O., who offers to haul the problem away, no pink slip necessary. “The owners? They don’t give a shit. Hell, it’s a hundred bucks for them.”

When K.O. strikes a deal, he returns the next day with his trailer and hitch. Then he tows the car to Turlock, where he dumps it at his brother-in-law John’s business, Pork Power Farms, home to seven thousand pigs waiting for slaughter. That’s where K.O. and his derby buddies — including John, his daughter Robin, and the Holts — build their derby cars.

The Holts work and live on the pig farm. K.O. works at the Foster Farms dairy plant in Modesto. He starts ten-hour shifts at 5 a.m., pulling levers on a machine that injects artificial flavoring into vats of ice cream. Because the foreman is an old friend from high school, K.O. gets to take days off whenever he wants to go shopping. “It’s like a woman in a clothing store,” says K.O., who at 42 has been engaged three times but never married. “It’s what I do.”

Pork Power Farms sits outside Turlock, ten miles south of Modesto, where the countryside is flat and dusty and covered with almond orchards. A gravel road leads past a one-story farmhouse where Brandon Holt, 21, lives with his brother Brian, 32, and Brian’s wife and three kids. Out back is a red garage. Next to that, an oil- and paint-splattered rectangle of concrete with room for two cars.

The gravel road shoots beyond the garage and past a row of canvas-covered pigpens. In the late afternoon heat of October, most of the pigs are sleeping. They lie in huge, stinking piles, draped on top of each other, legs twitching in the filth. Only a handful are not asleep, and they are all, without exception, shitting or sniffing some other pig’s shit. One occasionally jolts awake with a terrified shriek, sparking an uproar: The pigs scream hysterically and blink accusingly at each other. Then they lose interest and fall back asleep.

Beyond the last pigpen, the road ends at a dusty clearing stocked full of cars. At first glance, it appears to be some sort of automotive graveyard, with the vehicles — twenty altogether — parked two-deep in neat rows, like tombstones. Some have seen no action at all; they haven’t even been stripped yet. Others have been shredded to pieces. They’ve run two, three, as many as four derbies. The trunks are gone and the front ends are smashed back so far that the bumpers somehow start behind the front tires. Three of these cars are K.O.’s; the rest belong to the Holts.

K.O. was supposed to be here twenty minutes ago, but has apparently forgotten. Brian and Brandon are in the garage, staring at a reporter, wondering who he is and what he’s doing on their property. Without K.O., I feel like a trespasser, but I approach anyway, because if I don’t, judging by their stares, the Holt brothers might just kick my ass.

“Hi,” I say. “Uh … are you guys the Holts?”

The shorter, squatter, and older of the two, Brian, says yes. At five-foot-four and 250 pounds, he is a powerfully built barrel of a man.

The younger brother, Brandon, says nothing. He is thinner than Brian, but still a big man at six-foot-two and 230. He has a dense helmet of black hair with coarse strands that resemble those of a wire brush. An unkempt goatee covers his chin. Grease is smeared across his forehead.

“From what I hear,” I say, “you guys are the best derby drivers in the valley.”

Brian smiles. “Pretty much,” he says. And then — just like that — he starts talking. “Hell, we can’t go anywhere now without people recognizing us. Last month I went to this derby all the way up in Mariposa, thinking that I could run and nobody would know who I was. But as soon as I drove in, people were coming up to my car and saying, ‘The Holts! What are you doing here?’ So I said, ‘Shit, I’m here to win your money.'”

It’s five days before the final derby of the season, at the Altamont Raceway in easternmost Alameda County, on the Tracy side of the Altamont Pass. On the paved section of the driveway, the car that K.O. will run is parked among various tools and welding tanks. But there are no Holt cars, just an engine on the ground. I ask if they’re going to run. They’ll run, Brian says, and so will their 31-year-old brother Doug.

Brian’s car is out at his dad’s ranch in Oakdale. It’s a black Chevy station wagon he calls the Undertaker. Brian always runs as the Undertaker.

I turn to Brandon. “What about you? Are you going to run?”

“Yeah,” he says quietly. Although he has a reputation as a fierce driver and big hitter on the derby circuit, Brandon Holt, I can already tell, is shy.

“What are you running?” I ask.

Brandon points to the engine on the ground, which I learn later has been pulled from a 1985 Chrysler St. Regis. Then he motions toward the gravel road. There, chained to a backhoe, is a white Impala. Brandon has just towed it from the graveyard out back. It has no engine, not even a hood. The steering wheel is sticking out a shattered back window. Inside the cab is a mess of broken glass and three empty Bud Light bottles.

“You’re going to run that in the derby?” I ask.

“Sure am.”

“You can get this ready in less than a week?”

“Sure can,” he says, shrugging. Then he walks into the garage, where there is a refrigerator full of beer, and opens a Bud Light.

The first step in derby preparation is to strip the car. Everything must be torn out: the seats, windshield, dash, paneling … nothing flammable can remain. Brandon’s car is already stripped, so he moves on to step two: welding in the roll bar, four thick slabs of metal inside the cockpit. This fundamental feature in all derby cars creates a virtually impenetrable pocket of safety around the driver.

Brandon climbs inside the empty shell of the Impala, ignites the torch, and starts melting the roll bar onto the car’s frame. Several hours later, with the sun setting on the pig farm, he’s still at it. And now Brian’s three kids, home from school, enter the scene. The oldest, twelve-year-old Nathan, climbs in and out and all around the Impala, even as the sparks fly. Nathan is thin and athletic. He leaps from the hood of the car to the driveway with lithe grace. And he knows his way around a car. “He’s learning how to weld now,” his uncle Brandon says. “Hell, I’d say he knows more about cars than 90 percent of the drivers in California.” Nathan says he could already build his own derby car from the ground up. But he’ll have to wait to compete. “At least till he’s fifteen,” Brian says.

A cell phone rings. Nathan picks it up from off a toolbox and hands it through the driver’s side window to Brandon. He checks the caller ID and smiles. “Hey, babe,” he says — it’s his new girlfriend, Missy. Brandon climbs out the window and walks towards the pigpens so he can speak out of earshot.

Picking up the blowtorch, Brian now uses it to cut out chunks of the body from behind the left rear tire. As sheets of metal loosen from the shell, he calls to Nathan, telling him to “Step on it!” The boy follows instructions, helping his dad rip the pieces loose. By exposing the tires, Brian explains, he actually is protecting them, “so they don’t get shredded if the trunk gets smashed down into the wheel wells.” The Holts will also bang a crease into the top of the trunk with a sledgehammer and cut small notches into the underside of the frame with a blowtorch so that when the car gets hit it’ll bend upwards, away from the wells.

After five straight hours of welding and torching the Impala, the Holts call it a night. The brothers open fresh bottles of Bud Light and hang their elbows over the edge of the open hood, surveying the still-engineless car. Brandon is pleased: Welding is the most time-consuming phase in derby preparation, and he’s gotten most of it done today.

The day before the derby, the Holts and K.O. stand around their cars. Save a few last-minute adjustments — such as installing a new radiator or hooking up the gas tank, a five-gallon plastic container that sits behind the driver’s seat — they are derby-ready. So they pop open fresh beers and spend hours talking in the warm evening air.

At first, the discussion revolves around K.O.’s green New Yorker. He’s admiring the Budweiser stickers plastered on the sides, as if Anheuser-Busch were sponsoring him. “Those stickers are sweet,” he says. “She’s gonna be the most beautifulest car in the derby.”

He pauses, then corrects himself: “Sorry — the beautifulest car.”

K.O. turns from the New Yorker and asks me if I’ll ever run a derby. No, I say. I’ve been in car crashes before, and I don’t like them. But K.O. says it’s different. In a derby you see the guy coming, “so you can tense up before impact.”

Wouldn’t that make it worse, I wonder? Isn’t it the drunk who survives a DUI crash because his body is limp?

K.O., who at this point has had a few, does not follow my line of questioning. He says: “Yeah, I don’t drink too much now before the derby. I got real drunk for one in Sacramento. They were hitting so hard I told my buddy, ‘Shit, pour me some courage. ‘”

Courage that night came in the form of vodka mixed with the energy drink Rockstar. K.O.’s buddy Art Vitorino, a mechanic who helps K.O. work on his cars, says this drink is a favorite because even as you get drunk off the vodka, the Rockstar keeps you alert. “But Kenny drank a lot that night,” he says. “I don’t recommend that.”

Typically, though, derby drivers aren’t much for mixed drinks. “I don’t smoke or chew,” Brian says. “I just drink beer.” And not just any beer. “Bud Light is the best,” Brandon offers. “Coors Light tastes pretty good, but it doesn’t get you drunk. I could drink a case of Coors Light and not be drunk. … Well, actually, I could drink a case of Bud Light and not be drunk either. Yeah, a whole lot of beer goes into these cars.”

A few beers later, the discussion turns to how the brothers first got into the derby (their dad worked in a junkyard and started putting cars together in the ’60s). But what is the point? I ask. What is the meaning of a sport in which contestants create something only to destroy it?

For Brandon, the answer is simple: “This is why,” he says, gesturing to the garage, the beers, the men in dirty, oil-covered clothes. “It’s a fun thing to do while you’re drinkin’ beer and bullshittin’ with your friends.”

For a long time, Brandon says, the Holts competed but were not very good. Then, about four years ago, they got serious. They started experimenting with different modifications. They began running different makes to determine which cars were the strongest. In short, they decided to start winning. And they did win. They won nearly every derby they ran.

But their pursuit of victory consumed them, and as a result they nearly lost some of their oldest friends. Like Chris Kemps, a prison guard at a Chowchilla women’s facility, who got into the derby the same time the Holts did. They worked on their cars together and ran as a team, an alliance that is against the rules but common nonetheless. They would attack strangers first and come to the aid of their own. The prize money — usually no more than a thousand dollars for the top spot — was divided evenly among each driver.

But the crew got greedy. The shares were decreasing with each new member. So the Holts reduced the size of their crew. They told Kemps that he could still work on his cars with them, but that they’d run the derbies alone.

Pretty soon, Kemps stopped coming around the pig farm. The Holts asked him back. By then, he’d found somewhere else to work on his cars, but he did agree to rejoin their team. The Holts learned a lesson from this. “We’re serious, but we don’t want to lose friends over it,” Brandon says. “Not after what happened with Chris.”

Brandon met Missy two months ago in Santa Nella, where she works as a waitress at Denny’s. He was on his way home from a derby in Watsonville when he and his brothers stopped in for a meal. “His brother, Doug, was like, ‘You single?'” Missy recalls. “‘You are? Well, then, what about my brother?'”

Brandon, who was drunk at the time, paid little attention — he was watching a tape of the derby on a hand-held video recorder. But Missy, a plump and petite blonde, liked what she saw, so she wrote her number down on the receipt. A few weeks later, Brandon called.

Missy has been going to derbies since she was a kid. But as the sun rises over the pig farm on derby day, she admits that today’s event is extra special: It’s the first time she’ll get to paint Brandon’s car.

The painting of a derby car, Brandon explains, is a ritual governed by certain rules that must be obeyed. For instance, the driver sprays on the base color (on Brandon’s cars, always yellow) and the driver’s lady hand-paints the details (here, orange with blue outlines).

In the shade of the garage, where Trisha Yearwood sings from an old radio, Missy organizes her tools: little cups of orange and blue paint and assorted paintbrushes. Brandon sprays on the yellow and fifteen minutes later, when the paint dries, gives Missy the okay. He then disappears under the car to adjust the driveshaft assembly. Missy starts on the driver’s side door, where she paints the outline on the number. Brandon’s is 13. When she’s done, she stands back to survey her work, wrinkling her nose with disapproval. “It looks like little-kid writing,” she says.

“That’s okay, babe,” comes Brandon’s voice from under the Impala. “I don’t care how it looks. Won’t last that long, anyway.”

Next come the names. Brandon’s goes on the roof, above the driver’s side seat. The name of the wife or girlfriend is painted above the passenger side seat. Today, Missy’s name will appear there. For the past two years, though, when Brandon did not have a girlfriend, he used his dog’s name: Cash (after Johnny).

Missy, who is barely five feet tall, is having difficulty getting at the roof. “How am I gonna reach the top, babe?” she asks.

Brandon sticks his head out from under the car. “What do you mean, babe?”

“I can’t reach up there. I need something to stand on.”

“Like what, babe?”

“I don’t know. A bucket or something.” Brandon climbs out from under the car and fetches Missy a bucket from the garage. “Thanks, babe,” she says.

“No problem, babe,” Brandon says. Then he leans in, wraps his arms around her waist, and kisses her firm on the mouth.

It takes ninety minutes for Missy to paint on the rest of the details, all of which have been carefully diagrammed by Brandon. First, she paints on the words Kemps Concrete, a fictitious company. Brandon has it painted on all of his cars, ever since a derby in Sonora when some losers alleged that he and Kemps had poured concrete into their frames, a form of cheating of which the crew at the pig farm disapproves deeply. Everyone cheats to some extent, they say, mainly by welding strips of strengthening metal to the engine block. But pouring concrete in the frame is crossing the line, and Brandon was initially incensed by the accusations. Over time, though, he came to embrace them. “Shows they respect me,” he says. “I drive so well that they think I must have concrete in my frame.”

Next Missy paints Holt Bros Racing on the trunk. Then, on the hood, the tag FBI, which stands for Fat Boys Incorporated. All the Holts paint FBI on their cars. Missy explains why: “They’re all brothers and they’re all extra-large.”

As a final touch, Missy paints Cash’s name on the Impala’s rear fender, because while the dog has been booted from the roof he cannot be left off completely.

Brandon pulls into the pit area of the Altamont Raceway at four — three hours before the action is set to begin. One arm on the steering wheel, the other draped around Missy, he steers the towing bed slowly past rival drivers, giving them all a good, long look at the yellow Impala.

The towing bed belongs to Bubba, Brandon’s best friend. Bubba, usually part of the Holt Crew, skipped this derby because his car, a ’64 Chrysler Imperial, has too many illegal modifications. “I can only bring her to ‘Run What You Brung’ derbies, where there are no rules,” he said one night at the pig farm. “You can pour fucking concrete into the frame if you want.”

Bubba didn’t do that. But he did weld an unbelievable amount of metal onto the frame. Normally, one spool of wire — weighing eighty pounds — is enough to weld three or four derby cars, but Bubba welded no less than four spools onto the frame of his Imperial. “That car has run six derbies already!” he says with a thunderous laugh. “Run what you brung, man. People at those derbies don’t give a fuck.”

For this derby, the last of the year, organizers have packaged it with a second event, something called an Enduro race. According to Sonny Nabors, the chief steward at the Altamont, 63 cars will be lined up nose-to-rear on a quarter-mile oval that has been soaked in soap, water, and smashed pumpkins. Nabors, a convivial man with a golden mustache that curls up at the ends, says that the Enduro is designed to give fans what they really want: crashes, and lots of them. Every car will wipe out at least once on the slick track, he promises. And unless the drivers are in serious peril, the race will not be stopped. They’ll have to sit in their cars while the remaining drivers navigate the wreckage.

The Altamont Raceway holds seven thousand spectators. The crowd tonight, as at most derbies in California, is made up largely of families, men and women of all ages with small children perched on their shoulders. This event is another sell-out — when the gates open, the line of people waiting to get inside extends hundreds of feet into the dirt parking lot — and Nabors is not surprised. “These derbies are getting more and more popular every year,” he says, gazing across the oval as the fans file in. “Look at those stands. Boy, we’re gonna be packed tonight!”

Back in the pits, it’s time for K.O. to unwind. He pours a can of beer into an empty yogurt container (drinking is not allowed, so the crew must camouflage their booze) and talks strategy. “If I can just hide in a corner while everyone else beats the shit out of each other, I’ve got a good chance,” he says. “But, hell, that’s what I say now. When the derby starts, you can forget strategy. One guy hits you, and all you want to do is hit him back.”

As the Enduro begins, the Holt Crew waits in the pits, drinking and eating huge steaks grilled over a barbecue. Brandon and Missy move off toward Bubba’s hitch, where they make out away from the group. Brian eats a slab of meat with his hands. K.O. drains the dregs of another beer from his yogurt cup. The scene repeats itself for an hour and a half as the sun sets. Then the PA announces the end of the Enduro. The crew members move toward their cars.

Sonny Nabors flags the drivers — 23 in all — into position on a rectangular swath of mud in the middle of the racing oval. Massive rubber tires, some four feet tall, line three sides of the rectangle; a five-foot-high mound of dirt forms the fourth side. When the drivers enter, Nabors waves them into two lines at opposite ends of the track. At the start of the derby, as is custom, the two lines will simultaneously accelerate in reverse to the middle of the track where they will mass-collide — trunk to trunk, to avoid damage to the engine. Then they’ll pull away in search of the nearest car to crash into next. It’s a simple game with few rules: Hit, and be hit. Driver’s side door is off limits. Last car running wins.

K.O. and Brandon line up in front of the mound. Brian is on the other side, near the grandstands, as are Doug Holt and Chris Kemps. As they wait for the starting flag, the crowd works itself into a frenzy. Excitement overcomes the drivers, too: Brandon pounds his steering wheel, craning his neck to stare out the back of his car. K.O. starts banging the ceiling of the New Yorker’s cab, revving his engine until the headers glow red from the heat.

The flag drops.

“It’s on, folks!” the track announcer bellows as the cars streak toward the center of the arena. An instant later, all 23 crash into each other. The massive collision creates a deafening crush of metal that momentarily drowns out even the roar of the crowd. The spectators rise, shrieking madly. In the mud below, cars are bouncing off each other, ricocheting off the rubber tires and dirt mound.

Five minutes in, the first car is knocked out. Steam gushes from its radiator as the driver slams his fists against the steering wheel. From then on, clusters of dead cars form rapidly. Whole engines are obliterated. Some burst into flames. Smoke and steam rise from the mud as if from thermal hot springs. Drivers put out the flames themselves, using extinguishers they carry in the cab, strapped to their roll bars so they won’t hit them after a big collision.

Ten minutes in, half the cars have been killed off. K.O. is still going strong and his car has suffered little damage. But the track is small, so his strategy of hiding in a corner doesn’t work because there are no corners to hide in. It’s all he can do to avoid getting trapped.

A smoking Dodge with no back wheels nearly boxes him in. But K.O. plows past, spinning the Dodge. He pulls into a clearing, and then … an orange car barrels across the arena. It smashes into K.O.’s front right tire. The crowd erupts for the biggest hit of the derby so far. K.O.’s head snaps forward from the impact. He tries to retaliate. He throws the New Yorker into gear and slams down the accelerator. The back wheels spin furiously, kicking up chunks of mud. But he cannot move. His front wheel has been knocked off its axle. The New Yorker is done.

K.O. is livid. He punches his steering wheel. He guns the engine repeatedly. But all his tires do is smoke, spinning uselessly in the mud.

Brandon and Brian are still moving, but Brandon’s Impala has taken a severe beating. Two of its tires are wobbling badly. They look as if they’ll fall off with any further contact. The Undertaker also is in bad shape. Steam is pouring from the grille. The radiator is crushed. It doesn’t look good for the Holts.

Both eventually fall out of the competition. It is not a single dramatic hit that ends it for them — their cars just run out of muscle. Brian’s wheels spin in the dirt a little longer than Brandon’s. But when they can spin no more, there are only two drivers left: Bryce Matthews, a driver from Yuba City, and Holt crew member Chris Kemps.

The lone survivors eye each other from opposite ends of a smoking station wagon. Their cars are both severely crippled. Kemps, 31, drives around one end of the station wagon, chasing Matthews. For several seconds they play a cat and mouse game, limping their way around the corpse of a car between them. And then — Matthews slips up. His car stalls. His front side is exposed. Kemps charges. He accelerates and hits Matthews solidly, ripping metal from above the front left tire. Now he backs up, preparing for another attack. His own car can barely move, but still he backs up.

Matthews tries to spur his car into action. He pounds down on the accelerator. His tires spin in the mud, sending dirt flying all the way to the Enduro track some fifty feet away. He lurches forward a few feet. Then stops. Smoke explodes from under the twisted hood. His car can go no further.

Kemps’ car still has some life. His is the last one moving. Sonny Nabors raises the red flag — the derby is over.

Chris Kemps is the winner.

Brandon jumps out of the Impala, thrusting his arms into the air. He runs over to Kemps and, in the middle of the muddy arena, with smoking cars strewn all around, gives him a bear hug. Brian climbs out of the Undertaker. He, too, is shouting in celebration. None of the Holt Brothers won the derby, but someone from their crew did. It’s time to celebrate.

Kemps accepts a trophy that’s more than five feet tall. He turns to the crowd and hoists it in the air. For several seconds he poses there. Flashbulbs light up the stands.

Back in the mud, drivers pick their way through the wreckage, surveying the damage and shaking hands.

K.O. is standing next to his car. He’s laughing and pointing at his front right wheel — it’s dangling from the well. This is the second derby in a row in which a busted axle has ended his run. I ask K.O. if he’s okay; that hit he took looked painful. “What hit?” he says. I can’t tell if he really doesn’t remember, or if he’s refusing to acknowledge the vicious collision that knocked him out of the year’s last derby.

Brian is standing next to his car. He is breathing heavily and sweating. The Undertaker, survivor of three derbies, is finished. The frame is shredded. Strips of metal are sticking out at all angles like old tattered bandages. Brian will need a new car for the first derby of the new year, in Ripon. But right now, he isn’t thinking about that. He’s looking out over the Altamont. He’s watching Kemps cradle his trophy as people in the stands shout out “Chris! Chris!” He’s looking at Brandon and Missy making out again next to the smoking Impala. He’s admiring the piles of burnt and twisted metal scattered all about him. And now he’s shouting: “What a night! What a fucking night!”

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